by Mel Valentin
The commercial success of George A. Romeroís gore-splattered, unrated "Dawn of the Dead" in 1978 (itself a sequel to "Night of the Living Dead," released ten years earlier) guaranteed that Romeroís producers would ask for and Romero would deliver another film in what appeared to be a trilogy (the recent release of "Land of the Dead" means the first three films are now just part of a series). Romero delivered the asked-for sequel, "Day of the Dead" in 1985, but not before accepted half of the projected seven million dollar budget to direct a scaled down, but nonetheless gory (and still unrated) film featuring the ravenous undead he made famous in the first two films in the series. Romeroís decision to rewrite his script to fit the smaller scale, a triumph of artistic integrity over commercialism, proved to be his undoing. The smaller budget guaranteed less-talented actors, negligible rehearsal time, and a minimal number of takes. Sadly, the end result is a seriously flawed, compromised film, notable primarily for its effective, realistic makeup effects (by frequent Romero collaborator, Tom Savini).As Day of the Dead opens, an airborne reconnaissance party scours an abandoned metropolis for survivors from the zombie plague. The plague, it seems, has left humans at a serious disadvantage (to the ratio of 400,000 to 1). The apocalypse has come and gone and the undead have won. Isolated human communities may and, in at least one instance, do exist, but all communication has been lost. One makeshift community, comprised of scientists, a military attachment, and two civilians, were tasked by the U.S. government to conduct research on the cause of the plague, with the goal of either limiting or ending the plague, or (somehow) controlling the undead. Months, however, have passed since the last official communication. For all the survivors in this community know, they may be the last survivors on earth. These survivors, however, are well protected from the zombies, living in a secure underground bunker (in actuality, a former limestone mine turned underground storage facility located near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).
"Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Ok, there is the gore."
Among the survivors are Sarah (Lori Cardille), a scientist researching the cause of the plague, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), a scientist with a different approach to the problem: domesticating the undead by using highly unorthodox methods. The underground bunker is guarded by a military attachment, led by the volatile, neurotic Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). As expected, the soldiers are faceless stereotypes, with the exception of the cigar-chewing Private Steel (Gary Howard Klar) and the round-bodied Private Rickles (Ralph Marrero). Sarah has an ongoing, if rapidly deteriorating relationship, with the drug-addicted, world-weary Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr.), another low-ranking soldier. Two civilians, John (Terry Alexander), a helicopter pilot, and William McDermott (Jarlath Conroy), a communications engineer, round out the principal characters.
Secure in their underground bunker, conflict doesnít come from the undead attempting to break into the facility for one last meal, except as subjects for Dr. Loganís experiments. Some zombies are kept in a pen like livestock, culled from the herd of undead when necessary. One in particular, Bub (Sherman Howard) has begin to show signs of self-awareness and the ability to take direction from Dr. Logan. Logan, never one for personal hygiene (he walks around absent-mindedly in a blood-soaked smock that raises more than one eyebrow among the other survivors), strongly argues that the only alternative left to the survivors is to live with and domesticate the undead. Sarah disagrees. Captain Rhodes wants to simply give up and disband their dysfunctional community.
As in the first two films in the series, the ambulatory, hungry undead are a lesser, if no less potent, threat than the threat posed inside the claustrophobic community by internal conflict between the military, the scientists, and the civilians. Without communication to the outside world, the social order begins to collapse until the inevitable confrontation between the survivors and the undead (with the number of survivors dwindling down to less than handful). The undead, significantly stronger here than in the first two films, overwhelm, then tear apart their prey, literally limb from limb (an opportunity makeup effects artist Tom Savini handles with tremendous, if nauseating, skill).
Day of the Dead falters in several key ways. First, the storyline effectively makes the undead an almost invisible threat until the third act. The undead donít (and canít) break into the secure underground facility, lingering quietly outside a chained fence that surrounds the aboveground entrance to the facility. Instead, their return to center stage depends on an unhinged characterís irrational behavior (suicide may be understandable, but dooming all the survivors, including those who have treated him sympathetically, to a violent death isnít). Both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead benefited from both a single set surrounded by the undead and a continuing, palatable sense of danger from the undead, even as in-fighting proved a greater threat to survival.
Second, Day of the Dead probably features the worst acting of the three films, with special mention to the over-the-top hysterics of the actors who portray Rhodes, Steel, and Rickles. As Dr. Logan (nicknamed Dr. Frankenstein for his gruesome experiments), Richard Liberty isnít above histrionics, but his performance matches his role more closely. Surprisingly, Sherman Howard as Bub proves to be the single most sympathetic character in the entire film. Understandably, Romero had limited acting talent on hand and minimal rehearsal time, but he still could (and should have) obtained more controlled, less hammy performances from his underprepared cast.Third, due to the low budget and a revamped script, Romero was forced to depend on static, dialogue-heavy scenes to advance the storyline from the moment the recon team returns to the underground bunker to the final confrontation with the undead. Most scenes turn on characters entering a static space (Romeroís camerawork leaves a great deal to be desired), arguing over what they should do, with one or more characters exiting the scene angrily. Repeat scene, ad nauseum. With a larger budget and his original script, Romero could have opened up the action to the outside world, increasing the personal risk to the characters as they, for example, continued to search for survivors to bring back to the underground facility. The ending too, while positive, repeats the scene of characters fleeing by helicopter found in "Dawn of the Dead." There, it was far more ambiguous, leaving the characters directionless and low on fuel, suspended in mid-air. In "Day of the Dead," Romero strips away the ambiguity, leaving the remaining characters with a possibly brighter future ahead. Sadly, Romero didnít use the far more powerful, moving ending contained in his original script, where hope lies with the first character to die and remain dead.
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originally posted: 08/14/05 18:57:43