In the fall of 1984, my sister and I attended our one and only fan convention, the Fangoria Horror Convention in NYC. It's there that we met horror icons Tom Savini and the very sweet Michael Berryman. And it is also where we saw a sneak preview of George A. Romero's third entry in his "...of the Dead" series, Day of the Dead. We were freaking out over what we saw and what promised to be the best "dead" movie, yet.
The movie was released the following summer and we went, anticipating nothing less than an amazing horror experience. We got... well, we got a decent zombie movie that, truth be told, could have been better.
In an underground military facility, a group of soldiers and scientists try to find a cure for the zombie apocalypse which has taken out most of the world's population. There's Sarah (Lori Cordille); John (Terry Alexander); Bill (Jariath Conroy) and Miguel (Anthony Dileo, Jr); Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) and Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty). Rhodes and his team have been rounding up zombies for Logan's experiments, which are kept in pens far from the group's living quarters. Logan, known as "Dr. Frankenstein" by Rhodes and his team, is ostensibly working on a cure, but is actually working on domestication of the zombies. His 'star pupil,' a former soldier Logan has named 'Bub' (Howard Sherman) can speak; remembers how to use a phone and even salutes a C.O.
You have to love the inclusion of Stephen King's "Salem's Lot" in that scene. I'm sure he did.
While gathering more 'specimens' for Logan's experiment, one of the zombies breaks free and bites both Private Miller and Miguel, causing Rhodes to call an official halt to Logan's experiments. Sarah amputates Miguel's bitten arm and cauterizes the wound in an effort to prevent him from becoming a zombie. While searching for painkillers for Miguel, Sarah and Bill discover Logan's private recordings along with the head of the recently bitten Pvt. Miller. Sure that both Logan and Rhodes have gone insane, they begin to plot their escape. Rhodes discovers their plan and sends them to the zombie pen. Eventually, all hell breaks lose and the facility is attacked by zombies from both above and below. Bub gets a hold of a pistol and shoots Rhodes in the back and as the zombies tear Rhodes in half and make off with his legs, he croaks "Choke on em!" as Bub salutes (language and gore may be NSFW):
After fighting their way through hundreds of zombies, Sarah, Bill and John make their escape in the helicopter. We next find them on a beach of a secluded island where John and Bill fish in the surf as Sarah crosses off another day on a calendar.
From those clips, one might think Day of the Dead is an exciting and relentless thriller but in reality, it's a talky treatise on morality, interspersed with scenes of zombie mayhem. Romero had begun to take himself, and his genre, too seriously for his own good. While better than the three "Dead" films he would make later, Day... is a rather disappointing entry in the series. Muddled by philosophical questions which one might think would add gravitas to the concept, Romero's dialog heavy script actually gets bogged down over-serious concepts and Act II simply drags by as the characters debate, argue and complain about their situation. It doesn't help that most of the movie is confined to a single location. A mere six years after his brilliant Dawn of the Dead, Romero gets too caught up with social commentary, forgetting what made the first two movies so compelling - the smart balance between horror and commentary.
While certainly a worthy entry in the series, Day of the Dead lacks both the terror and the intelligence that makes his first two entries so horrifying. And even though both Night and Dawn are both primarily set in a single location, the claustrophobic underground facility in Day comes off as rather stagnant. And while that may well be what Romero was going for, it just doesn't work as well as it does in the first two films. And I'm not sure why. If you have any insight, I'd be glad to hear it. Still, Day of the Dead is certainly worth seeing, especially for the sub-genre's fans.