Updated June 2016
Underwhelming audiences upon its release in 1985, George A Romero’s third Dead movie has in recent years undergone something of a critical revaluation, with some even wishfully proclaiming it a misunderstood masterpiece (a claim abetted by the fact that it is, by his own admission, Romero’s favorite among the series). Reticent yet more talkative than the previous Dead movies, this one perhaps fell afoul of audiences because, excepting the rather gnarly ending and a few select bits earlier on, Day eschews the expected blood-and-guts horror smorgasbord for a miasma of despondence and slowly-encroaching dread. Rebelling against the initial reception, many modern critics have claimed the film is a more deliberate, somber affair that has aged shockingly well due to its emphasis on philosophy and politics over outright gore. In all of this, how does the film stack up?
Released at the height of the Cold War, Day of the Dead accentuates Romero’s concept-heavy social philosophizing to its most overt, replacing Night and Dawn’s curious, delectably ragged hodgepodge of ne’er-do-wells with a programmatic parade of obvious types and political stand-ins. An old military bunker occupied by equal parts civilians and soldiers, individuals who increasingly come to blows over how to react to the zombie horde, buttresses the malevolent social commentary at the deliberate expense of the scabrous joie de vivre of Dawn or the alley-cat grotto of Night. A debate ensues among the survivors when a scientist (denoted Frankenstein by his peers in a none-too-subtle bit of commentary on human egotism) takes as his life mission the education of zombies through conditioning in a simultaneous bid to locate any humanity within them and, more deviously, to reaffirm mankind’s essential dominance in the world. Human conditioning in tow, what are the first things the zombie does to show his new-found skills? He tries to read a book. And then he grabs hold of and makes use of a gun. Here, Romero starkly (read: obviously) lays out the dual nature of humanity as it comes to grips with itself. It’s a slightly unwieldy, turgid depiction of social commentary that ultimately threatens to buckle under its own novelistic respectability. By and large, Romero’s films are at their best when they emphasizing their own disfigured abrasions and their instability rather than trying to stabilize their conceptual structural integrity with the weight of social propriety. The social commentary should ride shotgun to the ravenous filmmaking rather than overtaking it. Romero’s bid for social propriety in Day, not unlike science itself in so many of the film he pays homage to here, has gone too far.
It’s almost impossible for anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the world in the heated ’80s to read the film as anything other than a Cold War parable about the value of communication and man’s tendency to always “make a habit of pointing guns at each other”, as one moral viewpoint masquerading as a human frequently reminds us throughout the film. To its credit, the film earns points for its ever-lurking atmosphere, but the human core of Romero’s film was always most starling when sublimated into the hot-headed, sweaty, guerrilla filmmaking. In Day, Romero’s “see guys, zombies, it turns out, are simply messengers to reveal our own flaws” routine is not only laid on thick, but it gnaws away at the fleshy goodness of Romero’s more gloriously disobedient earlier films. More than in either of Romero’s previous two of the Dead films, zombies here are only a secondary, non-committal threat. The film doesn’t merely pay lip-service to human fallibility – it bashes it into our brains over and over again with the bluntness and lack of nuance of, well, a zombie.
So political commentary we wanted, and political commentary we got. The problem, in a nutshell, is that political commentary by virtue of existing does not a film make. Oftentimes, the best horror movies are commentaries by proxy, the result of a style that curdles the gut and inherently reflects the spheres of terror festering in society more broadly. In Day of the Dead, things are just a tad too over-baked in the mind and not ruthless or carnivorous enough in the spine, Romero taking things too far as a script and not under-girding it with the feverish commitment of grubby filmmaking (having a bigger budget will commit these kinds of violences upon a director). The ice ray of moral cinema has induced torpor in the should-be disreputable world of zombie filmmaking.
In both previous films, malnourished communication is key to both the style and the commentary; the failure of people to connect is invited by the sharded camerawork that damn near juts the characters out into one another in the frame, stabbing them with their egos. In Day of the Dead, however, Romero’s communication skills are too laboriously malnourished; he’s speechifying, rather than stabbing you in the back. Horror, remember, will find society by definition; Day is the result of Romero forcefully cramming society into horror against its will, sabotaging the film and turning it into a chamber piece. Romero trespassing on society like an insurgent is violent, volatile, unstable, but this new Romero carefully demarcating the line between commentary and horror, showcasing his political-chops at every turn, is too respectable, too “take me seriously”, too damn loud to really sneak on you and grab you by the neck anymore.
Not that’s it’s all for naught; Romero’s skill is mediated by his heady desires to turn his film into homework, but it’s never absent. Day surely opens strongly, with a nightmarish apocalypse deadened by emptiness, the only refuge from the hollow, meaningless world being the zombies dotting and interjecting the city streets like lonesome dogs ready to die of malnourishment. Toward the end of the film, when that outside world breaks into the self-imprisonment of the main characters and mania erupts in the bunker, the rest of the film finally twitches to life as it submerges the screen in primal nastiness. The last 30 minutes are taut, well-paced, and chilling, dressed to the nines in some of Romero’s finest gnawing blood-red duds, accessorized by the sheer apocalyptic sense of finality and implacability to the material. That middle passage though? It turns humanity’s doom into the product of a screenwriter rather than the congealing, tangible, toxic fears latent in the filmmaking to begin with. When Romero the director is out to show Romero the writer who’s boss, the film is on fine ground indeed. But, too often, Romero the director absconded , playing sycophant to a brain that not only sacrifices true horror, but flattens it into a textbook.