While Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead have both been embraced as horror icons, Day of the Dead has never quite got the credit or attention it deserves. All too often it is seen as a footnote to George A. Romero's early work with zombies, being generally regarded as watchable but weaker than its predecessors. In fact, it represents a return to form, rounding off the Dead Trilogy with one of the bleakest, most nihilistic films of the 1980s.
There are three probable reasons why Day of the Dead has been so underrated. Firstly, Romero spent less of the intervening years experimenting; while he had tried to diversify after Night with mixed success, after Dawn he made the little-seen oddity Knightriders before returning to the horror genre with Creepshow, based on the stories by Stephen King. Secondly, the horror genre had moved on substantially since the first two films, with Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead and David Cronenberg's Videodrome pushing the limits of gore and plastic reality. In the face of both these things, Day of the Dead must have felt like Romero retreating to what he knew, producing something that seemed more by-the-numbers, when in fact it is nothing of the sort.
Thirdly, and perhaps most pertinently, the film suffered from big production problems. Romero set out to make what he called "the Gone with the Wind of zombie movies", increasing the number of locations to truly capture what a global zombie apocalypse would look like. But during pre-production the budget was slashed from $7m to $3.5m, forcing Romero into drastic re-writes. The shooting conditions were so humid that Tom Savini's props failed regularly, causing delays that eventually led to cast and crew sleeping at the locations to cut down on travel time. This would certainly account for both the rough-and-ready aesthetic of the film and the often crazed performances within it.
As before, this is a symbolic continuity with the previous instalments in the trilogy. There are a new group of characters, but they are again comprised of three men and a woman. We begin visually where Dawn left off, in a helicopter looking for survivors in an area that has been overrun by zombies. The shot of the useless dollar bills blowing in the wind both nods back to the commercialism storyline of Dawn and informs us that things are now a lot worse. And we have another black protagonist, although this time the female character is a lot stronger and more resourceful than her predecessors.
This time around the zombies do not represent racism, commercialism or the fallout of Vietnam. The film tackles a number of themes, including vivisection, social conditioning and the relationship between science and the military, with the zombies playing some part in all three. Romero described the film as "a tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse even in this small little pie slice of society". This time the threat is endemic rather than able to be contained, and with humanity firmly on the back foot, the people who are left are bickering over how to survive.
Just as Martin was Romero's take on Dracula and vampire mythology, so you could describe Day of the Dead as a retelling of Frankenstein. One of the scientists at the base is severely unhinged, convinced to the point of madness that he can prevent or reverse human decay, which is being accelerated by the zombie plague. Having discovered ways to isolate and revive dead flesh from numerous, illegally-sourced specimens, he proceeds to create a lucid creature in Man's image - only instead of sewing one together from used parts, he is trying to reawaken the humanity within the walking dead. The monster learns to obey his master, but is still regarded as a monster even as (or perhaps because) it displays human characteristics.
The allusions to Frankenstein illuminate what makes Day of the Dead so successful: it makes the zombies terrifying by making them intelligent. While Dawn often reduced the zombies down to cannon fodder, for the characters to wade through and pick off at their leisure, this film returns to the territory of Night by making them rational creatures, who not only resemble us physically but have the same capacity for memory and learning. The scene where Bub shoots Captain Rhodes is tragic despite our antipathy towards his character: he is brutally murdered by something with a formative understanding of good and evil, with Frankenstein's monster turning on the people who made him (albeit indirectly).
In an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, John Landis remarked that stories about monsters, whether literary or cinematic, were often very conservative works. He argued that they shored up the authority of the church and state by showing the darker side of scientific progress, or the extremes to which 'science' could go if not properly checked. This idea is conveyed here by the conflict between the scientists, whose experiments have no real time constraints, and the military led by Captain Rhodes, who follow strict rules and only want useable results. Our main protagonists are civilians caught in the middle of this powder keg, with survival resting on their leaders' ability to balance the power.
Even considering the dark tone of zombie movies in general, Day of the Dead is impressive for just how bleak it is. Where the previous two films entertained the possibility, however slim, that there was hope for humanity, here we are very much in the endgame. The majority of scenes are set underground, whether in the base, the caves or the mine, and the war being fought is not one of conquest but of containment. There is a feeling that the zombies have already won, with the military entertaining the scientists' mad schemes as a desperate last resort in the absence of more men, more ammunition, or better ideas.
This nihilism is reinforced by the overhanging influence of John Carpenter. The score by John Harrison, who also scored Creepshow, is of the same minimalistic, electronic ilk that Carpenter has made his trademark. The tone is as bleak and pessimistic as The Thing, and like that film the characters spend a great deal of their time being paranoid about their own security or identity. And there is a vague connection to Assault on Precinct 13, insofar as both films involve disparate groups of characters fighting together to contain a shifting threat.
Even by the standards of its predecessor, Day of the Dead is incredibly gory. Despite the failures that occurred on set, Tom Savini pulls out all the stops, delivering a series of distinctive deaths which will delight and satisfy gore-hounds. There are a lot of really gross moments, the most memorable being Captain Rhodes' death: the film employs latex rubber in a further connection to The Thing, stretching out the Captain's limbs until his whole body is destroyed. But for all the squirming it induces, the gore does loosely fit the tone, complimenting (however literally) the feeling that everything around us is falling apart.
The performances in Day of the Dead are by and large pretty good. Lori Cardille is the stand-out as Sarah Bowman; she manages to play the voice of reason and strength without coming across either as a whiny bitch or an empty stereotype. Jarlath Conroy gives her good support as Bill, even though it takes a while to get over his uncanny resemblance to Rowan Atkinson. Joseph Pilato and Richard Liberty are hamming it up as Rhodes and 'Frankenstein', but this kind of makes sense giving the emotional state of their respective characters.
There are a couple of problems with Day of the Dead. It is more narratively free-form that Night, being shorter than its predecessor but also quite slow and loose in places. The symbolism is less obvious but also more convoluted, while occasionally hampers its ability to build tension. And like Dawn, the ending doesn't quite work, with one too many jump scares and dream sequences undermining the dark intelligence of the third act.
Day of the Dead is an improvement on its immediate predecessor which ends Romero's Dead Trilogy on something of a high note. While it has similar problems to Dawn in terms of pacing, it is narratively and thematically more fleshed-out, developing its characters to a greater extent and justifying its bleak, nihilistic tone. Whatever shortcomings his later zombie work has had, this remains an intriguing, engrossing and often chilling offering.