Day of the Dead (UK - BD RB)
The Wilson brother review the third in Romero's legendary 'living dead' trilogy
With the success of Dawn of the Dead, director George Romero turned his hand to several movies that did not feature the walking dead, one of them not even being a horror film ( Knightriders), and for a few years, it seemed as though Romero was not going to have his own brand of zombies lurching across the big screen again.
When Romero decided to revisit the living dead, he wrote a script that was epic in scale and in length (often referred to as ‘the Gone With the Wind of zombie movies’), something that would be regarded as the last word on cinematic flesh-eaters, but this grand idea was brought to a screeching halt when sufficient funds were not available to bring this script to the big screen and this version of Day of the Dead was abandoned. A streamlined version of the Day of the Dead script eventually met with the approval of the financiers, but this script bore little resemblance to the original, save for the basic premise and a few of the characters. Romero was now able to go ahead and begin filming ‘the darkest day of horror the world has ever known…’
The human race is now in the minority—the walking dead have virtually taken over the planet and things aren’t looking good for the miserable souls who have so far avoided being drawn into the zombie plague. Only tiny pockets of humanity exist and one such group of humans live in an underground military complex in Florida—within this mausoleum to the human race is an uneasy mix of army men and scientists. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is the spokeswoman for a group of scientists trying to understand the plague that has swept across the planet; Sarah and most of her colleagues are attempting to bring an end to the incredibly virulent disease, Dr Logan takes a more maverick approach and is trying to domesticate the zombies. Bridging the gulf between the two parties is Miguel, an Hispanic GI with whom Sarah is sleeping, much to the agitation of the rest of the soldiers. The army exists to serve the scientists in their quest to develop something to put an end to the zombie menace; this conflict of direction is causing friction against the military personnel who have been assigned to service the needs of the scientists. This situation is reversed when a tyrannical military man takes charge of the base.
Anyone who has seen Day of the Dead is more than aware that the army are the real antagonists of the piece, with the zombies merely going about their business as they happen upon any poor schmuck who gets in their way. They embody the lowest, most base traits found in the human condition, are strictly pack-led and view intelligence as a threat. Dislike of the military is nothing new for Romero, as this is one of his other recurring themes to his movies. Sure, they chased down the protagonists in The Crazies, but here they are presented in the worst possible light, and we have a theory about this one. Dawn of the Dead’s Peter Washington and Roger DeMarco were only members of the National Guard, rather than blood and thunder, career army types, scoring points for choosing to leave their units and go off on their own to survive. It is this independence which sees Romero paint them as fully-rounded characters we root for. Captain Rhodes, Steele and co are cold, flag-saluting soldiers, both following archaic orders whilst simultaneously abusing their collective authority. For this, Romero paints them in the worst light possible.
Day of the Dead has what the previous entries in the Dead saga were lacking—the sort of villain who was instantly hissable from the word go; that villain here is Captain Rhodes. Harry Cooper in Night of the Living Dead was just a boorish man who was ultimately a coward and just interested in saving his own skin. There was no single villain in Dawn (bikers aside) and the conflict just arose from the differences of opinion that the four main characters had. Egos and wrong choices in boyfriends tear a band of protagonists slowly, but a psychotic soldier will do the job faster and more thoroughly.
What makes Rhodes more interesting (and more dangerous from the perspective of the non-military personnel who have to serve under him) is that Rhodes is someone who has craved power for most of his life and has always more or one person higher above him in the command pecking order. At the start of the movie it is established that the CO, Major Cooper, has just died and that Rhodes is now in command—this would be the equivalent of the owner of a rabid Staffie dying in a children’s playground and the lead slipping from his hand—and Rhodes then instigates a reign of terror that will ultimately lead to the a breakdown in relations between the scientists and the military, and the eventual destruction of the base. One has to wonder just how Rhodes made it to the rank of captain in the first place, as he would be the sort of person who would have been excluded from being an officer on the grounds of being mentally unstable. The key requirement of command lies in being able to be calm, rational and even-tempered, and Rhodes has none of these qualities, as his inner rage becomes and outer rage shortly after losing his temper, usually exploding and screaming at anyone who has a viewpoint that conflicts with his own.
Somewhere in-between the scientists and the military are the civilians who are on the base to provide technical support—John and Billy. John is a Caribbean pilot who flies the helicopter out on attempts to rescue survivors and Billy is a drunken Irishman who is a radio operator. The two of them remain fairly neutral and prefer not to get involved with rising hostilities on the base and both of them are looked upon as being indispensable because of their skills. They loathe Rhodes and his fascist regime and are sympathetic to Sarah and the other scientists, but they realise that the situation is deteriorating rapidly and just want to jump into the helicopter, find somewhere deserted and live out the rest of their lives in peace, an idea that Sarah finds irresponsible.
The character of Miguel bears the brunt of the surrounding characters‘ anger, from the sexual tension of his fellow soldiers, jealous that he has the attentions of the only woman of the group. He is disliked by the scientists purely through his association with the army, and even Sarah gets annoyed with him to the point of slapping him. He represents the demoralisation of the human race through the proliferation of the living dead, just wanting to quietly jibber away in a corner as everything goes to Hell. The audience both empathises and despises him in equal measure, but the whole reason for his character really shines when he‘s set upon by zombies, demonstrating the ingenuity and adaptability of the human race to survive, ultimately through sacrifice.
We couldn’t write a review and not go out of our way to mention Bub, the ghoul with a sense of duty and taste when it comes to knowing who to but a bullet into. Oh, and also the most dapper of deadites in a long while. One of our missus’ is a childminder, and there are instances where there are traces of Bub in some of the kids she looks after. This is testament to the excellent research Howard Sherman did when preparing. Even more so, his facial expressions and movements are very similar to those of the victim of severe synaptic deterioration, with every muscle in the face straining to focus on something which would ordinarily be achieved with no concentration whatsoever, and an almost pleading look in the eyes from the areas of the brain imprisoned by the damage surrounding it. Sherman’s work has turned Bub into possibly the most beloved of all zombies, and rightly so.
Although Dawn’s central theme of consumerism is tempered with this more sombre entry in the series, it is still the target of Romero’s satiric eye. The previous movie dropped a disparate group of survivors into a consumer Mecca, initially revelling in lifestyles ordinarily beyond them, before realising that it was a hollow existence, growing weary of the delusion they had created for themselves. Here, the military installation located at Wampum mine is a massive storage area for all kinds of saleable product and classified materials. All kinds of everything are there for the taking, even—as one character points out—the negatives of all your favourite movies, but the wonders housed in the refrigerated facility are not even utilised for the survivors’ recreation, and only mentioned once. With the world populated by cold, dead flesh, one of the last refuges for the human race serves as its’ own mausoleum.
Purely on the surface, Day of the Dead seems to suffer in terms of the writing, mainly because most of the characters are perceived as either good or bad. While it’s true that the secondary players are either weary good guys or idiotic, sadistic bad guys, the each main character echoes a point of view which survivors in such a situation would experience. On the darker side of humanity, Rhodes represents the loss of control, with Steele as the blind obedience to a higher power in hopes they will find an answer. Conversely, Sarah is the strength of character which compels the human spirit to survive. Terry brings the sense of adaptability into the mix, reluctantly wanting to make the best of things. Somewhere in the middle, Billy still clings to both religion and alcohol, deluding himself through two of the most established forms of addiction and Miguel has gone to pieces, losing a piece of himself both mentally and physically. The only character who shows any real layers—in a conventional sense—is Dr Logan (wonderfully played by the late Richard Liberty), a medical man who appears to be kind and genial but is eventually revealed to potentially be more dangerous than any of the pea-brained military personnel in the complex.
The depiction of the zombies is a maudlin one, only a little short of downright sympathetic. Some of them on the streets of Florida are all but pleading for the death which is being denied them, either endlessly walking in search of food or slumped in the gutter in defeat. The humans have gone beyond the organised hunting of Romero’s first movie, and even progressed beyond Dawn’s redneck duck-season approach. Humanity now scarcely lives up to its’ name, seemingly using the ideals of science to get revenge on the living dead by conducting sickening experiments on them, which had they been committed to live subjects during peacetime, would see all participants charged with the gravest of crimes. For the first time in the series, the ghouls are shown to be afraid of those they seek to feed on, the start of an evolution which continued in Land of the Dead. They have the same fear of Dr Logan which the freaks experienced about the House of Pain in The Island of Dr Moreau, and they elicit both our sympathies along with our hearty cheers when they find themselves gaining the upper hand on their tormentors.
Romero directs some wonderful set-pieces, the best of which is the opening that depicts the protagonists trying to locate possible survivors in a deserted Florida town. For a low-budget movie, this is an impressive sequence, as the helicopter circles and lands, with the empty streets creating a sense of dread and this grows steadily as dollar bills are seen blowing down the road and a newspaper that has the headline ‘The Dead Walk!’ unfurls against a rubbish bin. When the team yells down a loudhailer to attract the attention of the any survivors, the living dead begin to appear from every doorway and alleyway, shuffling toward the sounds of potential food. The tension and dread builds when the sounds of moaning become increasingly louder on the soundtrack and the zombies turn into a hoard like a crashing tidal-wave, heading toward the search party. The hopelessness and the scale of the zombie catastrophe hints at a global epidemic where the living dead are now very much in the majority and the remaining humans face inevitable extinction. It is a fabulously evocative sequence that sets the grim tone for rest of the film.
The thorny subject of sex is addressed during Day of the Dead, which was pretty much swept under the carpet last time around. The male protagonists didn’t fight like rutting stags for the attentions of Fran during Dawn of the Dead, as her relationship with Stephen effectively took her off the market—even though Fran and Peter flew off to repopulate the world together at the end of the movie. Here, Sarah is the only female among a band of angry, horny soldiers. She endures any amount of innuendo and thinly-veiled rape attempts, but—like Stephen previously—she chooses the least threatening of the males around her to be her partner, as though she picks the weediest so she it will literally keep the others off her back, whilst at the same time avoiding being pestered for sex by her other half.
Tom Savini and company really pulled out all of the stops on this one, delivering gore effects that were a quantum leap beyond what had been seen in Dawn of the Dead. There is a realism to the graphic violence that made Day of the Dead unavailable in its uncensored for a number of years. The standout gore effect is probably the sequence that shows a zombie attempting to rise from a gurney after having all of its internal organs disconnected and gravity does it’s thing on the disembodies parts, falling to the floor in a bloody heap that looks like the contents of an hours’ work at an abattoir.
The look of the zombies is more ‘apocalyptic’ than the previous entries, but this is to be expected as it was intended to be the final part of the dead trilogy. They look more like the ones seen in the countless rip-offs since Dawn went ballistic at the box office, although wisely choosing to ignore the ‘black shoe polish’ type seen in Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake. It’s simply a process of evolution, with Night’s ghouls reflecting the beginning of the phenomenon and Dawn’s look of the living dead a colour version of the blue flesh previously depicted in monochrome. Day of the Dead picks up a significant time later, the dead walking the earth for a while, their bodies subsequently degenerating. Savini’s makeup echoes this, and they are significantly more putrid, in spite of their intelligence evolving.
If there is one aspect which really doesn’t sit right with us, it’s some of the music composed for the movie, but certainly not all of it. When the action is pumping along, it literally hits all the right notes and elevates the excitement. Could the opening scene on the deserted, zombie-infested streets of Florida have been any better with other music? No, of course not. The doleful, wistful chimes as our heroes sit around discussing their collective fate are just wonderful, picking up on the mood whilst providing a glimmer of hope for humanity. OK, our main gripe is the choice for the final scene and closing credits, which is far too light and sparse for the closing of such a dark tale—and more so as the closer to a ground-breaking trilogy of movies. Well, that and the obvious use of The Gonk (shopping mall music) from Dawn.
The performances are pretty strong, with Richard Liberty being the standout member of the cast; he fleshes out what could have been a two-dimensional character and gives him a sense of charm that might not have been exactly in Romero’s mind when he wrote the part. Lori Cardille (the daughter of Night of the Living Dead collaborator ‘Chilly’ Billy Cardille, equips herself well, rising above the level of the military goons without coming across as a bitch.
There have been a few voices of dissent about the use of racial stereotypes, and while it’s easy to blindly point the finger, the matter needs to be addressed. At first glance, John seems to have wandered in from a Malibu commercial, but there is more to him than just a thick, West Indies accent. He is the moral centre to the story, a sounding board for the protagonists’ high emotion and acting as a diplomat between the two warring factions in the underground facility. His ability to fly the helicopter keeps him alive, and affords him the luxury of mediating without being killed for his trouble. He is the soul of the movie, a light in the darkness of mankind’s final reckoning.
Billy, on the other hand, it harder to defend; while he shares a number of the same qualities as John, he is sketched with broader strokes. He is designed to be a more expendable member of the good guys, as a radio operator is easier to replace than an experienced pilot. He shares a religious slant on the world, uttering a very Catholic ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ when things get tense, but his constant swigging of alcohol and other clichés associated with the Irish stop him from being the three-dimensional character he would have been, rather than the entertaining one he ultimately is.
We readily admit that Day of the Dead didn’t grab us right from the outset, as we first saw it when it was very much considered a failure. It was beaten out at the box office by John Russo’s semi-official Return of the Living Dead, which offered a dose of humour to make it a more palatable experience for audiences, the very same ones who turned on the closer to Romero’s trilogy for been too depressing. Our first experience was through renting the EIV (Entertainment in Video) release back in the late 80s, and thought pretty much the same thing as cinema-goers. One eventful night in 1990 started to turn the tide, when an all-night viewing of the three movies was staged with school-chums—we provided the Intervision releases of Night and Dawn (more complete than a friend’s butchered re-release—ha!) and he brought along the budget issue of Day. We appreciated it more in that occasion, but it was when attending a rare screening of it at the 1995 Shlockfest in London—playing a lovely 35mm print—that it all clicked into gear and we finally realised the magic it possesses.
It may be worth mentioning, but it wasn’t that long ago that one of us recorded that bloody Day of the Dead remake when it was on something like ITV4, sticking it in the ol’ Sky HD planner as fodder for filling time between shifts, figuring that it was better than a kick up the arse. Well, when a few spare hours rolled around, it was duly put on and quickly switched off not long after the opening credits—it’s just awful! Cranked out as cheaply as possible, with the once bright career of Mina Suvari gasping for breath as it sinks beneath the water for the final time, it is one to avoid at all costs—a movie so great it completely bypassed Sky Movies. In the end, a boot up the Khyber would have been more preferable…
The Blu-ray provides the same level of realisation, and we hope that others will be properly introduced to the darkest day in cinema history. The desolate streets overrun by the dead will make the hairs on the back of your neck sit up and beg like a dog, as the combination of dread and futility intoxicates you. The finale through the zombie-infested tunnels might be one of Romero’s finest sequences, with a dark, undulating energy which hits you like a an injection of caffeine directly into the vein, and all beautifully presented with bold uses of colour against darkness only Argento would dare to employ. Day of the Dead returns to life with a superior presentation, and let’s hope that the eyes of others are opened by the experience.
When Anchor Bay released Day of the Dead on DVD for second time in 2004, there was controversy surrounding their new ‘DiviMax’ mastering system. This technique was a source of consternation to many, as it was believed that the clean look of transfers via this process was achieved through the use of a combination of filtering and careful use of edge enhancement. Staunch technophiles were alarmed about the possibility of DiviMax being applied to the mastering process on high-definition formats, as it would be plying the very elements the format is trying to eradicate.
Day of the Dead has always looked grainy—it was almost certainly shot on film stock with high grain (this happened quite often in filmmaking in the 80s— Aliens being a perfect example) and anyone who has watched Day on video will be more than aware of just how grainy it looked.
When watching Arrow’s Blu-ray transfer of Day of the Dead, you are immediately hit by the fact that grain is almost entirely absent—we say almost entirely because during some of the darker scenes in the caverns, grain starts to become more noticeable, especially when there is fast movement or a quick camera pan, then the grain can really be seen. We have the US Anchor Bay DiviMax release of Day of the Dead and a quick comparative glace at it reveals that grain is present in that version.
Other than this strange grain issue, Day of the Dead has never looked better outside of a cinema (as we said, we caught a big-screen showing of it at the Schlockfest in London, back in 1995)—it looks cleaner and brighter than we have seen it, the level of detail is pretty impressive, eclipsing the US Anchor Bay DiviMax edition.
Arrow have gone above and beyond the call of duty with this Blu-ray transfer, correcting some audio glitches that present in previous DVD releases of Day of the Dead, most notably several instances of altered or re-recorded dialogue. A couple of questionable uses of language were altered in other releases, but they have been restored in this version.
Arrow’s Blu-ray disc of Day of the Dead allows you to watch it with either a 2.0 DTS mono track or a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. Purists may want to just experience Day of the Dead as it was originally intended, but selecting the 5.1 remix allows you to have a more enveloping sound-field. The rears are almost exclusively used to provide atmospheric effects for the scenes set in the caves, providing a nice wind-driven echo that really sells the underground setting of the film. One of the main improvements in the clarity of the audio comes during the opening sequence and the gathering moans of the living dead as they swarm through the Florida streets in ever-increasing numbers—it’s a fairly subtle moment that manages to augment the sense of dread and despair in the viewer. In the interests of being completely honest, the mono mix is stronger overall, with an even balance of every audio component. However, with this particular mix, we noted some significant sibilance in the dialogue, with Laurie Cardillie’s voice suffering in particular. We have to stress that this trait is not present in the 5.1 track.
Most of the special features from the Anchor Bay Divimax edition have been ported over into this release, along with one or two specially-commission exclusive extras—the new extras are indicated below.
Disc One (Blu-ray)
Audio Commentary: This is a commentary track featuring the some members of the effects team on Day of the Dead. Two-thirds of the founders of KNB FX are here (Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger), along with Everette Burrell and Mike Deak discuss the movie and their work on it in a very informal manner. It's a very blokey affair, but the guys toss out many fascinating stories about the movie and their experiences before, during and after the shoot.
Joe of the Dead: Actor Joe Pilato is interviewed at length during a recent promotional tour of Scotland and he reflects upon his time on Day of the Dead and his career in general. This is just a camera fixed in front of the man in a hotel room, with only a cigarette between his fingers and the occasional clip and stills image to serve Pilato's words—the fifty minute running time just flies by as Pilato is an intelligent, articulate individual who rattles off many interesting stories and observations about his time with George Romero. Great stuff.
Travelogue of the Dead: Join Joe Pilato as he makes his way between several venues in Scotland and Northern Ireland. See a jetlagged or tipsy (or both!) Pilato being interviewed on a Scotrail train! During the shots of Pilato on stage at the vatious cinemas, documentary-maker and journalist Callum Waddel can be seen behind nervously standing behind Pilato almost praying that members of the audience don't ask any particularly inane questions. Pilato comes across as charming and has the audiences eating out of the palm of his hand. This is a fun little addition to an already bulging sack of extras.
Disc Two (DVD)
The Many Days of the Dead: This was the main documentary included on the US Divimax edition of Day. This is a pretty comprehensive look at the production of the third part of (what was then) the Dead trilogy. It features interviews with Romero himself, among others.
Behind the Zombies Footage: This twenty-one minute featurette was originally included on the first DVD release of Day of the Dead back in 1998 and is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. The title belies the fact that this practically a self-contained documentary and would have been one if a narration and titles had been applied. This is a nice look at the production, including interviews with members of the production staff who are ordinarily in the background.
Romero Zombography: This is a pretty comprehensive list of all projects Romero has been personally involved in, covering the various capacities in which he has served. It’s admirably done, with some nice surprises waiting for those unfamiliar with Romero’s previous duties in front of the camera.
Photo Album of the Dead: This photo gallery mainly consists of mug-shots of some of the zombies on the shoot, allowing the viewer to appreciate the work that Tom Savini and the rest of the make-up crew put into each of the living dead. The most intriguing-looking zombie in this line-up is a sunglasses-wearing one that bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Lux Interior of The Cramps (it is mention in the Behind the Scenes Zombie Footage than one of The Cramps was scheduled to appear in Day, but there is no evidence in the finished movie to suggest otherwise).
Souvenirs of the Dead: Twenty-nine images are presented for your delectation, including numerous lobby cards, video covers, and the odd bit of merchandising for Day of the Dead. What is interesting to note is that the film went out in Germany under the title Zombie 2—for once that might have had Fulci's legal people reaching for the telephone...
Night of the Living Dead Trailer: Gagh! This is not the familiar trailer that fans remember (‘ Niiiiiiight……………… of the Living Dead!’), instead, Arrow have seen fit to include the trailer for the ghastly 30th Anniversary Edition, which butchered Romero’s movie by re-scoring and added newly-filmed sequences. Jesus, John Russo didn’t even use the film-to-tape transfer to make the new monochrome footage match up to the original stock. Whilst it’s interesting to see it included here, we hope that Arrow aren’t thinking of releasing this walking (or should that be shuffling?) abortion.
Dawn of the Dead Trailer: This is one of the standard trailers for the second entry in the Dead series; it’s still great fun to watch.
TV Ads of the Dead: A collection of TV spots for Day of the Dead can be viewed by selecting this option. It’s interesting that the film failed so dismally at the box-office when the marketing on television was so intriguing.
The Audio Recollections of Richard Liberty: The late actor who played Dr ‘Frankenstein’ Logan was interviewed by Christoph Stravakis back in 2000 and this audio recording has Liberty talking about his time on Day of the Dead, along with his previous work with Romero (he appeared in The Crazies). Liberty comes across as a genuinely nice man and is very friendly an intelligent during the interview and expresses his frustration at what he perceives to be the cop-out ending of Day of the Dead, in which all of the events appear to be merely a dream. The quality of the tape recording is fairly poor and at times it has difficult to discern what the secondary interviewer is asking, but the sheer rarity of this more than makes up for the occasional indecipherable sentence.
Wampum Mine Promo: This promotional ad for the mines where Day of the Dead was filmed was presumably produced in the late 80s/early 90s, judging from the music and technology on display. It’s fairly dry and contemporary eyes could look upon it as being a little campy or kitsch, but it’s pretty informative and there is some great footage of how the mines look when well lit.
The Day of the Dead experience continues beyond the two discs, as Arrow has once again gone above and beyond the call of duty by including other items for your delectation…
Sleeve Art: As with Arrow’s Blu-Ray release of Dawn of the Dead, you have the option to pick which of several covers you want for to have for your copy of Day of the Dead. We are suckers for the original cover used for the Entertainment in Video release, but the Japanese artwork comes a close second. The original US poster and new artwork by British artist Rick Melton make up the other choices for cover art.
Double-Sided Fold-Out Poster: You can choose whether your want a mini-reproduction of the original UK quad poster or the specially commissioned art by Rick Melton.
For Every Dawn There is a Day: This booklet, written by journalist Callum Waddell interviews key members of those involved with the movie, including Romero, Cardillie and Gary Klar. They cover topics not previously explored, and the whole concept takes a unique look at a movie covered at length in the extras, yet manages to come off as fresh and a voice all its own.
Day of the Dead—Desertion: This is a twenty-four-page comic book that is exclusive to this release, featuring the background to everybody’s favourite zombie, Bub. There is a feel to it which harkens back to the time when Dawn of the Dead was released, where Italian producers unleashed a wave of both zombie and cannibal movies in the wake of Romero’s successful movie. The two genres almost blurred into one, and Desertion does the same thing with the two strands. It’s slickly done, and sure to please Bub fans wanting that little bit more about the history of the big lug.
Arrow continues to do horror movies proud on Blu-ray—their release of Day of the Dead is outstanding and the exclusive features make this a set that is worth putting your hand in your pocket for. The presentation, packaging and additional extras has love and care practically oozing out of every pore.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 5th April 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: PCM 2.0 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Joe of the Dead, Travelogue of the Dead, The Many Days of the Dead, Behind the Scenes Zombie Footage, Romero Zombography, Photo Album of the Dead, Souvenirs of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead Trailer, Dawn of the Dead trailer, TV Ads of the Dead, The Audio Recollections of Richard Liberty, Wampum Mine Promo
Easter Egg: No
Director: George A Romero
Cast: Lori Cardille, Richard Liberty, Joe Pilato, Howard Sherman
Length: 101 minutes
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