George A. Romero is often hailed as the master of the modern zombie movie. His work in the “…of the Dead” series is possibly one of the prime reasons we have such a large, mainstream genre solely based on the dead walking the Earth. His work is clearly revolutionary, the influence it has had on the world of the zombie horror genre has far exceeded anything he himself could actually create. In turn, my disappointment with Dawn of the Dead had led to a delay in watching anything else in the series.
If anything, Day of the Dead is the strongest Romero has to offer. It’s full of his expected tropes and clichés, some good, some bad. A real mixed bag of influential pioneering of the genre and outdated motifs that leak the cheesy 1980s genre feel into the script and unfortunately bland, one trope, two dimensional characters. Romero’s strong suit is his ability to operate gore with relative ease. His balance between slowly paced build up to horrific cries of terror and the actual deaths of throwaway characters is well operated, with much of the latter half of the movie catering solely to the breakdown of order and the inevitable running away from the zombie horde.
Day of the Dead also manages to bring about more narrative pieces to the actual zombies themselves. I feel it’s a tad ironic that the characters that feel most human are, in fact, the undead. They show fear towards a system that they have begun to learn, and the aptly nicknamed “Doctor Frankenstein”, played by Richard Liberty, shows this progression extremely well. Romero is dedicated to showing that the human characteristics are something more, an apt subplot that could lead onto bigger and better movies. Although he himself never managed to bring those into fruition, it’s great to see how the idea that zombies learning to be human has impacted the genre so strongly.
Bub as a character is superb, played very well by Sherman Howard. Considering how difficult it must be to blend zombie like stances with borderline human emotions, Howard gives us a performance that is both impressive and enjoyable as a supporting performance. Bub is by far the best character in the movie, his interactions with Dr. Logan (Liberty) are essential to the film, and his eventual altercations with the rest of the cast are great, but there is something more to be desired when you realise he doesn’t exactly interact with as many cast members as he should.
From a technical aspect though, Day of the Dead is much more impressive than that of the 1978 classic. The makeup and art department seem to have been given a stronger budget, with the zombies looking more like the shambolic freaks we’ve come to love and fear. Instead of pale faced, expressionless morons, they now look like they’re adapting and developing. We see them bloody mouthed, frothing and shambling towards our heroes in every other scene. They’re something to fear, yet the extras that play them manage to give them humanistic characters much like Howard’s performance does.
Much of this builds up the story, if you can call it one. The subplot should never be more interesting than the main focus of the movie, and Romero tries to blend the two together in an unsuccessful fashion. A small group on the verge of a breakdown must escape as their facility begins to become overrun with hordes of the undead. You’ve heard it all before and have probably seen it a thousand times, this is the original right here. The real deal of what has spawned so many remakes, spin-offs, homages and video games.
Day of the Dead relies much more on impressive visuals and horrendously bloody deaths, and it makes it all the more enjoyable. A basic outline of a story makes this much more palatable, and the frequent throwaway jokes that are gone in the blink of an eye manage to just about hold a story together that is, in effect, a littered affair of the basic principles that form the zombie horror. A group of survivors picked off one by one as they try and survive the end of the world. It’s all thanks to George A. Romero that we have such a basic, yet layered storytelling achievement to pass on.