WARNING – SPOILERS!
Director: George A. Romero
Year Released: 1985
The Dead have waited. The day has come.
‘It’s amazing – it’s not what this one does, it’s what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t get excited and doesn’t get agitated when Logan walks in the room. He doesn’t see Logan as….dinner.’ – Taking a much darker turn, Day of the Dead follows on from Dawn, where it appears that the living dead have virtually taken over.
At the beginning, we are introduced to a small band of survivors: scientist – Sarah (played by Lori Cardille), soldier (and boyfriend to Sarah) – Miguel (Antone DiLeo), communications expert – McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) and helicopter pilot – John (Terry Alexander) who are flying over derelict cities, searching for other survivors. They land in an a deserted street and call out for any survivors in the area, claiming that they can take them to safety – however, their calls fall on dead ears so to speak, as only the moaning, shuffling undead respond. As zombies slowly crawl out of abandoned cars and buildings, making their way towards the group, the survivors have no choice but to retreat back to their refuge (an underground military base/mine shaft). As they return, we meet some of the remaining members of the group (consisting of military officials and scientists) and we soon learn that the real confrontation lies between the soldiers and the scientists – rather than the undead above ground. The soldiers are lead by Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) who appears to have gone mad with power and constantly demands results from the team of scientists who are experimenting with zombie specimens, in an attempt to understand and eradicate the problem.
As the film’s main protagonist (and only female character), Sarah has a lot on her shoulders – from her seemingly vain research into reversing the zombie process, to dealing with the brutish behaviour and lack of cooperation from the soldiers, as well as the deterioration of her relationship with Miguel – who is rapidly falling apart from stress and exhaustion. Miguel’s breakdown is particularly hazardous when trying to capture zombie test subjects – as his erratic behaviour repeatedly puts the others at risk. The zombies are caught at the request of Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) – often referred to as ‘Frankenstein’ by the soldiers, due to his tendency to slice up and mutilate zombie specimens. Logan believes that they should aim to domesticate the undead by means of a ‘reward system’, with a zombie nicknamed Bub (excellently portrayed by Howard Sherman) as his most promising candidate. Bub is an unusually docile zombie who appears to have retained some of his pre-infected memory and mannerisms (we find out that he was previously in the military). While tensions continue to mount as food, ammo, functional equipment and patience are in short supply, Sarah seeks refuge in the hideout set up by John and McDermott – cut off from the other members of the squabbling group. Here, she vents her frustrations – claiming that the pair do not lift a finger to help with the mission – John and McDermott express no interest in discovering the cause/cure of the zombie plague, and feel that there is no point in sticking around. John however has his own theories regarding the cause of the epidemic – a punishment from the Creator.
Next comes a great scene where Logan attempts to demonstrate Bub’s capabilities by giving him everyday objects to ‘play with’ (books, a phone, a toothbrush etc.), to which Bub responds positively. Logan even gives him an unloaded gun which Bub instinctively aims and fires at Captain Rhodes. Despite Bub’s ‘progress’ however, Sarah and fellow scientist Ted Fisher (John Amplas) do not share Logan’s enthusiasm in this particular approach towards solving the dilemma – Rhodes and his men are even less impressed with Logan’s theories – they believe the zombies should be completely eradicated. Rhodes’ objections to teaching the undead tricks are met by Logan’s ravings about the need for civilised behaviour.
Meanwhile, Sarah, Miguel and several soldiers head out to capture more specimens. Miguel, however, loses control of the situation which results in the death of two soldiers and he himself is then bitten by an infected individual. As a result, Miguel becomes hysterical and flees the scene, followed swiftly by Sarah who immediately amputates the affected limb and cauterises the wound in an attempt to prevent infection. John offers to watch over Miguel as McDermott and Sarah head back to the lab for supplies. Upon their return, they come across some of the monstrous experiments performed by Logan – it becomes increasingly apparent that he is not of sound mind. They then witness Logan ‘rewarding’ Bub for his ‘good behaviour’ – (the reward is in fact the remains of some of the deceased soldiers). This is the final straw for Rhodes (who was also watching with his remaining men at the back of the room) who then drags Logan out to the freezer containing his deceased comrades and, without hesitation, shoots the pleading doctor dead. Sarah, Ted and McDermott are then taken hostage and the group make their way over to John. While John goes out to meet them, Miguel, in a fit of madness, decides to take the elevator to the surface and lure the hordes of zombies down to the underground complex (using himself as bait), so as to end it all. However, the rest of the group are unaware of Miguel’s actions.
In the meantime below ground, Rhodes orders John to fly himself and his men out of there and when John refuses, the Captain executes Ted and leaves Sarah and McDermott to fend for themselves in the zombie-infested caves. Rhodes then orders his right-hand man; Steel (Gary Howard Klar) to knock some sense into the helicopter pilot. They are disrupted however by the elevator siren – in the confusion, John manages to incapacitate Rhodes, steal his weapons and goes after Sarah and McDermott. Rhodes regains consciousness and, along with his men, makes his way to the descending elevator which, to their horror, carries Miguel being devoured by a crowd of the living dead. In a cowardly move, Rhodes dashes back to the base and locks himself in – leaving his men to the ravenous undead mob. Back in the lab, Bub breaks free from his chains and, to his dismay, discovers Logan’s corpse. The vengeful Bub then comes across a loaded gun on the floor and goes after the man responsible. The next scene, which is particularly grisly, sees the zombie horde literally tearing the military men to shreds, Steel however evades being eaten and forces his way into the compound. He then hides from Bub who is wandering the corridors with a loaded gun. While waiting to shoot the approaching Bub, Steel is caught off guard by numerous zombies and is consequently bitten. Surrounded, with only one bullet left, Steel sees no other alternative and takes his own life. Rhodes, meanwhile, encounters Bub in the hallway and is shot several times by the armed zombie. The Captain manages to stagger to a door at the end of the corridor, only to be greeted by a room packed full of zombies. As he is virtually torn in two by the reanimated crowd, Rhodes’ last view is of Bub who salutes the Captain and wanders off aimlessly. The zombies then have the base to themselves and greedily devour any non-infected remains. The film does have an upbeat ending however, as Sarah, McDermott and John make it to the surface, fly out of the infested area and land on a secluded and apparently zombie-free desert island.
Although not as successful as its predecessors, George Romero’s Day of the Dead is still a hugely entertaining watch with genuinely jumpy moments and memorable quotes and characters. The use a ‘friendly’ zombie (Bub) makes for an interesting twist – which leaves you almost rooting for the undead character in his quest to avenge the doctor’s death. In addition, the make-up and special effects (again mastered by Tom Savini) are knocked up a notch in this film, making the undead crowd and death scenes even more realistic and stomach-churning. The failure of mankind to cooperate and successfully deal with the situation is, again, a central theme which is illustrated in Logan’s speech about the need for ‘civilised behaviour’ – ‘How are we going to set an example for them if we behave barbarically ourselves?’ The survivors spend more time at each-other’s throats than working together to overcome the threat of the living dead, and this ultimately leads to their undoing – zombies merely take advantage of mankinds’ self-destructive tendencies