Directed by George Romero, 1985
To balance out the almost lascivious gore that accompanies most zombie movies, the best films offer a healthy dose of characterization. I find that a strong component of survivor psychology is a facet of the best films. And yes, Day of the Dead ranks among the best zombie films. It is in fact my favorite.
This is the third and least commercially successful of Romero's classic zombie trilogy (which became a quartet with 2005's Land of the Dead, reviewed elsewhere on this site). It's soaked in a distinctively eighties ethos: you will smirk at zombies in shoulder pads and feathered hair. That's part of Romero's glorious investment in modern zombie culture, though-- Night of the Living Dead delineated 1960s invasion psychology, Dawn of the Dead encapsulated the 1970s, and Day deftly handles the Cold War-frightened 1980s.
Zombies have overrun the country. In an underground zombieproof bunker, a small regiment lives uneasily with an even smaller scientific team. The scientists study the reasons, means, and possible cures for the zombie plague; the army men acquire zombie specimens for experimentation. As zombies, stress, and claustrophobia shred the group, our scientist heroine Sarah shifts from seeking a cure to staying alive. And not in the awesome disco way, either.
This movie has a lot of talking. A great deal of talking. So much talking! People talk, and then they yell, and sometimes someone has a breakdown or shoots a zombie. Then they talk again. If the discussions were of a less intense nature this might be a dull movie, but I find the unraveling psychology of a small band of survivors absolutely riveting. Now, right in the opening scenes, Romero establishes Sarah as something of an unsympathetic bitch, and the movie never loses sight of her less savory traits. Some of the people who do the worst things are the most pitiable. Even a character who clearly exists to be killed is given a good dose of screen time so that you legitimately regret his death. Character development in this movie is on par with the more famous, better-loved Dawn of the Dead.
Yet Romero does not withhold his trademark zombie gore. A zombie handed a razor blade starts to shave his own face off in a show of residual memory. Visitors to the mad scientist's lab run into a preserved zombie baby (making this the first movie, I think, to address fetal zombieism-- a record I previously thought held by 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake). Shovels go through faces and tongues fall out of throats and arms are hacked off and entrails, as ever, are pulled from screaming victims. Huzzah.
Zombie explanation: Not applicable. Only Romero's first zombie film hinted at a cause. I vastly prefer the in media res approach of his subsequent films. Besides, the futile search for cause and cure fuels this film and adds to the sense of desperation. You don't watch Romero films for a cause-- you watch for the gruesome effects and apocalypse psychology.
Contribution to the zombie canon: It's Romero; that almost says it all. But as I mentioned above, the psychological components are crucial to the movie's longevity and to post-disaster movies in general. Additionally, it raises some chilling parent-child concepts, as the increasingly insane Dr. Logan adopts shifting paternal and childish roles with Bub and other zombies. Also fun are the cultural tidbits with which science pummels zombies: Stephen King novels and Beethoven, apparently.
If you're watching this movie in light of later zombie efforts, note some mild similarities between this and 28 Days Later-- particularly the mad military commander, dark tunnel zombies, and the importance of post-apocalyptic sedation.
Favorite moment: Any moment with Bub. His instinctive salute in particular.
Favorite zombie: Bub the sentient zombie! Bub is such a sweetheart. But Dr. Tongue is a fan favorite and a brilliantly designed zombie: clearly someone who was shot in the face, the lower half of his face is gone and his slick red tongue falls out through his throat as you watch him decompose. Look for Dr. Tongue in the opening abandoned city scene. The final zombie invasion of the movie is a blast; watch for the following zombies and more: football player, clown, army men, bride, groom, a man in apron and dishwasher gloves, fisherman, ballerina, chef, surgeon, fortune teller, and tennis player.
Lessons learned: Wherever it is you think you escaped to, know this: there are already zombies behind you.