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The Legacy of George A. Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead’

Day of the Dead was the third, considered by many to be the lesser, of George A. Romero’s Dead Trilogy. I’m sure most of us know the story all too well by now, but the Day we got wasn’t necessarily the Day Romero wanted to make. The original concept has been described by Romero as the “Gone with the Wind of zombie films” due to its scope and “like Raiders of the Lost Ark…but with zombies” by effects master, Tom Savini. The plot was still centered around the military but leaned heavily on their attempts to weaponize zombie hordes in order to take down…other zombie hordes.

It would have been a massive production, and producers were skittish of the cost. They offered $7 million to Romero as long as he agreed to deliver the final piece with an R rating. Romero refused to neuter the gore. After all, this was long before the days of unrated home video releases. An edited film at that time would likely be the only version available until the era of DVD came along (assuming excised footage was preserved). Romero’s inability to compromise on the rating led to the budget getting cut in half, down to $3.5 million. Numerous rewrites were drafted in an attempt to sync Romero’s vision with that of the producers’ pockets. After an initial draft that ran an epic 200 pages, Romero switched up the story to an underground bunker and turned in a version pared down to a lean 88 pages.

Release Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead was released in a small selection of theaters on July 3rd, 1985 before rolling out to a slightly wider release on the 19th. While the two previous Dead films were critically and commercially successful, Day landed with a bit of a thud back in the day. The three-quel’s domestic gross was a paltry $5.8 million. Luckily, worldwide it pulled in close to $30 million. Since recently diving into the critical reception for The Thing on its anniversary (Spoiler! It wasn’t pretty), I decided to see what I could dig up as far as critical opinion on Day. The answer: they thought it was just a’ight.

The short Variety review simply claimed within its headline, “Day of the Dead is an unsatisfying part three in George A. Romero’s zombie saga.” While BBC’s critic wrote, “It’s just a shame that it’s hard to care for the unsympathetic main characters battling for survival, unlike the far more interesting protagonists of Dawn of the Dead. That film had a healthy streak of fun and escapism, which this overly grim sequel lacks.” Roger Ebert ended his review with a plea to Romero, a plea many fans seem to agree with (not I, personally):

“…the humans are mostly unpleasant, violent, insane or so noble that we can predict with utter certainty that they will survive. According to the mad scientist in Day of the Dead, the zombies keep moving because of primitive impulses buried deep within their spinal columns – impulses that create the appearance of life long after consciousness and intelligence have departed. I hope the same fate doesn’t befall Romero’s zombie movies. He should quit while he’s ahead.

In fact, of all the original reviews I was able to find, none of the critics seemed to outright hate the film. They just felt Day struggled under the weight of excellence that was Dawn of the Dead. Another note of commonality, every review remarked on how “grim” and “dour” they found the story. While this is striking in comparison to the roller coaster ride of the previous entry, to me, focusing solely on the darker nature of the movie is to miss its message of hope. Of course, the world has gone to shit in the ensuing apocalypse amidst an undead pandemic. These characters struggle to keep up some since of normality (John’s faux backyard), but in the end, there is still a silver lining for our survivors. The poor reputation looming over Day for many years has faded away over the past few decades. The court of public opinion has certainly started singing a different tune.

Tribute Day of the Dead

All three of Romero’s Dead films have received remakes. Night has been pressed through the redux juicer about a zillion times. There is one legit remake, animated versions, unofficial sequels, and meta deconstructions all thanks to its public domain status. That fruit has shriveled up. Only Day has received two OFFICIAL remakes (the Steve Miner directed 2008 version and upcoming take from Hèctor Hernández Vicens). There was also a followup from the exact same company who made a decidedly godawful sequel to another Romero franchise, Creepshow 3. The film, Day of the Dead 2: Contagium thankfully fell on deaf ears.  For those of you who’ve managed to wipe it from your memory, here’s the trailer as a little reminder:

(Those of you who might want to inflict pain upon me by having me sit through this film and report back with a follow-up article, let me know in the comments…you evil bastards.)

Granted, a bunch of greedy producers trying to cash in on a well-regarded property isn’t necessarily the mark of an everlasting legacy. Thankfully, there are far more ripples in pop culture that can lead back to Day of the Dead. Greg Nicotero, who assisted Savini with the effects on Day, is now an integral cog in the mechanics of The Walking Dead. Frequently, Nicotero will pepper an episode with a “Walker Tribute” and in Season 4, Episode 15 there was a strikingly familiar looking undead chap with a military past. In the premier of Season 7B, we also got a “jaw-dropping” walker that resembled one Dr. Tongue. Don’t judge me and my puns.

Beyond the obvious links to zombie-centric media, you can even find ties to Romero’s film from various musicians. Bands like Ministry and The Misfits have crafted their own odes to the movie. More surprisingly, the band Gorillaz sampled the film’s iconic score in their song, “M1 A1”. The beginning of the track heavily features Miguel’s cries into a megaphone on an abandoned city street, “Hello! Is anyone there?” The song “Hip Albatross”, also from Gorillaz, opens with a classic line from Night and ends with John’s pleading for a peaceful getaway from Day:

“Yeah, yeah, I got an alternative. Let’s get in that old whirlybird there, find us an island someplace, and spend what time we got left soakin’ up some sunshine. How’s that?”

Birthday of the Dead

Now, 32 years later, George Romero is gearing up to go into production on a brand new Dead film as producer. From the sound of it, you guys don’t seem too impressed by what we know of it so far. I get it. I think fan goodwill was dwindling with the release of Diary of the Dead (which I love) and was gone after Survival of the Dead (which I did not love…or like…or want to sit through ever again). All I know is the man is a true Master of Horror who’s had a tremendous career.

Even lesser Romero such as Dark Half and Monkey Shines are head and shoulders above many other genre works. One true stinker should not tarnish that fact. No matter what sub-genre Romero dabbles in, his films are always distinctly “his”. Each carries the Romero brand of subversive social commentary, whether it be on the nose or under the surface.

As stated before, Day of the Dead has managed to rise above the initial lukewarm reception to garner quite the cult status. As a kid, I wasn’t even that crazy about it. I think I was expecting something epic that would pick up from where we left off in Dawn. It’s now my personal favorite zombie film of all time. I’ll never forget the moment it really “clicked” for me, though. My friends and I were marathoning the original trilogy in anticipation of the first screening of Land of the Dead at our local multiplex. Sitting there as the sun was coming up and hearing Rhodes scream, “Choke on em’,” bubbling with more excitement than I could possibly contain, I fell in love with Day. Romero has even claimed this to be his favorite of the Dead films as well.

From the pulsing score, Tom Savini’s Saturn award-winning effects work, the birth of Bub and Romero’s intense staging of the climactic zombie incursion – the importance of Day of the Dead is of a piece with the rest of the original trilogy. It’s practically become the template for most modern zombie media from The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, to 28 Days Later. If you haven’t revisited the film in a long time, today is the perfect day to pull it out for a re-watch! We salute you too, Bub.

Alright, catch you later, fiends. I have to go shoot a remake of Night of the Living Dead on my iPhone.



  • The chicken man

    This was actually the first I saw of Mr. Romero’s. It will forever be my favorite to watch.

  • Alanmac

    Loved Day. I remember vividly the first time I saw the trailer on TV in my living room at 14.

  • Creepshow

    This movie rules. The baffling thing is, after numerous attempts of trying to warm up to Dawn of the Dead, the movie just seems to bore the piss out of me every time. I don’t know what it is exactly. Even Argento’s cut made my eyelids heavy, and I had to turn it off.

    • You know, the first time I saw Dawn on a crappy Goodtimes VHS it blew me away, and continted to do so on subsequent viewings. The last few times I watched it, I opted for one of the fancy alternate cuts and could really “feel” the pace. For me it’s always the straight up US theatrical cut.

      • Creepshow

        By the middle of the movie I was always sawing wood. I’d like to agree, but the Sandman kidnaps me every time. So I’m ruled out by abduction.

    • fannypack aficionado

      Agreed. Somewhere a few viewings ago Day actually edged in front of Dawn as my favorite of the original trilogy. The effects still blow me away every single time.

      • Yeah Day is certainly my favorite, followed by Night. When I was younger, though, Dawn was always at the top.

        • fannypack aficionado

          Yeah, it’s weird. Dawn is such a slow burn that I just don’t seem to enjoy the buildup anymore. Day seems kinetic from start to finish. I tend to believe it’s because Dawn doesn’t have the internal conflict to keep the pacing, and by the time the bikers show up I’m spent.

          Nice article, man.

          • Thanks, I appreciate it.

          • Creepshow

            The middle of Dawn just seemed to drag out. Maybe it was the “message” it was trying to portray for the time. I dunno, it just became a bunch of banter after a while. The original Crazies felt like it did the same thing. But that’s just me I guess.

      • Creepshow

        The effects were excellent.

    • Simon Allen

      That rare case of a remake being waaaaay better !

  • blackie_chan

    PLEASE..PLEASE…PLEASE! 28 Days Later is NOT a zombie film! Its a virus film. Dead bodies returning to life are zombies. THANK YOU

    • Carnosaur 2 features dinosaurs and nary an extraterrestrial in sight. Nonetheless, it’s 100% a riff on Aliens and the sci-fi/horror subgenre.

    • Bart Crowe

      I thought we were done with this debate. Next let’s argue about running zombies! They’re fictional creatures so you can make up the rules as needed for the plot. Personally I love The Return of the Living Dead style of zombie and those talk, can be decayed to the point of animated skeleton, and aren’t killed by being shot in the head or decapitated. I’m sure that upsets a lot of “zombie purist”
      Anyway I thought Day of the Dead kicked ass and Bub the Zombie was the best part of the movie.

    • macguffin54

      Please. Regardless of the fact that a virus specifically caused the outbreak (as opposed to some movies where it is implied
      or inferred) the movie clearly follows the established tropes and visual aesthetics of a zombie movie. Besides, who gives a shit?

      • blackie_chan

        if you truly didn’t give a shit, why reply? Plus, the infected on 28 weren’t flesh eating, although they bite.

    • Chance LeBoeuf

      Just stop with this crap. Behind all the pretense, that’s exactly what 28 Days Later is, a freaking zombie film. And you just sound dumb trying to argue otherwise.

    • disqus_uPh3WDxbQy

      A zombie isn’t necessarily a dead body returning to life. The zombie genre has many different rules. There isn’t one specific guide no matter how you slice it. It’s like saying vampires need to drink blood, turn to dust in sunlight or turn into bats. It’s simply not true.

    • James Allard

      I think of all of these as “plague” films, a sickness spread by contact.

  • Necro

    ‘Day of the Dead’ is my personal favorite zombie film, not just from Romero but overall. Though his ‘Dawn’ film had better characters/story, the effects in that were ok at best. When I personally want to watch a zombie film I’m not all that interested in an Academy Award storyline, I wanna see guts and gore and ‘Day’ definitely delivers that for me.

    • juice2305

      I completely agree, Day definitely had the most and best gore scenes and I loved it.

      • Necro

        Hell yeah nothing comes close! If I had to pick a 2nd I’d go with Lucio Fulci’s ‘Zombie’.

    • Creepshow

      This is my #1 zombie film too. The practical effects are the shit. The guts that they used were real animal guts, that they kept refrigerated in order to re-use multiple times. At some point during shooting, the refrigerator became (mysteriously) unplugged. So the guts began to rot and stink. In the final scene when Rhodes gets torn up, everyone was gagging after the scene. They still used the reeking guts to finish the movie. Nasty!

      • Necro

        I knew about the real animal guts but not about the refrigerator going out on them. Damn that must’ve been fucking gross! That smell had to be atrocious as all hell. Now see after hearing that just solidifies that even more as my favorite zombie film. To go to that extreme for a povital scene in the film speaks volumes to me. I love it!

      • Have you seen the doc on the new blu? It’s really good. Covers all that stuff.

        • Creepshow

          I haven’t seen the Blu-ray extras yet. But I did watch them on the special edition DVD I had. I gave that edition to my friend’s son. Whenever I upgrade a horror movie to Blu, I give my DVD version to my buddy’s kid. I do my best to pass over the carnage.

  • macguffin54

    Sorry, I find Day to be corny, slow, poorly acted and directed. The characters are afterthoughts and the whole talking zombie plot line and teaching them is too ridiculous to be believed–until Romero expanded upon it in Land. Day has some decent moments but was a dud–IMO.

  • Aaron King

    Day is my fave.

  • RJ MacReady

    I don’t get the critic’s hate for ‘grim’ movies. I personally love the depressing bleakness of movies like this and The Thing. Those are the types of movies that stick with you long after they’re over.

  • Dan Warren (Forgottenretroworl

    I always had a soft spot for this movie as it was the first Romero flick I saw. I was shell-shocked (6 years old, so go figure) and also remember seeing the spooky trailer for it on the House VHS where the arms burst out of the wall. Jumped out of my skin, lol.

  • Gambit

    I don’t think of it as a ‘lesser’ movie. The world portrayed outside the bunker is superb.

  • Brad Tyler

    It’s my favourite zombie movie ever. I love the darker, hopeless tone of this film. Plus the make-up effects are the best I’ve ever seen (what happened to Tom Savini and make-up?). My only wish is we got to explore more of the world outside, as it was scary as hell.

    • John Connor

      I think leaving it up to the imagination is what made it so fucking scary and powerful.
      It was bleak as fuck on the inside so imagine how bad the outside had to have been.

  • Simon Allen

    For me this is the best of Romero’s zombie movies ….I love that it’s so damn depressing and the effects are the shit .
    Actually I think it’s one of my favourite Zombie movies ever because when I watch it I tend to think “Yep …this is how it would probably be “.

  • SETH

    ‘Day of the Dead’ original script:

  • The_Gentleman

    It’s grown on me. I didn’t like it when it was first released. I still think it’s over-acted in parts. Yes, I understand that in reality the situation would certainly be tense but that doesn’t excuse blatant scenery chewing. That makes for forced drama. That being said I’ve grown to see it’s merits. i like grim, hopeless horror and this is one of the best. The zombies are great. It’s scary. It works. It’s still my third fave Romero zombie flick by far but it’s good stuff.

  • Buddy Repperton

    Dawn was the coolest movie of the four to those of us that could watch the movie, then go shopping or hang out in the very mall it was filmed in. Now the mall is just a zoo that is filled with animals far more dangerous than the zombies in the film. Day was cool, the effects got better but sadly the acting didn’t. Romero didn’t take advantage of his zombie empire when he could, so Hollywood took it away and ran it into the ground . Now he’s making crap because sadly crap sells and Kirkman is the new zombie king.

  • Monkeymanbob

    Zachary -The link for the Thing review leads to the trailer for DotD2

    • Nice catch. I’ll see if I can get it updated. Thanks

  • Movie_Buff_2011

    It’s a masterpiece and is my personal favorite of Romero’s Zombie films. Frankly I think it’s a better film than Dawn and is unfairly overlooked

  • Matt

    Great article Zachary.


    This was the best of the trilogy. the 1968 version was great for that time and the 1978 film was also great but in a different way. this 1985 film was the real horror we want to see from romero.
    unfortunately we did not got the extended cut as they refused to give him the 7 millions and romero had to make changes here and there.



    It’s never too late. romero is still alive. give him the money and he can make a great new extended 200 pages DAY OF THE DEAD aka GONE WITH THE ZOMBIES WIND EPIC.

  • Eric Detente

    Kirkman did what romero was unable to do and that’s to make the zombie genre mainstream. Having said that romero is definitely the better if the 2. He was burned out of money didn’t have video games to help etc. So dollar for dollar day is without question the best zombie film ever made yes it could have been better seeing the humans outnumbered 1000000 to 1 would have been nice to see in the citys that’s why that opening scene was so amazing. Cheers

  • Ress EZ

    I feel like breathing a new life in horror when reading this editorial. There’s so much love for the movie and the upbeat vibe of the editorial is really welcoming. Please, more of this! Horror movies should get more love!

    • Thanks so much! I try to express my passion for the genre as best I can.

  • ShadowInc

    I’d be interested in seeing the original script being unearthed, and made by HBO as a movie, or mini series. If a competent director were attached to the project, it could be pretty bad ass. Maybe Romeo could over see the project on some level, and Nicotero could be involved too.

  • John Connor

    Day is the best and the darkest/scariest.

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