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.