George Romero was a fucking bad-ass. You have to admire a guy that would continually turn down bundles of money from Hollywood just so he could keep his artistic vision intact. For our younger readers that may not know how things worked back in the 70s and 80s, no film studio in their right mind was going to spend money to greenlight a film that wouldn’t broker an R rating or below. This was before Director’s Cuts were a thing; nowadays a director can let the MPAA hack their film up for a theatrical run and just release their uncut version on DVD. In Romero’s day, if a movie was too gory or sexy for an R rating, theaters either wouldn’t show it or, if they did, they would not be able to include the listing in the local newspapers. When it came time for Romero to start production on Day of the Dead, his script was massive. He described it as the Gone With the Wind of zombie movies. His producer let him know that to shoot the script as it was, they would need an estimated 7 million dollars, which definitely meant big studio involvement. Rather than let too many corporate cooks into his kitchen, Romero re-wrote the script so it could be made under his terms at a slashed budget of only 3.5 million dollars.
I love these kind of stories. I’m a firm believer that limitations fuel creativity and some of the best art comes out of these kinds of conditions. For any of you that are interested in doing so, you can easily find the first draft of Romero’s script for Day of the Dead online. I’ve read it, and it would have been a much bigger film in scope, more action-oriented, like a big summer blockbuster with zombies, but I much prefer the film we got to his original vision.
Day of the Dead often gets overshadowed by the first two films in Romero’s Dead trilogy; Night and Dawn are considered horror classics, but not too many people bring up Day of the Dead when talking about Romero’s zombie movies and their influence on popular culture. And I get it. Day is a dark movie; gone is the comic book style candy-colored blood of Dawn, as is any humor, and Night of the Living Dead is just an iconic film, no two ways about it. Day of the Dead is a straight-up gore fest, and even more than that, it’s very tense and claustrophobic. It’s like spending two hours underground with a group of people who are slowly growing more unhinged every day. With the first two movies you could watch and hold out hope that the calvary would come to the rescue in the nick of time. Here there is no hope. The dead have won and the people down in that underground installation very well might be the only humans left alive in the whole country.
I have always loved this movie, hard as it is to stomach sometimes. Maybe even more than Dawn. The effects are Tom Savini and his team (including Greg Nicotero) at the top of their game. There are so many memorable gross-out moments: the jawless zombie with lolling tongue that shambles into the title screen, one of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments losing its guts all over the floor, Rhodes getting torn to shreds, what’s left of Major Cooper… it’s awful and wonderful at the same time. Part of me wants to turn away but the other part wants to see what tricks Savini has up his sleeve.
All of Romero’s zombie flicks are allegories of sorts, they all reflect what was going on with the world at the time they were made. Night of the Living Dead dealt with the Vietnam War and racism, Dawn of the Dead was a commentary on blind consumerism, and Day of the Dead fit right in with the paranoia and isolation felt by many towards the end of the Cold War. They are all very smart satirical pieces masquerading as B-movies, and Romero makes it quite clear with Day of the Dead that he is not that optimistic about the fate of the human race. One of the scenes that drives this home, and it happens to be my favorite scene in all the trilogy, is when Jon and Sarah are getting drunk and they have a conversation about the futility of her efforts to carry on as if nothing has changed: “You ain’t never gonna figure it out… God has visited a curse on us…” It’s also telling that the most likable character in the movie isn’t a human at all, but Bub, Dr. Frankenstein’s pet zombie. None of the characters in this movie are exactly likable… they’re all insane or halfway there, except for Sarah and John and maybe McDermott. This all goes back to what I was talking about earlier, that all this heavy-handedness and pessimism might have something to do with why this film isn’t nearly as celebrated as its predecessors.
While I don’t think this movie gets the attention it deserves, I know I’m not alone in my love for this fitting end to Romero’s zombie trilogy. Let us know what you think in the comment section on Facebook, and make sure to add Day of the Dead to your Halloween horror viewing list.