Let’s talk about a filthy, emotionally cruel, insanely violent, and gory movie that more people should know about. It also happens to be one of my all-time favorites, and most people I run into haven’t seen it. They really should. There are SPOILERS ahead, and this is also a better article if you’ve seen the movie before.
“Day of the Dead” is about a group of scientists in an underground storage facility, trying to find a solution to the zombie apocalypse raging outside. Also, they’re guarded by the worst soldiers in the history of soldiers. They’re an incompetent rabble of cruel, violent, and vulgar men who are only around because all the real soldiers are zombies now. Also, they’re the real bad guys. The humans are cooped up in this miserable bunker and they’ve all started to come unglued, from the combination of the stress and the existential crisis of potentially being the last humans on Earth. Sarah, the protagonist played by Lori Cardille, hopes beyond hope that they can fix it, if they could just stop fighting and work together for five minutes. Lt. Rhodes, played by Joseph Palito, is an impatient and violent man who wants to ditch the entire project and desert the army. They grapple over what to do, with a horde of zombies penned in only yards away for their experiments.
The setting is claustrophobic and dingy, the characters (except for the protagonist) are mean to each other, the situation is hopeless, and the gore is stomach-churning. This is a harsh movie that doesn’t care how you feel, and it doesn’t mind being repulsive. Some call that trashy, but I call it honest filmmaking, as long as there’s a unified point to be made. The last few minutes are especially squishy, thanks to the efforts of special effects director Tom Savini. They even managed to make it work despite the humidity of the underground storage facility they filmed most of the movie in. Despite equipment failures due to the environment, the gore effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen, and they managed to ruin my taste for lasagna on a shoestring budget. They’re better than “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), which was the zombie flick that Romero made before this one.
“Day of the Dead” is a grindhouse movie that George A. Romero made back in 1985, and it made a worldwide box office return of about $34 million. It still turned a profit. The budget was $3.5 million, so it barely had to show up to claw its way back out of the financial red zone that many studios have found themselves in as the disastrous summer of 2017 comes to a close. This zombie movie had an insane profit margin, though not as high as modern horror movies, like the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. Cheap movies still get made, and still make lots of money, but studios keep making the huge mistakes from this past summer that I’m sure you’ve already read plenty of clickbait about. Why? Reasons. Reasons that aren’t as much fun to talk about as zombies. The cheaper movies that get made these days, like “Ouija” or “Paranormal Activity” tend to be simple horror films, relying heavily on jump scares, and steering clear of big ideas. “Day of the Dead” was a cheaply made movie that covered a big idea that the horror stemmed from, and that’s one of the reasons why I like it so much.
Speaking of big ideas, “Day of the Dead” isn’t scary because some stuff pops up and makes an obnoxious noise that was added in post-production. It’s scary because of the situation and the way that situation pans out, you know, like a good horror movie. The zombies are slow, dumb, and physically unimpressive, and the humans would kill them all in an instant if they could plan things out and work together. But they don’t. The real horror of this gory, cheap movie that didn’t have a normal ticket price, is that the humans can’t work together and defeat a problem. The problem is not too strong, so much as the humans are too weak. They waste all their resources on small problems, apparently incapable of fathoming the bigger problem that slowly creeps in and literally devours them. They don’t even focus all their efforts on the zombies until the last minute, when they’re already cornered.
The source of horror in a zombie movie should not come from the zombies themselves, which is why the original Romero zombies are slow and stupid. The horror comes from the humans, their fear-motivated conflicts, and their short-sighted and destructive behavior. Modern zombie flicks like “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) and “Day of the Dead” (2008), which have running zombies, are missing the point. Not coincidentally, both of those are remakes of George Romero movies. They have lots of differences from the originals, but the biggest one that I noticed is that they changed the main source of conflict from the people to the zombies. The zombies should not be the main source of your conflict, only the backdrop that makes it possible. When you have running zombies, they’re just a source of danger that shows up from time to time. They’re not actually scarier, because monsters that run fast aren’t as scary as a case study that proves we’re all doomed. When characters get killed by the slow ones, they have nobody to blame but themselves. They could have stopped it from happening, but they failed to keep their priorities in order. Slow-moving zombies are there to make a point, rather than just making action happen. The ways they kill people are reminiscent of other problems that humanity could defeat with cooperation, like climate change, aquifer depletion, or over-fishing. We die because we focus on the small problems that lead us to blame one another, rather than the big ones that take a lot longer to kill us. “Day of the Dead” didn’t scare me with a cheap gag and a loud noise. It did it with a depressing and very real aspect of the human condition, one that I see in action in real life. The slower zombies serve as a cautionary tale.
I would recommend “Day of the Dead” to anyone who wants to watch a zombie movie that actually makes proper use of zombies. There’s gore in it, but there’s a concept buried underneath all the blood and viscera. The characters don’t fail to defend themselves out of simple stupidity, which wouldn’t be believable, but out of shortsightedness and wasteful blame-games. The shallower parts of the horror are all about gore and body destruction, which is fine as well. This is a horror movie that’s actually horrifying, and it’s my personal favorite out of everything that George Romero made.