Thursday, May 20, 2010

REVIEW: Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead
Director: George Romero
Year 1985

Day of the Dead is as near to perfection as you can get in the zombie genre. The setting for this morbid tale of the rising of the dead is placed in a time period well after the first initial corpses began coming to life and now the entire world has become one great big tombstone. The direction, acting, and tone of the film is played deadly straight and it pays off in so many ways. In his commendable efforts, George Romero brings us a film that never falls into camp and is infused with such darkness and despair that it never lets go of its death hold on the audience. It also doesn't hurt that Romero provides us with a stunning cast that fit perfectly within their roles. By the end of the film you won't be able to imagine anyone else playing their individual iconic parts and you wouldn't really want to for that matter. The world that these characters inhabit is a dismal one to say the least and each actor steps up to the plate to drive that concept home. This is not a world that you would want to live in, but one that you'd love to visit on the cinematic screen.

Now that's what I call some scary ass 3D!

Right from the start of this film, we are shown the frightening reality of what the world has become under the death ridden reign of the zombie hordes. The beginning sequence that George Romero plots out is absolutely stunning and it instantly brings you into the story and into these characters lives. We watch as a single helicopter sets down upon a desolate street, filled with the debris of a world torn in two, and out come two people as they desperately begin calling for survivors. They are met with silence, but as they call on they are answered by the mournful moans of countless zombies, starving for their flesh. The tone is very present with this beginning sequence and we are introduced, right off the bat, on what to expect throughout the entire run of this film.

This is one of my absolute favorite scenes in any film and if the movie would have stopped after this epic introduction, I would still hold Day of the Dead as one of the best zombie films around, it's that good. The way the characters react to landing on the outskirts of the city limits and how they are so on edge, is just beautifully portrayed and the build up that Romero creates with the empty streets slowly being filled with the walking dead is just breathtaking to say the least. I went through the trouble to collect most of the iconic shots throughout this sequence, because anything I type wouldn't be able to do this scene justice. Check out one of the most accomplished zombie scenes in horror cinema history.

Characters are an essential key in the success of this film and one of the most interesting and original ones of the bunch is the character of Sarah, played by Pittsburgh native and all around kick ass chick, Lori Cardille. In fact the majority of the cast and film crew consisted of Pittsburgh filmmakers and if this was just a taste of what they were able to accomplish with such unknown talent, I wonder what other gems they could have churned out given another chance. With the character of Sarah, we are given a strong female lead that is dealing with the recent zombie epidemic in the only way she can without losing her mind. She comes off as a hardened woman after the audience is given an inside look into her personal life, when a verbal fight breaks out between her and her male companion Miquel, played by the nicest guy in the world, Anthony Dileo Jr. He drives the fact home that she's the only one that seems to not be cracking under the pressure. At the time he seems right, but as the film goes on we come to find that Sarah's character is as human as the next person, scared shitless at the prospect of a world filled with all but the dead.

I actually had the pleasure of talking with Anthony for a bit about his role in this film and I even got a chance to recite some of his classic lines from Day of the Dead like, "Collapsing from stress. This whole fucking unit is collapsing from stress." and "Everyone but you. So what! So fucking what!" and the ever immortal line "Let go of the goddamn pole!" The guy is modest as hell and he couldn't believe that people actually remember his lines and hold his character with such high regard. I for one love what he brought to Miguel's persona and I believe the film wouldn't be the same without is tremendous efforts in making an incredibly exciting and wholly believable character. Anthony Dileo, you rock!

Anthony is the man! So what... so fucking what?!?!

Here's me meeting the man! Let go of my goddamn neck!

The old saying, "location, location, location", never rang more true then with this film. That idea of, location is everything, is displayed with an absolutely surreal and isolated real world set, scoring the film an otherworldly underground military facility as its backdrop. This real life mine, called Wampum mine, is a now debunked limestone mine that is located on the outskirts of the Pittsburgh area. This location is a perfect setting for the overbearing isolation that the characters must deal with as they struggle to survive in a world that is not longer theirs. The vistas within this mine are amazing and the sheer size of the underground complex is mind boggling. The combination of the imagery of the mines and the post apocalyptic concept of the zombie outbreak is a perfect fit and melds into a very believable location for our story to take place.

Steel, played by a pissed off Gary Howard Klar,
calls for the zombies to come out and play!

The caliber of characters in this film is unparalleled by any horror movie of its kind. This is one thing that George Romero does so extremely well and that is to create some interesting and cherished characters that leave an impression on you, compelling the story to move forward. One of just many of the standout performances in this film, is brought to us by a man by the name of Captain Rhodes, played by another Pittsburgh native, Joseph Pilato. Here he plays the role of the biggest asshole in the world and he does it with absolute perfection. He's the guy that you love to hate and he performs his role with such zeal and ravenous fury that it's hard not to be swept up in his impassioned speeches about shooting the mothers in the head and blowing this popsicle stand. Captain Rhodes represents the military might of the two separate groups of people that inhabit the dark caves of the underground facility. Like most of Romero's dead films, the main threat to the survivors are each other, and this film doesn't stray from that tried and true method.

Joseph Pilato's performance is outstanding, and his character of Rhodes has since gone down in history as one of the biggest pricks to ever grace the living dead series of films. I'm a huge fan of his and I've enjoyed all of his various roles throughout his career. The highlights are his starring role in the Pittsburgh horror film Effects and his bit parts in George Romero's other films Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders. The guy is a class act and I only wish that he had more credits to his name because he really deserves to be seen more often.

Are you reading this review or are you all just jerking each other off?

Another aspect of this film that makes it a full blown zombie classic, is the atmospheric music provided by John Harrison. He brings some surprisingly unorthodox themes and sounds to the soundtrack of Day of the Dead, combining caribbean style instruments with haunting synthesized ambience that works with unexpected and often marvelous results. It should be no real shock because he's churned out some similarly spectacular soundtracks for George Romero in both his Creepshow films. He was also the man responsible for creating the atmospheric tracks heard in the Pittsburgh horror flick Effects, the same film Joseph Pilato starred in, so he knows his way around a horror film and he knows what works and what it takes to create that creepy vibe. The compositions that he has built for Day of the Dead, vary in their complexity and style, yet all of these diverse themes blend within the context of the story and definitely set a tone for the film to place its foundation on. I absolutely love what he came up with for the sound scape of this movie and it is a rather interesting listen that expertly compliments the images that Romero has so diligently crafted. 

Well that's just mean man. It's mean.

There are so many memorable characters in this film, like I said before, and another fine addition to the cornucopia of survivors is Dr. Logan or otherwise known as Dr. Frankenstein, played by a delightfully mad Richard Liberty. This isn't the first time that he's been in a George Romero film. He played a fatherly figure to a young Lynn Lowry in the 1973 film The Crazies. Richard did a great job in that film, but his performance in Day of the Dead puts that one to shame. He plays one of the most demented scientists in the history of cinema, experimenting on zombies by lopping off their limbs and tinkering with their brains, he's one sick puppy. The scenes where he shows up are entertaining as hell and he really has a commanding presence in this film. He always seems teetering on the brink of madness, with an excited and jittery manner to his expressions, always eager to get his point across. Richard Liberty does an amazing job, going above and beyond the normal shtick of a mad scientist and gives us a frighteningly intimate portrayal of a genius mind that has snapped under the pressures of trying to understand a phenomenon that can't be understood.

Oh Frankenstein, you mad bastard!

The real treat of having all of these interesting and diversely unique characters is having them interact with each other and Romero never wastes the opportunity to let them butt heads over what to do about their horrible predicament. We're given some highly entertaining conversations and conflicts between the two factions as they argue over whether to stick it out in the underground facility or take their chances above ground. It's intriguing to see tempers flare as the tension between the group threatens to overtake their senses and plunge them into a battle of the living against the living. That always present theme of the living are more dangerous then the dead, runs rampant in these heated debates and it's easy to see that this current style of living is going to end badly for everyone.

Romero really did an amazing job with the direction and editing of these scenes and in my eyes they are done to perfection. I have even payed homage to this very scene by reenacting one of the main branches of conversation while playing all of the characters, I'm that impressed by the scene. It's below the image of the tensioned filled meeting scene. It's one of those moments that everything seems to fit into place and you can find no faults with what you are seeing on screen. It's just really enjoyable and well paced and I believe it is one of George Romero's greatest accomplishments to date and quite a milestone in his career.

Everyone dreamed of sitting at the cool table with John the Jamaican. 

If you thought that I'd covered all of the iconic characters in this film, you'd be dead wrong, because I haven't even covered one of the main stars of this film, Bub. Bub is a zombie unlike any zombie that we've ever seen in a George Romero movie up unitl this point. Romero has decided with this character, to switch up the formula a bit and add a little something different to the equation. He gives us a zombie that isn't in the same vein as the normal type, by giving him a unique personality and fleshing out what actually happens to the undead after they pass over to this other more hideous form. I for one wish that he would have stuck to the old concepts of zombies are dead walking corpses that only get dumber and more decomposed as the years carry on, but what he did with Bub actually doesn't bug me at all. He gives us enough reasons to care about Bub, that it only feels natural for us the viewer to want to see him succeed in breaking his ravenous ways and have his savage heart tamed. Even if it does all seem futile in the greater scope of all things.

Sherman Howard plays the intellectual zombie of sorts and does it with such compassion and delicate charm, that it really is hard to not believe in the practices of Dr. Frankenstein, even if he is crazy as a loon. Through Howard's performance, he has created a character that has reached cult status among the horror crowd and one that should stand the test of time as being one of the most memorable and misunderstood monsters alongside some of the greats like Boris Karloff's legendary monster himself.

Go ahead Rhodes, make my day!

I really believe that Sarah's character was way ahead of her time. The things that she goes through and the emotional roller coaster that she endures throughout this film is exceptional. Her character has been through so much, even before the main credits began to pop up, and I've always wondered what her and Miguel had been like before the shit hit the fan and the zombies began rising up. The very fact that I ponder that is a rather large statement on how well they developed her character and how intriguing they have made her.

When watching the film, I always felt that she was a real flesh and blood person, and Lori has some amazing scenes in here that really seem ahead of its time in places. She's both tough as nails yet so fragile, having been put through hell and trying to be strong for both her and her broken boyfriend. Sarah's character is not a but kicking bad ass in an action movie, but a normal highly intelligent woman put in extraordinary circumstances and dealing with them the best way she can. This humanistic struggle makes her all the more compelling and sympathetic. She's been pushing herself to the limit trying to figure out a solution to the epidemic and all the while fighting the ever nagging notion that it's all really for nothing in the end. It's great to see her struggle with all that is put in her way and we as the audience really get a sense of authenticity in her performance and in doing so it lifts up the believability of their situation and the entire premise of the film.

Nothing like barbecuing your boyfriends infected arm to get the blood flowing.

Now let's not forget about the zombies! The zombie effects in this film are top notch and rivaled only by the masterfully creepy effects of the Night of the Living Dead remake from 1990. It's like a night to day comparison when glancing at Romero's previous zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, where they just had blue faces and not a scratch upon their decomposed flesh. In this film, we've got scabs and opened wounds, and zombies completely covered in filth. That dirty and aged look to the clothing really brings these dead things to life and makes it more believable then the clean cut comparisons in Romero's mall invasion opus. Though I love Dawn of the Dead with a passion, the zombies never really hit that dead walking corpse look, but in Dawn they perfect it and it has never been topped since.

Suddenly things go horribly wrong at the set of Michael Jackson's Thriller.

And what would a Romero zombie flick be without some good old gory special effects, brought to us by none other then Tom Savini the gore master himself. This is probably one of his greatest effects work to date and he really doesn't hold back on bringing on the red stuff. The climactic finale falls head over heels with slippery intestines, splitting torsos, and ripping flesh in an orgy of zombie feasting goodness. It really is quite a sight and it's a perfect ending to a perfect film. I've never come across a film that seems to hit all the marks while delivering such a consistent story, filled with great acting, sets, effects, characters, and everything that comes with this beautiful package of zombified epic proportions. There really isn't a weak spot in the film and the best part about it all is that the world that Romero depicts in this film actually feels tangible and lived in for that matter. Nothing seems artificial and out of place and I think that's what it has best going for it. Romero played this film serious and to the point and it shows so well in the final product.

Choke on it you sons of bitches! Choke on it!

Day of the Dead is one of my absolute favorite movies and in my opinion it has everything that you need to make a solid zombie film. We are given so many memorable characters, even ones that I've left out, that all have tremendous pull in the overall story and credible clout that fleshes the world out for the audience, helping us to be swept up in this dark tale. The locations chosen for filming are just extraordinary and especially unique to anything that we've seen before. The direction by George Romero is impeccable and masterfully crafted with a strong eye for detail in balancing all of these vibrant characters and relating their individual stories. 

I've never viewed a more balanced film in my life, one that felt so complete and succinct in its execution. The painstakingly complex elements that it took to create this film seem effortless when it all appears to meld together so perfectly and naturally. Without a doubt, if you're a George Romero fan or a zombie fan at heart, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. Even if you've already seen it and didn't enjoy it the first time around, give it another go and just try to let go and enjoy the ride. There really is so much to love about this film and Romero hit it out of the park on this one, which he has said is his favorite among all of his dead films. I'd have to agree with you on that George. Job well done.

5 out of 5 stars                The Best Zombie Film Ever!


  1. This film is okay I guess. Just kidding not only is it the best zombie movie ever but also one of the best horror movies ever. I hear rumors of another remake attempt. I think Jesus Christ himself could direct it and it still wouldn't come close to being a fraction as good as the original film.

  2. Yeah I heard that too. I've never actually seen the day of the dead remake. My friends had it on one night, but I gave up only 10 minutes in. What a disaster up until that point, but I'm sure it gets much worse. Jesus would have to pull some serious water to wine shit to pull off a better film then the original.

  3. Great review,they should have remade george's original script,that would have been epic.

  4. Yeah I heard that it was pretty epic. Maybe someday they'll use that script.

  5. Definitely one of my absolute favorites. It scared the hell out of me the first time I saw it. So many years later and it's still the best. Romero is king.

  6. Couldn't agree with you more. Romero is King!