The Test of Time: Day of the Dead (1985)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Man, the horror community sure absorbed a pretty painful blow last week, ay? Yet, as deeply sad and shocking as it was to see the legendary George A. Romero pass away, in a strangely poignant and poetic way, he’ll never die. Just like the very zombies he dedicated a life in pictures to, the man’s work will live on and persist from beyond the grave…and do so ad infinitum. In a karmically-meta way, Romero has become akin to the very subject of his own film canon. Truly, as The Zombie Godfather moves on to another plain, his legacy is forever immortalized. Rest in Paradise Mr. Romero!

But before we get all mist-ridden and weepy-eyed, we’ve got a job to do. And damn are we honored to take a 32-year retrospective look back at what Romero deemed his favorite film among his own original “OF THE DEAD” trilogy. Of course, we’re referring to the iniquitously overlooked and underperformed DAY OF THE DEAD. Damn I love this movie!

Remember though, at the time of its release in 1985, many did not. Granted, eclipsing or even matching the gargantuan success of DAWN OF THE DEAD from just a year prior was a nearly impossible task, but still, there’s no way DAY OF THE DEAD should hold the distinction it does…being the lowest grossing entry among his original zombie troika. Rightly, the film has amassed quite the fervid following over the past three decades or so. But viewed through today’s lens? Does the film hold up? Has it aged terribly? Is it still among Romero’s upper echelon of film titles? All this gets examined further as we officially find out if The Test of Time is any match for THE DAY OF THE DEAD!

THE STORY: Always socially conscious and strewn with subtextual import, if NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD touched on race-relations during the height of civil rights, if DAWN OF THE DEAD explored the mindless consumerism of the Reagan era, then no doubt, DAY OF THE DEAD is a pretty scathing indictment on the secrecy of often untoward military conduct. Here the intent starts as seemingly humane. In DAY, a small coterie of military personnel are housed in a large subterranean bunker with a horde of rabid, flesh-decaying zombie ghouls to conduct experiments on. Specifically, they want the zombies’ unbridled energy to be put to constructive use, a symbiotic one at that, to work to together in harmony with the living. To domesticate. To cultivate civility.

The key surgeon, Dr. Logan, makes great progress with a subject known as Bub, a semi-sentient Frankenstein’s Monster of a zombie that becomes a central figure in the story. But the great tension built in DAY comes from the inner turmoil of the warring factions inside the bunker, among the soldiers themselves and the civilian scientists, in addition to the imminent danger of a zombie outbreak directly above ground. There’s nowhere to escape for the soldiers and scientists, yet their inability to work together underground proves just as troublesome. Of course, all hell comes to a head when the zombies above find a way down below!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Much of what appealed in 1985 still does today, but the first thing I always think about when DAY comes up is just how funny it is. Seriously, the histrionic, vulgar-ridden dialogue and hysterical interplay between the characters – namely Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) and Steel (Gary Howard Klar) – distinctly set this chapter apart from other Romero entries, delightfully so. I swear, the Coen brothers must have been legit fans of this movie considering what a dead ringer John Goodman in THE BIG LEBOWSKI is to that of Steel. The same fatigues, glasses, crass demeanor, blissful ignorance, comic vulgarity, all of it. The similarities cannot be coincidental, especially considering how Joel got his start editing low-budget horror films around this very time.

Aside from the genuine hilarity of the characters and dialogue, I think the graphic gore, done practically mind you, and its concomitant FX work really holds up quite mightily when viewed today. Tom Savini, Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero (KNB FX) are absolute paragons in this field, and we can see why. Hell, I’d go so far as to posit that Rhodes’ disemboweling death is the single greatest fatality ever to be featured in a Romero film. It’s so damn good, so grisly, so timelessly realistic, so brutally believable and of course, given the character, so deliciously deserving. Rhodes is such a controlling asshole throughout the film, we not only welcome his death, we start to look forward to it. When it finally comes, saving the best for last, it’s delivered with the utmost gratification to the viewer. And honestly, aside from knowing real pig intestines were used in the film, I still have no idea how this shot was so credibly achieved. It’s a movie magic trick that has not lost a scintilla of its blood-soaked luster 32 years after introduced to the world. It’s the gored-standard!

Last and probably most importantly, the subject matter of military experimentation and ever-growing mistrust of such by the public is among the movies most salient legacies. And in so doing, Romero gave us the single most sympathetic zombie featured in all of his films (and perhaps any zombie film to date) in Bub. Much like the OG Frankenstein’s monster, the innocent childlike quality of Bub is hard to assail, and when we see the humanized ghoul consume music and become emotionally stirred by it, we can start to identify with the beast as more than just a flesh-eating monster. The fact that he shows remorse at one point and even utters the line “Hello Aunt Alicia” reinforces this, as does the fact it is he who nicks Rhodes with a bullet wound before his glorious demise.

This culled sympathy is a wonderful feat by Romero, one he explored further 20 years later in LAND OF THE DEAD. The result lends a more nuanced emotional impact in DAY, one that attempts to highlight the similarities between humans and zombies rather than a simple us-vs.-them dynamic Romero’s earlier films cottoned to. In a profound way, DAY OF THE DEAD is at once Romero’s most bleak but human zombie film…a distinction that has not only withstood the test of time, but appreciated in value as well!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Some may voice qualms about the limited zombie action for the first half of the movie, but I wouldn’t. The story setup and aforementioned humor plays perfectly well until we finally do get a dose of abject carnage in the second half of the flick. In fact, I’d argue it strikes harder when it finally does hit…on some absence makes the heart grow fonder sh*t. A pacing issue or two, some technical wear and tear, sure, these are valid complaints about the movie when seen now. But come on, they’re so minor and so insignificant to the overall enjoyment of the movie that we’re just splitting hairs at this point. All told, very little about DAY OF THE DEAD doesn’t work today. It’s just as powerful 32 years later!

THE VERDICT: Although dismissed in its day, George A. Romero has always been ahead of his time. As such, DAY OF THE DEAD hasn’t weakened, it’s emboldened itself over the last three decades or so. Romero was a fearless and peerless independent writer/director who blazed his own damn path, rarely if ever bending to the whims of studio trends. The only formula he followed was the one he concocted, one that has been often imitated but never duplicated. DAY OF THE DEAD was Romero’s favorite of his own first three zombie films, and whether or not you share that sentiment, time has not negatively touched the film in any significant way. Quite the opposite in fact, DAY OF THE DEAD is stronger now than it’s ever been!



Extra Tidbit: How do you view DAY OF THE DEAD today?
Source: AITH



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