Day of the Dead ★★★★

Wrapping up George Romero's original Dead trilogy with this, I've realized that my favorite thing about the series may be how it developed and evolved the very premise it pioneered. There's a very clear progression between the three films, and none is quite like the other. In Night of the Living Dead, a group of harried survivors struggle to hold of the undead in an abandoned farmhouse. It takes place at the beginning of a disaster, told from the point of view of those right in the middle of it. In Dawn, there's a better view of the response, but the situation is looking much more dire for humanity in general. And in Day of the Dead, things have gone completely to shit. We're treated to a brief but powerful view of a world overrun by zombies, and left with a hopeless band of survivors stranded in a government bunker. The world, as we know it, is over.

Romero does good in these movies by focusing on the human conflicts, showing how people clash in disaster situations with chilly effectiveness. The previous films show how relationships crumble and how discontent slowly sets in. At the open of Day, however, the characters are already past that stage. There's open hostility between the small group of scientists assembled to study the situation and the soldiers assigned to protect them. In the first hour of the film, we get a good picture at just how desperate the situation is, how tenuous their relationship is, and how heavy the threat of violence looms. This is undoubtedly the bleakest of the three films, and the most socially-conscious. Romero uses the characters as a microcosm of society, and while it's not as subtle or playful as in Dawn, the symbolism is deeply cutting.

Budgetary restrictions limited Romero's plans for this movie, but the smaller scale and setting keeps Day of the Dead always tense. None of the characters are that likable, and most of them are waiting to snap. The movie features the trilogy's best villain--Captain Rhodes, who takes control after the death of the commanding officer at the beginning of the movie. He's a violent psychopath without much patience (not exactly the sort of person you want in charge). The soldiers under his command are either vicious lackeys or headcases one second away from breaking down. The scientists are lead by Dr. Logan, whose unsavory experiments earn him the title "Dr. Frankenstein." His pet zombie, Bub, is a shining example of how the living dead has evolved. And caught in the middle is the ostensible protagonist, a female scientist (played by Lori Cardille) trying to keep the two groups together.

The divisions are pretty clear from the get-go, and you're just waiting for everything to fall to pieces. And when it inevitably does, Day can reach the highs of Romero's two earlier films. It paints a misanthropic view of humanity that I found more chilling than the hordes of zombies that get dispatched. On a technical level, the creatures themselves have never looked better. Tom Savini's superb makeup skills are a step-up from Dawn of the Dead, and the kills are more gruesome than ever. Altogether, Day of the Dead is a tense experience and a bleak horror movie (aside from a surprisingly upbeat denouement). And more importantly, it's a very fitting end to a classic trilogy of horror movies.

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