Day of the Dead ★★★★★

When I met George Romero a few years ago at a horror convention in Los Angeles, I had the lack of foresight (or a lighthearted sense of gentle provocation, I honestly can't remember which) to wear a RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD t-shirt. "Are you kidding me?" he chuckled. "You get in line to meet me wearing a fucking RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD shirt? Oh well, I'll sign your stuff anyway."

He got a laugh out of it, but ROTLD has always been a thorn in George's side. It came out the same year as his own DAY OF THE DEAD, and not only did it fare better with critics, it was a smash at the box office while DAY tanked. Adding insult to injury, ROTLD is entirely unrelated to Romero's trilogy, except that it knowingly winks at it by including it within its own mythology.

It's easy to see why DAY didn't fare as well back in the day. It's a deadly serious, moderately paced, thoughtful and difficult film, ultimately hopeful but for much of its running time deeply cynical about human nature. ROTLD on the other hand, is fast, funny, chock full of instantly memorable dialogue (it singlehandedly started the "braaaaaaains" catchphrase that many people today erroneously connect with all zombies), and it has a kick-ass punk rock soundtrack.

DAY OF THE DEAD must have seemed like cough syrup compared to the caffeine buzz of ROTLD back in the day, but it's actually every bit as brilliant and even just as entertaining, particularly the terrifying all-hell-breaks-loose finale. It just takes a few viewings to really warm up to.

The film centers on the rising tensions between a small group of research scientists and the brutish, bored, increasingly agitated military men assisting them in their studies (which involve a seemingly futile attempt to reverse zombification, despite the fact that at this point in the story, zombies outnumber humans 40,000 to 1). All of them live in a spacious but depressingly dark and dank underground facility that is like an enormous version of the cellar from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It's secure and easy to defend (only one way in), but once they DO get in, you've got absolutely nowhere to go.

Some of the dialogue and the performances are a tad overheated at times, but for the most part, both are fantastic. Once again, Romero is a master at blending social commentary, character detail, and thrills and chills. The characters are an interesting blend, and the very John Carpenter-inspired synth-heavy score is awesome. In addition, Tom Savini's special effects work is amazing here, and the zombies are very cool in that uniquely '80s kinda way (they all look like they wandered over from the THILLER video).

DAY OF THE DEAD and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD are, in my opinion, not adversarial opposites but two sides of the same complementary coin. They are two very different but equally excellent approaches to similar subject matter, and work together as proof of the great creativity evident in the genre's best films.

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