Day of the Dead ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Film #13 of my Hoop-tober Horror Challenge!

"Yes, sir! Fuck you, sir!"

Being a horror fan and an avid fan of Dawn of the Dead, I spent a lot of time in my youth reflecting upon the possibility of a zombie apocalypse, as I'm sure every young horror fan has. In my opinion, the scariest thing about a zombie apocalypse isn't the zombies: they're decaying, rigor mortis has already sunk in, and as long as you keep moving and stay quiet, you have a smaller chance of being surrounded. Not to say that dealing with zombies is a cake walk, but that was never what worried me. No, what really scared me, and why I love Romero's films over many other zombie films, is the eventual decay of society. The chaos of, well, chaos, the forces that are put in place to protect us turning on us (though an apocalypse is not always needed for that to happen). What we would do to each other is far, far scarier than any living dead apocalypse. And, more so than in Night or Dawn, the film where George Romero really, really explores this is in the slightly-unoriginally-titled Day of the Dead.

A group of scientists and the military hole up in an underground cave to try and find a cure for the living dead crisis, as hundreds of zombies roam the land above. As tensions grow thicker and thicker, it becomes more and more likely that it's going to end badly (and bloody) for everyone.

The very first thing I have to say, just to get it out the way so that I don't have to talk about it for the rest of this review, is that the acting is bad. It's really bad. Contrary to what many people have said, I've found that the bad acting isn't in the really tense and dramatic scenes. I get it. They're vulnerable people in an impossible situation, tension is running high and so there's obviously going to be quite a bit of yelling. No, the bad acting really comes out in the quiet moments, the dialogue meant to deepen our understanding of characters, but does nothing but make them more unsympathetic. I do enjoy Lori Cardille's performance as Sarah (the only character I like in this entire film), a character George Romero said he wrote as a way of apologizing for Barbara in Night of the Living Dead (he was joking, but he does have a point).

While this film's social commentary is definitely about the lack of empathy in humans and how we would rather, literally in this case, be torn apart by zombies than find some common ground and work together to build the future, I don't think that's all this film has to offer. I definitely believe there is some amount of a statement on the hyper-masculinization of soldiers. Listening to their dialogue, almost every word out of their mouths is about sex, masturbation, their dicks (or other solider's dicks), or some grossly over-exaggerated exclamation of violence. They pride themselves on their "big guns," wielding assault rifles (Is that a correct term to describe these guns? I'm really clueless about this stuff) while only giving the scientists pistols, and when these guns are stolen from them, only then do we see them as vulnerable human beings who are, for the first time, afraid. I mean, sure, Day of the Dead is no Full Metal Jacket, but the argument is still there.

The film features some fantastic gore effects by Tom Savini, making some of the best looking zombies I've ever seen (I still do prefer the make-up of the zombie on the poster of Zombi 2, but only by a hair), and some of the best practical effects I've ever seen. Sure, this reduces the film to either scaring the audience through jump scares (none of which are particularly effective) or by gross-out gore scenes, but hey, it looks fucking beautiful (beautiful for gore-hounds, that is), so who am I to complain? The main zombie in this film, Bub, is probably my favorite zombie ever (as silly as it is to have a favorite zombie). He actually seemed to have a character and personality, and the scenes were he remembered actions of his past life and began acting more human really are the best of this film (perhaps this film should have been called Evolution of the Dead).

Sadly, no matter how great the zombies look, I do really hate the look of the film. Dawn of the Dead was a visibly cheap affair, but the colors were still warm and inviting: that is not the case here. While the camera used were much more clear in picture quality, the entire image is washed-out, low in contrast, and visually boring (though maybe Scream Factory just didn't have a good remaster to work off of for their Blu-Ray release, which is what I used to watch this film). I also find the cinematography dull and lifeless: just because almost the entire film takes place in an underground mine doesn't mean that you can't make the shots look, well, good. I did enjoy the way the silo scene was lit, but its bold and brash colors were so inverted from the rest of the film that it felt out of place.

Day of the Dead was a critical and commercial failure upon release, which is understandable. After the fun, comic book feel of the superb Dawn of the Dead, fans wanted a similar romp, but instead got a quiet, understated character drama of sorts. It suffers from the Alien³ syndrome: not a horrible movie, not great either, but hated by many because it followed such an epic movie. This movie has definitely grown on me (I even considered bumping it up to four stars, but it's not quite that good, though I did add that I "liked" it), but it simply cannot compare to the two previous movies. This is the farthest I've gotten in Romero's dead tril - sorry, series (I really can't get out of the habit of calling it a trilogy), and I am curious to see where he goes next, if not entirely enthusiastic. Day of the Dead is definitely underappreciated, but I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that it's criminally underrated. It's a much less compelling affair than the two that preceded it, but still worth a watch. Its drawbacks make it an entertaining viewing experience, but not a particularly rewarding one. And viewing must be rewarded, otherwise there's no point at all...

Up Next: Land of the Dead (2005)

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