Day of the Dead (1985)
By: CJ on April 9, 2010  | 
DVD
Arrow Video | Region B | 1.85:1 | English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | 101 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: George Romero
Starring: Joe Pilato, Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Richard Liberty and Howard Sherman
Screenplay: George Romero
Country: USA
External Links
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Prepare yourself for the darkest day of horror the world has ever known!

So ran the tagline for Romero's third instalment in his ongoing undead saga. The story all began in the late 60's with Romero's seminal zombie opus Night of the Living Dead, which chronicled the events of a group of people holed up in a house fighting off the hordes of the living dead and trying to figure out a way to escape. Several years later Romero followed this up with the groundbreaking masterpiece that is Dawn of the Dead. Dawn is interesting in that it departs from traditional zombie narratives. In just about all zombie flicks previous to this the events have been isolated and small scale – and sometimes even purely restricted to places like the West Indies or Haiti (see I Walk with a Zombie, White Zombie) where Voodoo is a commonplace practise. So Dawn offers up something a little different, more apocalyptic – here we have the zombie contagion as a nationwide (possibly even global) phenomenon and mankind is facing possible extinction. Where Romero really wins out is not only with the spectacular gore, but by focusing on the human drama amongst the quartet of survivors and how they try to combat the unthinkable with the banal and the ordinary. And isn't that exactly what we, as people, try to do when confronted with impossible odds? To try and carry on as much as normal as we can, because there's comfort in the mundane practicalities of life? With Dawn Romero was painting on a broad canvas and expanding the whole zombie concept and truly delivers the first ever epic zombie movie. Then a few years later George delivered his third instalment, Day of the Dead. In fact, I'd say that Romero's films share more in common with Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (filmed as The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and most recently the Will Smith remake I Am Legend), although the creatures in that are more akin to vampires – but they do share a common trait of a human survivor(s) battling mankind gone wrong.

It's widely known and accepted that Romero's original concept for Day of the Dead was far larger in scope than what finally made it onto film, due to budgetary restrictions. But what did make it into the film is magnificent and masterly, so maybe a smaller scale affair wasn't such a bad thing. But Dawn certainly gave an indication where Romero would have liked to have taken things.

By 1985 the slasher cycle had peaked and all but disappeared aside from a few notable exceptions and horror was floundering in a sea of mediocrity and relegated to the arena of horror-comedy. Again, there are a few exceptions – but by and large the demand was for more light-hearted, jokey fare. Then suddenly there was a new Romero zombie movie on at the cinema – and I wasn't going to miss that. Sadly, on opening night in a London cinema, myself and two friends were the only ones in attendance – and it appeared that almost universally horror fans were not coming out to support this film, which is a bit of a travesty. I fell in love with the film from the very first time I saw it and, to be fair, seeing a sparkly new print in a decent theatre is the way to go. The poor reception is kind of understandable, as audiences were demanding horror-comedies at this time and Romero's dark vision was probably a bit too much for some people. However, I think it was the perfect film at the perfect time. It's a far more brooding work than his previous zombie entries and far more introspective, claustrophobic and thoughtful.

Day of the Dead focuses on a group of survivors in an underground compound. It's primarily a research facility that is being assisted by the military, their quest being to find a reason for what's happening and a way to maybe cure or eradicate the condition. Leading the research is the erratic and eccentric Dr Logan (the late Richard Liberty) who is intent on finding a way to domesticate the undead creatures and to understand the root cause of what is causing this to happen. With the death of Major Cooper, however, the research team have a new problem – Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who has assumed command of the army unit. It's a problem in that Rhodes is obviously in disagreement with the scientific approach, favouring a more militant stance against the zombie menace. He views it as a "fuckin' war", which would, we assume, be a typically military viewpoint. In between these two groups is the civilian John, the chopper pilot, who believes that what is happening, is simply Voodoo and that they should just flee to an isolated, uninhabited island and start over.

Now, here's where I'll get a bit contentious, because I feel that Rhodes is a deeply misunderstood character and is not the villain of the piece at all. Having viewed the film many times now I've become more sympathetic of Rhodes – mostly because I think most people don't understand that his irrationality and anger are because he's afraid; terribly afraid. Scared men are often very violent and erratic in their behaviour – and I think that's the case here with Rhodes. That's not to make him out to be a saint, he's far from it, but I also don't believe him to be the dastardly villain that at first glance he appears to be. He misguidedly believes that the military solution is the only way forward and appears unable to accept that they are outnumbered and overrun. He simply views the zombies as an invading enemy, one that should be wiped out with military might. However, Dr Logan persists in reminding Rhodes that there's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, that they might indeed be the last human survivors on the planet. This is something Rhodes refuses to even contemplate; or is too afraid to admit. Most of Rhodes rhetoric is pure bluff in my opinion. Take the scene where he threatens to have Sarah (Lori Cardille), another civilian on base to assist with the research, shot – it's an interesting scene, because Rhodes won't do the deed himself but instead orders one of his men to do it. He even threatens to shoot his own man if he refuses to obey. It's interesting in that Rhodes is more willing to shoot a soldier than a civilian. Even when he does eventually put Sarah's life at risk, he releases her into the clutches of the zombies, again refusing to actually personally hurt her himself. Is Rhodes afraid of her for some reason? Is he afraid to hurt a civilian? Even when John gets a beating to make him comply, it's not Rhodes but one of his men that does it. I think this all goes to highlight that Rhodes is a bit of a coward, adding yet another dimension to his character. Of course, I could be completely wrong, but it all makes for good debate and shows that there's a lot below the surface of this film, if you care to dig a little deeper.

However, when all is said and done, both military and scientific solutions are impractical in the final analysis. To follow the military route presents unimaginable logistical problems – is there really enough artillery to "blast the piss" out of every single zombie? In the same way, Logan's theory of domesticating them is equally a logistical nightmare. Just how long would it take to placate and domesticate every zombie, one at a time? What Romero presents is two equally futile viewpoints. In fact, the only possible solution, when you take all things into account, is John's proposal of fleeing to a remote island free from zombies. Sarah, another civilian on base to assist with the research, disagrees thinking it's wrong to abandon mankind this way. But is this just an attachment to what she believes are still humans? Personally, I think we're way past considering the zombies to be anything but a pale reflection of what they once were.

Admittedly, in some of Romero's films he paints the military in a bad light, but I don't think that's the case here. Here, the military simply serves as a contrasting viewpoint to the scientific one. After all, Logan is seen as more barbaric in his actions, feeding his zombie 'pets' with human viscera and using recently deceased soldiers as scientific fodder, including Major Cooper. So who is the real villain here? Rhodes or Logan? I guess it's up to each viewer to decide for themselves. Personally – I'd go with whoever's got the guns and the chopper.

Zombies are an interesting cinematic creation, too – it's odd that this screen monster isn't actually evil. They're simply cannibalistic machines, devoid of feeling or emotion. They're just acting on instinct and have no evil intent. I think this is partially why there is a need by audiences to place the 'villain' role upon the character of Rhodes, when really he's no different to the zombies – he's blindly following his instincts. He's just desperately trying to maintain order as he sees it. Sure, he throws his weight around, but as I said earlier, I think this is motivated by fear rather than by any real malevolence on his part. I'm sure many will disagree, but that's my reading of his character. To my mind, there's no real villain in Day of the Dead, it's just a bunch of people up against impossible odds – and each group is doing what they can to cope with what they face. For Rhodes and his crew it's undying faith in the power of the military; for Logan and his assistants it's burying themselves in scientific research; and for John and his buddy it's the hopeful prospect of fleeing somewhere safe.

At the end of the day, what we have here is a worthy entry in Romero's zombie series. It's incredibly bleak and downbeat, but I think the 80's needed a film like this amongst the slew of gung-ho action movies and teen movies, which all celebrated, in their own way, the greatness of being American. Romero's film is the opposite – this is the American nightmare. This is boiling down America to a small microcosm and it's interesting that even in this small enclave that social groups have already formed and each with differing opinions. Day also offers up an opposing voice to the action movies of the time (I'm looking at you Stallone and Norris) which showed the military to be heroes defending the integrity and honour of their country. Here we have Romero showing the military to be an unthinking, blind machine that moves on relentlessly – even when it's wrong. Rhodes refuses any attempt at compromise; he truly believes in the might of the military and is convinced the army can win this 'war'. This is the diametric opposite to the Hollywood action hero movies that were in abundance at the time, where its protagonists were honourable military men – Rhodes is far from honourable, but he believes he is. This makes him a complex and interesting character and, in all honesty, the film would be nothing without him.

Another startling difference between Day and its contemporaries is the full-on gore. Romero never shies away from a single thing and Savini, Nicotero and Berger provide what are arguably the best FX of their careers. What is a zombie film without gore, anyway? After all, principally, we come into a zombie flick expecting some serious gut-munching. So even if you're not interested in the social commentary, as horror fans we should flock to see stuff like this! The grue on show here is outrageous and still packs a punch 25 years on, which makes it unmissable for any genre fan. However, it's to Romero's credit that he makes films that don't insult the intelligence of its intended audience. In fact, I'd say that genre fans are probably the most sophisticated of all audiences – but then I'm biased.

Day of the Dead is stark, grim and extremely gory. Just what you want from a Romero zombie flick.
Video
Arrow present the film with a tremendous 1080p transfer that looks simply stunning, just as you would expect from high definition media. This transfer blows all previous DVD releases out of the water. The image is crisp and sharp with no visible defects and detail is excellent. I can't imagine this ever looking better than it does here and Arrow should be commended for presenting such a flawless presentation.
Audio
Two feature audio tracks are presented – a powerful DTS-HD Master Audio in full 5.1 surround and the original mono track, also presented in DTS. Both tracks sound excellent, but the 5.1 mix is more enveloping, I thought. It's also interesting to note that this is the restored audio track (for both options), unlike the Anchor Bay Blu-ray Disc which reused the censored audio track. Dialogue is crisp and clear and John Harrison's score booms but never overpowers. Top notch work here for the audio provided.
Extra Features
Arrow really have gone to town in making this a definitive package and there's just so much to get through here. First up is the audio commentary from the FX team who provide a lot of insight into the making of the film, which makes for very interesting listening. Then we have Joe of the Dead, which is basically Joe Pilato on camera talking for 50 minutes about this film and his career in general. Joe is very relaxed and gives a lot of background to the film, which is extremely interesting and he obviously holds George Romero in high esteem. Next up is Travelogue of the Dead which chronicles Joe Pilato's guest appearances at film festivals in Ireland and Scotland. What's fantastic is the informal nature of these events and you really get a sense of what it must have been like to actually be there and Joe shows himself to be a very likeable and talented guy. It's nice when the stars of films such as this are happy to be associated with them and acknowledge their fans. These shorts are interspersed with some nice animated sequences that really add a nice flavour to the proceedings.

Now, over to disc two, and we have the Many Days of the Dead, which is a documentary ported over from the previous Anchor Bay Divimax edition and it's a fascinating look at the film with interviews with all the key cast and crew members. Then we have an audio interview with the late Richard Liberty and it's very nice to hear his thoughts. Next along is some behind-the-scenes footage, which was included on Anchor Bay's very first DVD back in 1998 (nice that it's here, making this package of extras truly comprehensive, picking up all the goodies from all previous DVD releases). Also included is Souvenirs of the Dead which presents a nice selection of still images (lobby cards, video covers etc), a Wampum Mine promo video and a selection of trailers for Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead as well as a set of TV ads, a Romero filmography (and this is the one and only time an error can be spotted, attributing Romero as director of Creepshow 2, which was actually directed by Michael Gornick, Romero only had writing duties on this one). You can also access a stills gallery of the zombie make-up effects, which shows the work that went into creating the look of the film and its zombie protagonists.

That's what you get on the two discs, but rounding out this superb package is a booklet entitled For Every Day There is a Dawn which is penned by Calum Waddell and gives an interesting overview of the movie and of the time when it was released, lots of interesting facts and very well written. There is also a newly commissioned comic in there too, which is very nicely done.

The packaging itself is also amazing, as you get a fold-out poster and a choice of four covers to display the film in, one of which is new poster art from the talented Rick Melton, which I think looks ace - even though he's been a bit hard on himself regarding this art, I like it. All-in-all this is an exhaustive release and probably the final word on this film (until the next super-duper home video format, at least!) and it's hard to think what else could have been included. Arrow have done a sterling job on this release and it won't cost you an arm and a leg to own it either – Arrow are to be praised for this Blu-ray spectacular and I can't wait to see what else they have in store for genre fans (I'm particularly eager to see their forthcoming City of the Living Dead Blu-ray).
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
This a fantastic package from UK company Arrow who have outdone themselves with this release. Day of the Dead has deservedly achieved cult status and here is a Blu-ray release that fully does the film justice. In fact, by the time you've worked through everything that's on offer, there'll be nothing you don't know about the background and making of this minor masterpiece (I still feel that Dawn of the Dead is Romero's finest hour to date). This truly deserves the support of genre fans and is a worthy addition to any horror lover's collection. And if you've never seen this before, then this is the ideal way to experience it for the first time. It is releases like this that give me hope for a bright future for the Blu-ray format.

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