The third and final entry in George A. Romero's zombie trilogy, Day of the Dead takes place in a bleak world where humanity is all but decimated. A handful of survivors, part of a hastily-assembled government operation, seek out some sort of solution in a sprawling underground storage facility. The decaying, hopelessly outdated equipment at their disposal is unable to raise contact from Washington or anyone else in its limited range, and for all the twelve of them know, they are all that remains of mankind.
Tensions run high between the two factions. Among the civilians is Sarah (Lori Cardille), the group's lone female, a scientist who attempts to treat zombification as some sort of disease. Taking a different approach is Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), a surgeon whose perpetually blood-drenched clothing and corpse butchering has earned him the nickname 'Frankenstein'. Logan doesn't believe the zombies can be eradicated, so he seeks to domesticate them. One of his successes is Bub (Sherman Howard), a docile zombie who has been trained to perform menial tasks. The soldiers, led by Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), couldn't care less about teaching the zombies parlor tricks. Slowly being driven mad from the isolation and frustrated by the lack of substantial progress, Rhodes' tyrannical course of action severs the group completely. Zombies inevitably flood the base, leaving the remaining shards of each faction to try to fight for survival against impossible odds.
Day of the Dead's biggest flaw is essentially that it's not Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. Romero wrote and directed a pair of movies that became instant classics, cementing themselves as not just some of the best zombie movies ever lensed, but some of the best the genre has to offer, period. Creating a worthy follow-up is a daunting task, and although Day of the Dead succeeds in a number of ways, it's not as engrossing as Night of the Living Dead or as entertaining as the comic-book action of Dawn of the Dead.
Much of Day of the Dead doesn't feel like a zombie movie in the traditional sense, with the hordes of the undead often relegated to the background. The emphasis isn't so much on gut-munching as on the endless squabbles between soldiers and civilians, and the sort of undead mayhem I'd expect from a zombie flick doesn't come in to any great extent until its final twenty minutes or so. There are some memorable performances, particularly Richard Liberty as a demented butcher of a surgeon and the silent, somehow endearing zombie Bub. Despite their best efforts, neither the characters as a whole nor the dialogue particularly drew me in.
Day of the Dead is very talkative and slow-moving for large chunks of the film, but when the chaos begins, the mild boredom of its earlier moments all seems worth it. Although close to twenty years having passed since filming wrapped on Day of the Dead, the gore effects created by Tom Savini and future KNB EFX head Greg Nicotero remain incredible. The cast is brutally ripped apart, as throats are ripped out, a still-screaming head is slowly yanked off, and, perhaps most memorably, one of the film's nastier character is ripped in half in a sort of zombie taffy pull. Despite such brutality, Day of the Dead humanizes the zombies at least to some extent, and I preferred them as just mindlessly destructive flesh-eaters.
It's impossible to say for certain, but I think I would've appreciated Day of the Dead more if I hadn't constantly been comparing it to its Romero-helmed predecessors. The characters and performances aren't nearly as strong this time around, and the social commentary isn't as prominent, or at least as blatant. Anchor Bay had previously released Day of the Dead on DVD in November 1998, with a letterboxed disc whose extras were limited to a twenty-minute documentary and a trailer. This re-released edition shows just how far Anchor Bay has come in the intervening years. The two-disc set boasts a newly-created anamorphic widescreen presentation, a pair of multichannel remixes, and an impressive assortment of extras.
Video: Day of the Dead is presented in anamorphic widescreen at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This re-release, part of Anchor Bay's Divimax line ("Digital video to the max!", he quotes with a groan), looks absolutely incredible. Nothing approximating a print flaw was to be spotted, and speckling is non-existent. The palette is colorful and vibrant when given the opportunity, and the detailed image boasts strong black levels. There is some slight film grain, but nothing unexpected for a movie of Day's age and budget. The only remote concern I had is some mild edge haloing that crept in intermittently, but that relatively negligible quibble doesn't dull my enthusiasm at all for such a stellar presentation.
Audio: Before delving into the technical qualities of Day of the Dead's various soundtracks, it's worth noting that small portions of the dialogue differ from what was heard theatrically. From what I understand, this is because of differences in the audio stems sent to Anchor Bay by the film's licensor rather than any censoring or modifications directly made by Anchor Bay itself. There are apparently six such differences, including voices overdubbed by different actors and brief alterations to language. Lifted from a post from the Home Theater Forum, the changes include:
0:09:15 - "It's crazy" provided by a different voice
I'm not certain if that's a comprehensive list or not. Although I'd seen the movie a number of times before sitting down with this DVD, none of the alterations stood out to me, and I'd never have known there was any sort of problem if the topic hadn't inspired such heated discussion on various message boards. The fact that I didn't spot these doesn't make it alright, of course. That Day of the Dead has any alterations at all, however slight they may be, is a disappointment, and some fans of the film feel strongly enough about it that they're refusing to buy this DVD. I personally find these changes tolerable, and I'm not going to join others in the cry for a recall or boycott. Potential viewers should be aware that these changes exist and make a determination from there as to how to approach a possible purchase.
0:09:35 - "Shit" to "Right"
0:58:48 - Gunshot is partially missing
1:01:33 - "It's the Spic" provided by a different voice
1:11:20 - "Oh, Jesus" to "I can't look"
1:20:30 - "Jesus" to "Stuck"
Some purists may also be disappointed that the original monaural audio has not been included. The three primary audio options for this disc are a DTS-ES 6.1 track (768Kbps), Dolby Digital Surround EX (448Kbps), and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (192Kbps). The rears are primarily used to provide ambiance and reinforce the score by John Harrison. The music is occasionally higher in the mix than the film's dialogue, which can make some lines difficult to fully discern. Bass response is respectable, and the amount of stereo separation in the front speakers is such that I would have had no problem believing that Day of the Dead was originally presented in stereo rather than mono. The mix seems to stay true to the movie's single-channel origins, steering free of inserting gimmicky surround effects or forced directionality.
Day of the Dead is closed captioned, and no subtitles or dub tracks have been provided.
Supplements: A pair of commentaries are accessible through the "Audio" submenu on the first disc. The first teams writer/director George Romero with special make-up effects artist Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille. It's a fairly entertaining, chatty discussion, though many of the highlights are covered on "The Many Days of Day of the Dead" on disc two, making it a bit repetitive to sit through both back-to-back as I did. Among the topics are zombie breast-groping, mail-ordering human brains in tin jars, responses to critics' claims of overacting, the relevance of Romero's zombie flicks to the mindset of the times, the validity of watching movies on a small screen, and the possible inclusion of a rubber chicken in one of the more memorable effects sequences in Day's climax. It's the sort of commentary I'd leave playing in the background, but not one I'd actively sit down and watch.
The second commentary features Roger Avary, a filmmaker whose credits include Killing Zoe, The Rules of Attraction, an upcoming Phantasm sequel, and portions of Pulp Fiction. Though he had no direct involvement with the production of Day of the Dead, Avary offers his perspective as both a particularly knowledgable fan of the movie and as a filmmaker himself. It's a decent track, though one I think would have benefitted from the presence of another fan to inspire further discussion and minimize the number of lengthy pauses throughout.
The extras on disc two begin with the excellent anamorphic widescreen documentary "The Many Days of Day of the Dead" (38:40), a collection of interviews with George Romero, Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, effects artist and gut-wrangler Greg Nicotero, producer David Ball, assistant director Chris Romero, and actors Lori Cardille, Joe Pilato, and Howard Sherman. The discussion begins with the intended incarnation of the film, described as "Ben Hur with zombies in it", that had to be pared down substantially to fit a slimmed-down budget. Other topics include the differences between shooting in sunny Ft. Myers and the creepy, dank mine in Pennysylvania, Romero's collaborative approach to directing, and the wide variety of people desperately wanting to snag a role as an undead extra. Bub gets the bulk of the attention as far as the cast is concerned, and actor Howard Sherman comments on how to best flesh out a character who has no dialogue as well as the lengthy application of his makeup. The film's special effects are also lavished with plenty of attention, and explanations of the biting effects, spilled organs, and an amputation are provided in great, gory detail.
"Day of the Dead: Behind the Scenes" is a collection of on-set camcorder footage that, not surprisingly, devotes almost every second of its half-hour runtime to the special effects. A series of tests captured on video range from animatronic eyes, sliced limbs, exploding heads, to the application of zombie makeup. Also included is footage capturing the filming of many of the movie's grislier effects. As is generally the case with full-frame Anchor Bay extras, the 4x3 footage is pillarboxed in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen frame.
A similarly pillarboxed shot-on-video promo for the Gateway Commerce Center in Western Pennsylvania (8:12) may remind Romero fans of the Monroeville Mall spot from the Anniversary Edition of Dawn of the Dead. It's a detailed rundown of the location used for the film, pitching the advantages for businesses looking to set up shop there.
A fifteen minute audio-only interview with Richard Liberty (Dr. Logan), conducted for LivingDead.com less than a year before his passing, focuses primarily on his work on Day of the Dead. The variety of topics include how he became involved with the project, his preparation for the role, the difficulty in shooting his final scene, the crew's battle with vitamin deficiencies, the relationship between Doc Logan and Bub, the unexpectedly devoted groupies at Day's premiere, and Liberty's disappointment with the film's ending. The audio quality is a little rough, but it's well-worth a listen.
Three trailers have been included as well, all presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and enhanced for widescreen displays. The most memorable of the lot incorporates some goofy footage of an audience watching the movie, joined by a fairly well-mannered but not entirely alive guest. The remaining two begin by touting Romero's undead credentials, concluding with some talky clips from the film and gruesome zombie action. For the timecode-obsessed, the trailers run 1:59, 2:04, and 1:10 in length. Also included are three TV spots, which, despite their obviously truncated length, sell Day of the Dead better than the longer theatrical trailers. Again, the 4x3 material is pillarboxed in an anamorphic widescreen frame.
Over 350 images comprise the set's seven still galleries. Among them are 65 production stills, 95 behind the scenes shots, 60 images of posters and promotional material, 52 photos of assorted memorabilia, 55 shots of zombie makeup, and 27 stills snapped with Polaroids for continuity during filming. Rounding out the extras is a lengthy, excellent George A. Romero biography penned by Mark Wickum, which concludes with a brief list of the director's credits.
The DVD-ROM portion of the second disc includes both the 'first draft' screenplay and original production memos in PDF format.
No discussion of this release of Day of the Dead would be complete without noting its packaging, which opens from the left and is sealed with an embossed flap featuring a shot of Bub. Tucked into the case is a detailed set of liner notes by Anchor Bay mainstay Michael Felsher, presented as a heavily-illustrated legal pad from the files of Dr. Logan. A list of the movie's nineteen chapter stops are provided on the flipside of the liner notes. The menus on both DVDs are animated and enhanced for 16x9 televisions.
Conclusion: Some DVD enthusiasts like to poke fun of Anchor Bay's tendency to re-release their product incessantly, and even Bruce Campbell made a quip about that in the liner notes for their release of Hatred of a Minute. Fans eyeing Day of the Dead almost certainly won't have to worry about a bigger, better version of the film rolling around a year and a half from now -- this is about as definitive a release as I could've possibly imagined, despite possible concerns about changes made to the film's soundtrack. A near-essential purchase for genre fans and anyone with the slightest interest in Romero's zombie trilogy, even though this is considered by many to be the weakest entry in the series.
Related Links: Anchor Bay's Day of the Dead site includes a series of text interviews and articles in PDF format, wallpapers, a still gallery, and shots of the discs' packaging.