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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead
Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // August 19, 2003
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted August 19, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant had his fill of Zombie gore movies several years ago, but the novelty and general competence of this Summer's 28 Days Later piqued my interest in catching up, and Anchor Bay's fancy new Divimax DVD of Day of the Dead fit the bill. I'd only seen pieces of this Zombie blood feast on a bad VHS when it was new, so the excellent picture and sound quality of this release was quite a change, as was seeing it in its proper widescreen shape.

It's a good thriller, and doesn't need the completely over-the-top gore that's the subgenre's claim to fame. There are good scares and extravagant dismemberments too outrageous to be sickening, but there's also a coherent and well-acted story that harks back to the same soldier/scientist equation of The Thing from Another World.

Synopsis:

The Zombie apocalypse of Dawn of the Dead has worsened to the point that there are hundreds of thousands of living-dead ghouls for every live human. Twelve soldiers and civilian researchers are holed up in a Florida missile silo that connects to an underground system of caverns once used for storage; there's a crisis of leadership when the intolerant Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) begins to threaten the scientists. Either they show real progress in stopping the living dead that mill about upstairs, or he'll stop their work and possibly even leave them to the mercy of the Zombie hordes. Civilian leader Sarah (Lori Cardille) tries to promote harmony, but it's impossible. Not only are Rhodes' soldiers abusive and threatening, but top researcher Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty)'s efforts are geared more to basic research, or unpromising psychological experiments, than finding a way to render the Zombies harmless. Helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) stays neutral, but tensions are exacerbated by the fact that Private Miguel Salazar (Antone Dileo) is having a stress breakdown. Lone female Sarah is sleeping with Miguel, a fact that has inflamed the rest of the soldiers.

It's good that George Romero enjoys making pictures like Day of the Dead, because with a few exceptions, he's remained a horror director since his breakthrough Night of the Living Dead in 1968. His followup in 1978, Dawn of the Dead, re-ignited the subgenre of Italian Zombie and Cannibal atrocity films from Italy.

The always politically-minded writer-director Romero made Dawn into a bizarre statement about societal values. Taking place in a huge deserted shopping mall, the shuffling, decaying Zombies resemble nothing more than ordinary consumers trying to acquire what they want - human flesh.

Romero capped his trilogy seven years later with this film, which underwhelmed gore fans wanting something grandiosely bigger than what they'd seen before. But Day of the Dead sets up a credible conflict among its beleaguered survivors that's as well developed as in the first two films.

It's a nice souring of the situation from Hawks' Thing from Another World, where 'society' was divided between cerebral scientists and humanist soldiers. The film gave the eggheads their due but came down squarely on the side of the military men, who had a more commonsense attitude about unknown, murderous aliens.

Day of the Dead takes the same formula and makes it completely dysfunctional. The pressure of being possibly the last human survivors, cooped up in a cave with no women, has turned the fighting men into brawling, uncouth troublemakers, and their leader is a near-raving autocrat. Of the two scientists left, one is a whiner who can't get any work done, and the other is having the time of his life chopping zombies into gruesome bits, and teaching one captive Zombie how to make friends and stop eating people. Sensible Sarah can't form a consensus under such extreme conditions, so the situation rapidly deteriorates.

The Zombies are a pitiful mass of decomposing, mindless creatures, yet don't seem to be bothering each other. The remaining humans are torn by dissent and prejudice. The idea that the 'spic' soldier is getting female companionship is the unspoken catalyst for violence. The blind aggressive fear of the normal people is far more ugly than what the Zombies are up to.

That seems to be Romero's guiding concept. Dr. Logan (disparagingly called Frankenstein by most of the others) has 'tamed' a Zombie he calls Bub (Howard Sherman), a grotesque but not unsympathetic hulk who used to be a soldier. His status as Logan's chained guinea pig seems cruel even when Logan treats him well. Romero is definitely telling us that society is so lost, we'd best step aside and start again someplace new.

The gore goes to the limits, but has an artful restraint (if that's the right word) compared to what I've seen of Romero's Italian competitors. Specialist Tom Savini's work is arresting because it's more a magic act than just carnage - it's frankly hard to tell which dismembered body parts are fake, and which are real. Thanks to explicit atrocity shots in things like The Beyond, there are a number of outrageously awful moments, such as a head being sliced in half with a shovel. Several victims meet their ends being torn to bits by mobs of flesh-gobbling ghouls; as these are more conventional displays of ripped innards and crimson blood, they don't have the same impact. A little gore still goes a long way, and, at least to this viewer, the displays of makeup virtuosity are more curious than frightening ... and get in the way of the story.

Fans immediately compared this year's 28 Days Later to the classic John Wyndham book Day of the Triffids, and Day of the Dead is even closer. The Zombies mass against the chain-link fence around the silo/storage caves, just as the mindless Triffid plant monsters did. In the wake of the Triffid menace, society breaks down into small military groups run by warlords along feudal lines. Sarah and her surviving friends have to escape from both monsters and human authority at the same time, just as did Bill Masen in the Triffid story. Day of the Dead ends on the series' only positive note, in a setup similar to Last Woman on Earth or The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it's an unsatisfactory blank slate for those who'd like a real conclusion. Eighteen years later, a possible fourth installment, Twilight of the Dead hasn't yet materialized. With a 21st century movie climate with no tolerance for extremely violent gore movies, there isn't much chance of that.


Anchor Bay's powerhouse DVD of Day of the Deadcontains a fine transfer on disc one, with two commentaries, one from Filmmaker Roger Avary, and another with Romero, Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson and actress Lori Cardille.

Disc two has the goodies the fans are looking for. The very handsome making-of doc has all the key filmmakers explaining how a gigantic 'Zombie Ben-Hur' story had to be pared down to a 3 million dollar budget, because the necessity of going out unrated chopped the market down too severely. The Pittsburgh-native actors tell their stories without undue attitude problems.

The fans will really flip for the half-hour goldmine of behind-the-scenes production video taken by Tom Savini's makeup crew. We see a couple dozen zombie makeups being applied (and see many of the bright faces of the young volunteer actors who played them) and the wickedly clever mechanical and physical gags used to create the disembodied heads and ripped-apart bodies. It's truly fascinating.

Real devotees will go for an audio interview with actor Richard Liberty, who started with Romero on The Crazies. The rest of the extra goodies are listed below. The liner notes by Michael Felsher are creatively printed on a faux note pad blotted with red bloodstains. Overall, it's a fun presentation.

I've been tipped to a tempest on the web about the audio track to Day of the Dead being a cleaned-up TV version. I was shown a list of 6 audio changes, which indeed eliminate some profanity, but there's so much uninterrupted swearing still intact throughout the film, that just altering those 6 instances would hardly be noticed. Perhaps a couple of reels were lacking the original tracks, and these had to be substituted, but if this is a mistake, it's certainly innocent omission. The little list I saw was so minor, I certainly wouldn't care. 1


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Day of the Dead rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by director Romero, Tom Savini, Production Designer Cletus Anderson, and Actress Lori Cardille, trailers, The Many Days of Day Of The Dead new 39 min. documentary, Day Of The Dead: Behind The Scenes 31 minutes of production footage from Special Make-up Artist Tom Savini, Audio Interview with Actor Richard Liberty, Wampum Mine Promotional Video, TV Spots, Production Stills, Behind-the-Scenes Photos, Poster & Ad Art, Memorabilia, Zombie Make-up Photo Gallery, Continuity Stills Gallery, George Romero Bio
Packaging: Clever folding card case with plastic inserts
Reviewed: August 19, 2003


Footnote:

1. The little list I was shown had 6 audio changes:

9:15- It's crazy, different voice
9:35- Sh!t to "Right"
58:48- Gunshot is partially missing
1:01:33- It's the Spic, different voice
1:11:20- Oh Jesus to I can't look
1:20:30- Jesus to "Stuck".

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