I never would've thought that less than a year and a half into these next-gen home video formats, we'd have three of George Romero's zombie movies, Shaun of the Dead, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead available in sparkling high definition. The only chapter missing is the original Night of the Living Dead, the landmark film that remains one of the most powerful and enduring works the genre has ever produced.
All of the shopping malls are closed, as one character puts it, as Day of the Dead opens in a world overrun by the living dead. It's estimated that the living are outnumbered by a ratio of some 400,000 to 1, and for all the few straggling survivors at a Florida research facility know, they may be all that remains of the human race. All contact with the outside world has long since been lost, and despite traveling a hundred miles in every direction by helicopter, they've been unable to find any signs of life. These few civilians are part of a hastily-assembled government operation to seek out some sort of solution. Tensions are running high in the sprawling underground storage facility that serves as their base; the scientists struggle with the decaying, hopelessly outdated equipment they have on hand, and the dwindling number of soldiers tasked with assisting them are ready to scrap the entire operation.
Among the civilians is perhaps the last woman alive, a scientist named Sarah (Lori Cardille) whose attempts to treat zombification as some sort of disease have revealed little. Taking a less theoretical and much more morbid approach is Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), a surgeon whose blood-drenched smock and laboratory overflowing with mutilated corpses have earned him the nickname 'Frankenstein'. Logan doesn't believe there's any chance that the undead can be eradicated, so he seeks instead to domesticate them. One of his successes is Bub (Sherman Howard), a docile zombie he's trained to perform menial tasks. The soldiers, whose devoured chain of command has left Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) in charge, couldn't give two shits about teaching the zombies parlor tricks. Slowly driven mad from the isolation and frustrated by the lack of any meaningful progress, Rhodes' tyrannical reign severs the group completely. Zombies eventually flood the base, leaving the remaining shards of each faction to fight for survival against impossible odds.
Romero had to gut the epic scope of his original screenplay for Day of the Dead when its budget was slashed in half, and seemingly everything worthwhile about it had been eviscerated. The tension, natural performances, and rich characterization of Dawn of the Dead are wholly gone. The zombies are barely supporting characters in a movie populated almost entirely by a series of shrill, one-note cariactures that relentlessly bicker back and forth. These characters are deliberately unsympathetic, but they're not just unlikeable; most of them are flat-out psychotic. There's no trace of subtlety as the actors gnaw on the scenery; somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of the film's dialogue is shouted, and the indescribably annoying way characters like Steel cackle after every Goddamn line makes the first hour of the movie agony. The writing isn't nearly as sharp this time around, riddled with dialogue so awkward that it's hard to imagine much of anyone being able to pull it off.
Really, Day of the Dead only has three things going for it. The first is, of course, Bub. The domesticated zombie comes across more as a good-natured Special-Ed kid than the flesh-eating ghoul he once was, and he's the only out-and-out likeable character in the entire movie. Richard Liberty is rather charming as Dr. Logan, playing him as a mad scientist lifted from the second half of a schlocky Universal double bill from the '40s, impossibly proper enunciation and all. The movie's only other real strength is Tom Savini's effects work, which is far more elaborate and convincing than anything he'd hammered out in Dawn of the Dead. A few memorable shots aside, most of the feasting in Dawn... was limited to a chunk or two being chomped off of a screaming victim. Savini had so much more time, money, and experience to work with on Day of the Dead that he's able to let the camera linger. The last fifteen minutes are slathered in blood and grue, littered with attacks that are drawn out and unflinchingly gruesome as soldiers are torn in half and devoured in full view. Savini takes a much more realistic approach this time around as well, and the make-up effects in Day of the Dead have aged remarkably well.
Again, though, almost all of the splatter is saved for those final fifteen minutes. The counter has ticked down to almost a full hour in by the time Day of the Dead bothers to throw in its first zombie attack, and another twenty minutes pass until the undead again pose any threat at all. Until the elevator lowers and the climax begins, the zombies have killed a grand total of one person on camera, hopelessly outpaced by the merciless soldiers. Yes, I understand that Romero's films are ultimately about people, not the walking dead, and that'd be fine if there were more than a couple of remotely compelling characters or even some particularly strong storytelling. The grim, dour tone of the movie is understandable considering that this is the twilight of mankind...that Romero's thesis statement is that civilization isn't worth saving and that the slate should be wiped clean...but Romero fails to make the story, its characters, or even that general premise the least bit engaging.
As much as I appreciate the fact that Anchor Bay has issued Day of the Dead as one of their first Blu-ray releases, it means more to me as a zombie completist than someone with any real affection for the movie. I'd rather watch one of Bruno Mattei's low-rent knockoffs than this. Mattei's movies were at least fascinatingly bad; Day of the Dead is just a talky, ham-fisted bore. If Anchor Bay, Elite, or some other company gets around to a high-def release of the original Night of the Living Dead, I'm sure I'll be tempted to watch all four of Romero's zombie movies back to back, but it's going to be agony resisting the temptation to skip past nearly everything in the first 85 minutes of Day of the Dead, letting only its gory final reel unspool intact. Recommended to fans and completists only.
Video: Day of the Dead's 1080p video is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and like the other titles in this initial wave from Anchor Bay, it's been encoded in AVC at a very generous bitrate. The opening sequence in Ft. Myers has a soft, overprocessed look to much of it, but the image quality improves considerably from there. Day of the Dead is crisper and more detailed than the Blu-ray release of Dawn..., and even if the quality doesn't rank with the best of the movies of a similar vintage that I've seen in high-def, it's still instantly identifiable as high definition and is a marked improvement over the DVD. Nothing jaw-dropping but certainly good enough.
Audio: Anchor Bay's DVD release of Day of the Dead from 2003 inadvertently censored a few lines. Most of the movie's ample profanity remained intact, but a "shit" suddenly became "right", and an "oh, Jesus" somehow transformed into "I can't look". At least six of these sorts of changes were in place on the DVD, but this Blu-ray release does include the film's original monaural soundtrack, and I've confirmed that the uncensored dialogue is in place.
The two 5.1 remixes -- presented in Dolby Digital and PCM -- still contain those same errors, though. The multichannel remix is so heavily anchored front and center that viewers might as well stick with the mono track anyway. The reverb in the cavernous compound bounces around the surround channels along with some very subtle ambiance, and bats careening across the screen and the movie's gunplay also take advantage of some of the other channels on-hand. Some of the attempts at better fleshing out the soundscape sound forced and artificial, such as the placement of footsteps in the surrounds and the bickering in one particularly noisy meeting. John Harrison's score -- a mix of thin '80s synths, electronic military snares, and Caribbean flavor -- is in great shape, accompanied by a reasonable amount of bass and generally sounding robust. Most other elements don't have as strong a presence, but the stems are cleaner and clearer than Dawn of the Dead. The strain shows in a few particularly loudly shouted lines, but the film's dialogue generally comes through well.
The audio is a step up from Dawn of the Dead, and the inclusion of the original mono soundtrack is greatly appreciated. It's kind of a drag that Anchor Bay didn't correct the multichannel remixes, even if they barely amount to more than mono tracks themselves. Nothing technically impressive, though.
An English SDH subtitle stream has also been included. Despite the DTS logo screened onto the disc itself, the only audio options are in Dolby Digital and uncompressed PCM.
Extras: Like Dawn of the Dead, this disc also includes a high-def plug for Anchor Bay's other Blu-ray releases as well as a set of 'Fast Film Facts' that run throughout the movie. The facts in this subtitle stream are written with a little more of a sense of humor than the ones for Dawn of the Dead, although they both cover a lot of the same territory, focusing on notes about the cast, shooting locations, and details culled from the disc's other extras. A few of the comments include some of the cast, crew, and even family members carried over from earlier Dead movies, Sarah marking up an actual slice of human brain, the nasty side effects of shooting in a mine, the thematic relevance of certain key lines, and exactly how the zombie extras were paid for their time in the makeup chair. Sometimes the track'll unexpectedly veer off on a tangent, such as when it uses one of Rhodes' quips as a springboard for lobbing out notes on actual monkey farms. I enjoyed this one more than the Fast Film Facts track for Dawn of the Dead, if only because I either didn't know or had just forgotten so much of what it covers.
The other extras are carried over from the 2003 Divimax release, presented again in standard definition. Only the still galleries, the Romero bio, and the DVD-ROM extras didn't make the cut. The packaging isn't as slick as the elaborately designed, Velcro-sealed two-disc set either, and the liner notes by Michael Felsher remain exclusive to that set.
Day of the Dead features a pair of audio commentaries, including one with writer/director George Romero, special make-up effects artist Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille. It's as chatty and entertaining as the track Romero and company recorded for Dawn of the Dead, although there's more overlap with the documentary on this disc than there was on Dawn.... Some of the highlights include zombie breast-groping, how to go about 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, and the possible presence of a rubber chicken in one of the more memorable effects sequences in Day...'s climax.
Even though Roger Avery didn't contribute to Day of the Dead himself, he offers his thoughts as both an ardent fan of the movie and a filmmaker in his own right in the disc's other audio commentary. It's kind of a waste, riddled with dead air and a few of the same sorts of comments repeated over and over again. It might've been more listenable if someone else had piled into the commentary booth with him to help spur on some actual discussion.
Carried over from the second disc of Anchor Bay's DVD set is "The Many Days of Day of the Dead". The 39 minute documentary is 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. It opens with a discussion of Romero's original vision for the film, described as "Ben Hur with zombies in it", and how drastically the script had to be reshaped to fit its slashed budget. Among the other topics covered in the documentary are the differences between shooting in sunny Ft. Myers and an eerie, 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 and also discusses the lengthy application of his makeup. The film's make-up effects in general are lavished with plenty of attention, and explanations of the biting effects, spilled organs, and the amputation of an infected arm are provided in great, gory detail.
"Day of the Dead: Behind the Scenes" is a collection of on-set camcorder footage that devotes almost every second of its half-hour runtime to the make-up effects. A series of tests captured on video range include animatronic eyes, sliced limbs, exploding heads, and the application of the zombies' makeup. Also included is footage capturing the filming of many of the movie's grislier effects.
An eight minute promo for the Gateway Commerce Center in Western Pennsylvania may remind Romero fans of the Monroeville Mall spot from Anchor Bay's Dawn of the Dead release. 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, conducted for LivingDead.com less than a year before his passing, focuses primarily on his work for this film. 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 struggle 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 a rewarding 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, closing with some talky clips from the film and gruesome zombie mayhem. Also included are three TV spots that do a much better job pitching the film.
Conclusion: Day of the Dead is by far the weakest of Romero's zombie tetralogy, but I enjoy enough of its bloody final reel and a few other moments scattered throughout to find the movie worth picking up again. The 1080p video looks nice enough, and although the multichannel remixes are still partially censored and not all that technically impressive besides, the original monaural audio helps make up for that. This Blu-ray release of Day of the Dead is purely for established fans, though; this would be a poor starting place for Romero neophytes, and viewers with more of a casual interest should probably consider opting for a rental first. Rent It.