George A Romero is the deified godfather of the zombie movie. He took the genre to heights that it arguably would never of reached without his input. He is the man who gifted us a holy trinity of Zombie-horror. Night of the Living Dead is revered greatly. Dawn of the Dead is outright worshiped but where’s the love for Day of the Dead?
Shoot for the moon: The aborted Day of the Dead
Arriving 7 years after Dawn of the Dead, the sequel was a long time coming. A relentlessly bleak and oppressive affair, It was the most ambitious project Romero had embarked on. Romero wanted a $7 million budget for him to put together his vision of a fortified city under siege by the living dead with only the rich & powerful held up in comfort in a tower block from the horror outside. The film would culminate in an effects bloodbath and nuclear Armageddon. Although he should be commended on his scope for the film, his financier baulked at the $ 3.5 million proposed budget. This turn of events forcing Romero to rethink his approach. Parts of this original idea may sound very familiar now as a great deal of it became Romero’s 2005 film Land of the Dead.
Back to the drawing board
Romero, not to be completely derailed by this setback, went back to the drawing board. After numerous rewrites, Romero came up with a story surrounding a team of government backed research scientists tasked with finding a cure for the outbreak. Holed up in a missile silo with military protection, the squad assigned to protect them are beginning to have other ideas. It was a story and subsequently, a budget Romero’s financiers were much happier with.
Rather than have to expensively shoot in locked down areas of a city, the production could now be self-contained. A mine turned storage facility in Wampum, Pennsylvania doubled for the compound. The setting also acting as a functioning base of operations for the entire shoot.
The conditions in the mine were uncomfortable for the cast and crew. Humid conditions caused problems with camera & electrical equipment. Most notoriously, the refrigerators used to keep the meat fresh that was being used for entrails and flesh the zombies eat. This resulted in the odour of rotten meat being present for a portion of the shoot. This was particularly bad for the poor actor Joe Pilato who was to be submerged in them for an infamous scene where he gets torn in half. The smell must have helped for method acting surely?
The talented Mr Savini
Romero enlisted the help of collaborator Tom Savini and his new protégée, Greg Nicoteroto, to handle the films make up effects. The practical effects utilised were a noticeable step up from what was achieved on Night of the Living Dead and Savini’s own work on Dawn of the Dead. The use of electronics & hydraulics coupled with traditional methods helped the effects team achieve things they could only previously dream of. We see heads convincingly torn from bodies, eye gouged out and people were torn to pieces. These effects still stand today as the work of artists at the top of their game. They look real, they look painful and they stay in the brain long after witnessing.
They’re us: the allegories of the Dead series
Day of the Dead, like its predecessors is allegorical. Whereas Night of the Living Dead was an allegory of the civil rights movement and Dawn of the Dead, an allegory of Consumerism. Day of the Dead was an allegory of arguably two things. Firstly, the might of the military industrial complex in the Regan era. Secondly, It also allegorized the breaking down of communication and what that can do to a society.
Expertly woven into the framework of the story, these messages are subtly delivered and left much to the audience to seek out rather than stuffed down the throat. It was an approach that made Romero a breath of fresh air in the horror genre going into the 1980’s. The genre was becoming increasingly dumbed down by conveyor belted franchises left and right with increasingly diminished returns. With Day of the Dead, Romero addressed that balance perfectly.
Day of the Dead was considered a box office flop initially. The film ultimately failed to make back its $3.5 million budget on its domestic release. This was mainly down to studio mishandling of the project resulting in poor marketing and a massively limited cinematic release. The film only recouped its losses when it came to the booming home video market. It faired much better in Europe making $28.2 million. With a worldwide gross of $34 million, It was far from a complete disaster.
Critically, the film received differing reviews. The lions share of negative press seemed to come from the tone of the film. Many critics commented on the relentlessly dark, depressing and brutal aspects of the film, I find these aspects to be feathers in the films cap. Day of the Dead is utterly nihilistic, showing humanities collapse on multiple levels in the absence of all hope. When there is little left to fight for, the characters degrade to shouting at each other rather than talking, acting upon impulse rather than thinking. In many ways, the humans become more animalistic than the zombies.
Day of the Dead’s ongoing legacy
Day of the Dead is definitely worthy of some of the love afford its two predecessors. Over the years, it has developed quite the cult following. Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil makes reference to the film. The band Gorillaz sampled the films intro for their track M1A1 and in artwork for their album Demon Days. The film also received a pair of partial remakes, though the less said about them the better.
Day of the Dead has surreptitiously ingrained itself into modern popular culture and slowly gained the love that it deserves. It is a bleak, oppressive window into a world where the inability to talk to each other could ultimately spell out our downfall. Doesn’t sound too dissimilar to our world, does it? Without the gut-munchers obviously.