1985 was a great year for horror. Cult classics like Fright Night, Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (yes, that has cult status), and Friday the 13th Part V were some of the horror movies released that year. As a lifelong horror fan, I can say that I enjoy them all tremendously, but 1985’s Day of the Dead is really the shining star among these great films. It was director George A. Romero’s third entry in his “Dead” series, preceded by his Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979). As an experiment, I posted a poll on The House That Screams Twitter account about the original three “Dead” films by Romero and Dawn of the Dead won by squeaking just past Night of the Living Dead. Bringing up the rear with a substantially lower percentage was Day of the Dead. Why is that? I’ll explain.
Day of the Dead is an amazing slice of horror: truly top-notch gore effects by Tom Savini, great performances by the cast (Joe Pilato as Rhodes is a scene-stealer), and a concept that fits the growing progression and tone of Romero’s zombie films. I intend to delve more deeply into these themes, but I’d like to quote Romero himself from the Anchor Bay 2-disc collector’s edition: “Only the real trolls like Day of the Dead” with his laughter at the end. Mr. Romero, wherever he may be since he passed away in 2017, is probably still laughing about Day of the Dead’s reception in 1985 and through the years. As a very long-time fan of his work and having Dawn of the Dead as my favorite horror film since childhood, the tide has turned more recently for me with Day of the Dead coming out the winner for the number one spot in my horror movie preference. It really is the ultimate horror film. Why does it rank so low in the “Dead” series? The answer is simple and direct from Romero fans: the film is too dark in tone. I vehemently disagree with this judgment, especially in the absolute bleakness and hopelessness of the ending of Night of the Living Dead, but let me start my defence by giving an overview of Day of the Dead.
In this third instalment of the zombie series, a small team of military personnel and scientists are in an underground bunker to research a cure for dealing with the living dead that have overrun the world. Tensions are high between the military and the scientists from moment one as they are mourning the death of the previous captain and our main antagonist (aside from the zombies), Rhodes (played masterfully by the late, great Joe Pilato), steps into power. He enforces very strict rules upon the scientists and threatens whomever he likes at gunpoint and with some of the most entertaining and terrifying dialogue written in horror. Rhodes realizes that the world no longer needs to be democratic, especially in their group of isolation, and gleefully strips the scientists of weapons and authority. Our protagonist, the strong and capable scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille), is still determined to find a cure and to be diplomatic and compassionate to the humans she cohabitates with. But yet, the odds are ever-growing in favor against her rationale.
Is Day of the Dead the darkest in Romero’s original “Dead” trilogy? Well, yes and no. It’s darker with amazingly intense gore effects, with the hopelessness in the characters in the midst of their mental collapses, and with the constant lingering question of “What do we do now? We are outnumbered”. On the other side of the coin, there are triumphs with the oppressive antagonists getting their just desserts, with Sarah realizing that life outside of the bunker is still a viable option, and in the fact that we actually see that happy ending for the characters who escaped and found a place of sunshine and fun - zombie-free (which is not present in the two previous films).
Personally, I find Night of the Living Dead the darkest of the “Dead” trilogy. No one survives. We see every character die a traumatic and sad death. The ending credits still give me goosebumps.
If you are a person who hasn’t revisited Day of the Dead in awhile, I beseech you to watch again with fresh eyes and really take in the story. As I grow older, I find myself watching Day of the Dead the most because I believe it’s the total package for hardcore horror fans: some of the best practical gore effects ever done, great characters, amazing story, and so quotable. Bub the zombie and Rhodes are absolute scene-stealers and it never gets old or feels dated. Join the “trolls” who love this film and watch for The House That Screams episode about this amazing horror classic.
Stay spooky! 🕷
Candy “The Final Girl” Allison