Day of the Dead, 1985
Written and directed by George A. Romero
If Night of the Living Dead was about the revolutionary times of the late sixties, and Dawn of the Dead was a satire of late-seventies consumerism, then Day of the Dead is a parable about the militaristic gung-ho Reagan administration of the mid-eighties. By the time of this film, the zombie menace has taken over much of the surface of the planet (one character notes that the dead outnumber the living by 400,000 to one) and remaining humans are trapped underground, trying to find a way to combat the hordes of the undead.
There are twelve people in the facility, and they are broken up into three groups. The scientists are trying to find out as much as they can about the living dead and who seek to find a way of controlling them. The military just wants to put a bullet in the heads of all the zombies and be done with it (except, as one of the scientists intones, they don't have enough ammunition). And the civilians who man the radio and fly the helicopter, who just want to retreat to a tropical island with some booze and live out the rest of their short lives in peace.
It is a mark of the genius of Romero that all of these moves will seem plausible at some point or other. There are conflicts between the groups, sometimes bleeding towards violence, and the movie is really about whose ideas will reign supreme. Several characters are going a little crazy (and sometimes more than a little), especially the military commander, Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). He bellows at the non-military personnel, makes impossible demands, and even threatens to shoot those who won't obey his nonsensical orders. In his behavior we see the real horror of this film isn't the zombies, but in the irrational behavior of those who would respond to the menace without considering their best options for doing so.
The effects in this movie are among the best effects a pre-CGI film can offer. The makeup by Tom Savini is remarkable, and there are some animatronics that are absolutely stunning. In particular a scene in which Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) shows off some of his handiwork in dissecting members of the undead strapped to tables in a lab is haunting. Even knowing that these were just special effects, it was easy to be squicked and a little disturbed by some of the imagery here. Towards the end of the movie, as the action gets ramped up and the gore flows freely, the effects steal the show even more, the film wallowing in scenes of heads being ripped off and bodies eaten by armies of the undead. If gore is your thing, this is a great use of your time.
Dr. Logan is trying to pacify the zombies, to set up a system of rewards and punishments that will allow the remaining humans to make the undead do what they want. To this end he has kept a prize pupil (whom he names, "Bub", after his father's nickname, which becomes something of a harbinger of doom later on) chained to a wall. Bub is played by Sherman Howard (here credited as Howard Sherman), and his performance is probably the best in the film, as a zombie who is regaining some sense of his lost humanity. His movements are apelike, but purposeful, gentle at times, and it is the dynamic between his monster and Dr. Logan's earning of the epithet "Dr. Frankenstein" that informs their scenes together.
Which is a nice place to detour from praising the film, and discuss some of its flaws. If Bub's performance is solid and nuanced, many of the film's more human characters are anything but. In particular there are two obnoxious soldiers whose performances grate after awhile, and while partly this is to give Romero the chance to contrast the humanity of the undead Bub with the still-living military men, in general the simplistic tone of the portrayals of the military characters wears thin. The script here could have used a little work: the great triumph of the two previous pictures in this series was the feeling of formlessness, that the zombie menace could cause death to any character at any time, but here the film sticks much more closely to a standard three-act structure, and the final tally of who lives and who dies is much more predictable. The final third of the film is astonishing on a technical level, but as story it falls a bit flat.
Still, this is an incredibly effective film, even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of Night and Dawn, and any student of the horror genre should seek it out. When this film works, it works very well indeed, but it plays a bit too safe, keeping to a standard structure even when it should be letting loose and letting the blood fly freely. It's not the equal of the first two, but it's pretty damned good, and I'm still very much looking forward to Land of the Dead (which I'll see next week, most likely) and Diary of the Dead, which will be in theaters around the middle of this month.