Day of the Dead is the third entry in George Romero’s influential zombie trilogy. While Night of the Living Dead (1969) presents the initiation of the crisis, Dawn of the Dead (1979) the collapse of civilization, Day of the Dead focuses on the beginning of a new world order in which the survivors learn to “domesticate” the zombies. Despite their fantastic settings, all three are politically conscious films, dramatizing gender and race anxieties, as well as critiques of the military, family institutions, consumer society, and the Vietnam War.
In contrast to the first two films, Day of the Dead was mostly ignored by critics and cult audiences at the time of its release. Its second life on video drew more attention, and its most recent incarnation as a special edition DVD includes insightful audio commentary tracks by Romero, special makeup effects guru Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson and actress Lori Cardille. Savini’s work is highlighted repeatedly, for good reason: Day of the Dead is the goriest entry in the trilogy. Unfortunately, though this DVD features a pristine new transfer, the film is not presented in its original, uncut form. Considering the initial outcry against the film’s gore, it’s ironic that all the splatter is intact in the DVD presentation, but some of the profane language has been dubbed over.
Even in this censored version, Day of the Dead offers an uncompromising critique of U.S. capitalism. It opens on a grim Fort Meyers, Florida, where zombies outnumber the living by 400,000 to 1. In these opening scenes, bank notes fly freely in the wind and the zombies themselves are in severe states of decay. In the undead world, there are no classes and no discrimination. The zombies may be consuming machines, but they’re free from social and moral pressures, driven only by unrepressed desire.
These first minutes introduce the last 12 survivors of an emergency response team organized at the beginning of the crisis. Comprised of seven soldiers, three scientists, and two technicians, the group is on the edge of disintegration after months of stress, a point emphasized by their claustrophobic setting, a missile silo. Following the death of the base commander, the megalomaniacal Rhodes (Joe Pilato) appoints himself leader. Wearing two big holsters and a bandoleer, Rhodes resembles a bandit from a spaghetti Western. He makes clear he will kill whoever dares oppose his authority.
Rhodes’ medical counterpart is Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), also known as “Frankenstein,” as he clearly represents science gone mad. Introduced in a dark cave, performing gruesome experiments on the undead, Logan believes it is possible to condition the zombies, just like Pavlov’s dogs. Whatever “practical” merit his research may have, the doctor lacks any sense of decency, shown when he desecrates the commander’s body to feed his zombies.
As in Night and Dawn, their own selfishness, stubbornness, and greed are the humans’ ultimate enemies. However, in Day, these conflicts take on a sexual aspect that is less evident in the previous two films. Consider the difficult romance between Sarah (Lori Cardille), a scientist and the only woman of the group, and Miguel (Antone DiLeo), a psychologically overwrought low-ranking officer. Fearless and determined to accomplish her mission, Sarah seems straight out of a Howard Hawks film, eclipsing Miguel’s efforts to play “the man.” Even though she’s sincerely concerned about his physical and mental health, her overprotective attitude towards him, in front of the rest of his unit, threatens the long-established rules of patriarchy. Her role as a “castrating woman” is reinforced when a zombie bites Miguel and Sarah amputates his arm to avoid infection.
Sarah also challenges Rhodes’ authority, and in turn, he threatens to shoot her, openly expressing his frustration at the fact that she’s sexually unavailable to him. Simultaneously a threat to masculine order and a signifier of repressed desire, Sarah becomes as monstrous as the zombies. While such overt sexual politics were not uncommon in horror films of the 1980s, what sets Day apart is its refusal to present the viewer with a dominant “male gaze.” The film never aligns the camera’s viewpoint with the monster’s (Rhodes or the zombies) victimization of the “girl.”
The irreconcilable conflict between Sarah and Rhodes has catastrophic consequences for the entire group of survivors. Typical of Romero’s films, the characters in Day of the Dead are unable to prevent the collapse of their already weakened social order. Yet Day is ironically less pessimistic than the first two zombie flicks, not because of its human protagonists, but because of Bud (Howard Sherman), Logan’s favorite zombie experiment.
“Domesticated” by Logan, Bud has learned to appreciate the most important elements of modern culture: classical music, Stephen King novels, and handguns. Bud has also stopped seeing Logan as food, and now sees him as a loving father figure. Like any other Frankenstein narrative, this motherless relationship reinforces a particular gender politics, imagining a world of men without women.
At the same time, Romero’s narrative focuses on how Bud, despite his “otherness,” is unexpectedly sympathetic. The combination of Bud’s charisma and love for his “father” makes him more complex than any of the humans. In fact, he appears to be the only character in the trilogy who negotiates his “otherness” in relation to an apocalypse. As human society turns oppressive, the prospect of a new world order with “civilized” zombies such as Bud appears to be a pretty decent alternative.