Wednesday, January 4, 2012

DVD Spotlight: Day of the Dead (1985).

Day of the Dead (1985)
DVD Release Year: 2003.
Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Region: 1.
Starring: Lori Cardille; Terry Alexander; Jarlath Conroy; Joseph Pilato; Richard Liberty; Sherman Howard; Gary Howard Klar; Ralph Marrero; John Amplas.
Directed by: George A. Romero.
Colour/101 Minutes/NR

Years after the zombie apocalypse has taken place, the undead now have overrun the world. Some of the last human survivors (a small combination of civilians, scientists and soldiers) are hiding in an underground army base in the Everglades, where the scientists are trying to both look for a solution to the zombie problem, as well as make contact with other survivors. The soldiers are there to protect them. However, there is a need to capture "live" zombies in order to do tests on them. This is costing the soldiers their lives, something they are not too keen on. The two civilians, John and William McDermott (Terry Alexander and Jarlath Conroy), the helicopter pilot and a drunk in charge of the radio respectively, are just keeping their heads down as tensions escalate.

There is division even between the two lead scientists. Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) just wants to find a "cure", or at least find some way to put an end to the zombie threat, as well as support her emotionally unbalanced boyfriend, Pvt. Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo Jr.). However, Dr. Matthew "Frankenstein" Logan (Richard Liberty), who has obviously gone bonkers, wants to find a way to actually control the zombies and use them. Because of this he's been burning through test subjects. However, he does keep one prized subject "alive", that being "Bub" (Sherman Howard), who has displayed an ability to learn and recognize things and concepts from his past, before he turned into a zombie. Logan thinks he's on the verge of a breakthrough.

But their time is short, and the fuse on the new military commander, Capt. Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), is even shorter. The previous commander has just died, and now Rhodes is in charge and not as interested in putting his men at risk for experiments that have failed to produce any real results. He wants to cease the look for a cure and find a way out of the hole they are in. He's quickly turning into a mad dog under the stress, and his men are no better. They seem like they are bottom of the barrel National Guard recruits rather than trained soldiers. Slobs, who don't trust Miguel to do his job (even making racist remarks towards him) and leering at Sarah, as she's the only woman in the base. It doesn't help matters when Rhodes starts to suspect Logan is up to something. And he is: Logan has been running out of regular zombies from outside the base to do his tests upon, and has been using the bodies of the recently dead soldiers to keep things going...

Day of the Dead is the most looked-down upon of Romero's original trilogy, and indeed there's not a lot that's new here from the previous film Dawn of the Dead. It's the same situation, but much worse. Society is totally gone now. Hordes of zombies walk the streets. The last people alive are very close together and isolated from the outside world. Tensions are as high as can be. Racism and sexism find a fertile breeding ground, and the zombies continue to wait, and wait. Eventually they will get in because the humans will leave the door open. Deep down the last survivors know it, and that only makes things more desperate for them. There is no hope anymore but to escape and live out their lives somewhere.

Romero and crew were faced with having a substantial amount of their budget cut from the film (from about 7 down to 3.5 million), so much of the original story got thrown out. This film was actually intended to be an epic to rival Dawn of the Dead. The subplot with Bub, and Dr. Logan learning to control the zombies was to be a much larger part of the original film. But most of that was lost, and sadly critics focused more on the scenes of stressed-out people yelling at each other in an underground bunker. Not enough action, not enough zombies. It's too bad, as I think Day deserves much better. The actors are good. This may be the best acting in any of Romero's zombie pictures, actually. I bought into each performance. Everyone is stressed and dealing with it in different ways. Sarah is not only being strong for herself, but for Miguel, who has fallen into a nervous breakdown. The soldiers are scared and have become mean, alcoholic bullies. Capt. Rhodes is a despot. Dr. Logan is clearly insane beyond reason. The civilians, John and William, have isolated themselves from the rest in an effort to hold on to their humanity and sanity. The zombie, Bud, is like an innocent child, and seeing part of his past humanity coming back to him through Logan's encouragement is touching (and heartbreaking when he discovers Logan's corpse later on).

Also of note are the locations used and the make-up effects. Much like the mall in Dawn was perfect, the underground facilities near Wampum, Pennsylvania, were exactly for what they needed here. The cast truly feels walled-in and isolated in this storage facility, full of the remains of a now collapsed society. They are in effect living in a tomb. The abandoned cities above ground are no better for them, as the scenes shot on location in Florida are just as claustrophobic when the walls of zombies show up. The effects work from Tom Savini and Gregory Nicotero are really quite impressive and only highlight why there should have been more zombie scenes in the film to spice things up ("Dr. Tongue" from the opening is a jaw-dropper in more ways than one!). There is, at least, a hell of a lovely slaughter when the zombies do finally make their way into the base. And Bub should also be mentioned here: he really comes alive with a perfect melding of physical performance and make-up design. He has stood out in the minds of fans over the years, and the "smart zombie" concept has lived on into Romero's Land of the Dead.

The film has gone on to have a lasting influence on the zombie horror genre, and in pop culture, although not as strongly as Dawn. But let's face it, that's a pretty big giant to slay. Anchor Bay's 2-disc DVD (also in single disc DVD and Blu-ray) is a perfect way to pay due respect to the film. The commentary track, like all of Romero's commentaries, is laid back, fun, and informative. This, along with the film looking and sounding great on DVD, is generally worth the price right there, but then you get an okay fan boy commentary from Roger Avary (writer/producer/director, who is best know for writing Pulp Fiction). Disc 2 gives you the expected extensive, and informative, documentaries and production supplements. You even get a physical extra in the form of Dr. Logan's "files", which is a fake ruled notepad with an essay on the film, artwork, and some of Logan's "notes". Sort of pointless, but good fun.

DVD Information:

Disc One: Feature Film
Video: 1.85:1.
Audio: Dolby Digital-EX 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 and DTS-ES 6.1
Subtitles: English.
--Audio commentary with writer/director George A. Romero, special make-up effects artists Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille.
--Audio commentary with filmmaker Roger Avary.

Disc Two: Bonus Materials
--The Many Days of Day of the Dead -- An all-new 39 minute documentary featuring interviews with writer-director George A.Romero, producer David Ball, special make-up effects artists Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero, production designer Cleatus Anderson, assistant director Chris Romero, and actors Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato and Howard Sherman.
--DAY OF THE DEAD: Behind The Scenes -- 31 minutes of production footage from special make-up effects artist Tom Savini.
--Audio interview with actor Richard Liberty.
--Wampum Mine promotional video.
--Theatrical trailers.
--TV spots.
--Production Stills.
--Behind-the-scenes photos.
--Posters & advertising art.
--Gallery of memorabilia.
--Zombie make-up photo gallery.
--Continuity stills gallery.
--George Romero bio.
--DVD-ROM: Original screenplay and production memos.


A.Jaye said...

Happy new year geezer.

This is the best piece I've read on this site. It certainly made me want to revisit the film. I've always liked Day but have alway felt it a disappointment. That's simply because of Dawn. As you point out this is the best acting in the trilogy.

Then came the second trilogy and Day isn't a disappointment anymore.

Bub the smart zombie. I never bought into it. I did however buy into Joseph Pilato's performance. Come the apocalypse it wont be the dead you have to fear.

Lee Russell said...

Thanks, A.Jaye. I am quite pleased with how this turned out. Taking my time on the Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition review, as I hope to best this one.

I gave Bub a pass, but his growth is quite rushed. There's those budget cuts coming into play, no doubt. I have a feeling there was much more screen time planned to develop Bub's storyline.

Pilato nailed his role. Makes me wonder if he's supposed to be the same character as in his brief appearance in Dawn. Probably not, but a zombie film geek can dream.