From the mind George A Romero, the godfather of the zombie movie, the man behind 3 of arguably the greatest films within the genre, Night of the living dead, Dawn of the dead and Day of the dead. Night is revered greatly, Dawn is downright worshiped but where’s the love for Day?
The 3rd film in the dead series, often perceived as the black sheep of the initial trilogy, Day of the dead was a long time coming. Arriving a good 7 years after Dawn and with the most ambitious premise Romero had come up with at this point. 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 town block from the horror outside, culminating in an effects bloodbath and nuclear Armageddon. It was a scope and budget his financiers baulked at giving Romero only $ 3.5 million forcing him to rethink his approach. Parts of this original idea did however make their way into Romero’s 2005 film Land of the dead.
Not to be completely derailed by this setback Romero went back to the drawing board and after numerous rewrites 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, although the squad protecting 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 in a former mine turned storage facility in Wampum, Pennsylvania doubling for the military compound and also acting as a base of operations for the entire shoot. The conditions in the mine were quite humid which 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 particularly for the poor actor Joe Pilato who was to be submerged in them for a scene where he gets torn in half. The smell must have helped for method acting surely?
Enlisting the help of past collaborator Tom Savini and his new protégée, Greg Nicotero to handle the films make up effects, they were a noticeable step up from what was achieved on Dawn. The use of electronics & hydraulics coupled with traditional methods helped the effects team achieve heads being torn from bodies, eye gouges and people being convincingly 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.
Day of the dead, like Night and Dawn before it is allegorical. Night was an allegory of the civil rights movement, Dawn was an allegory of Consumerism, Day was an allegory of arguably two things, the military industrial complex and of the breaking down of communication and what that can do to a society. These are messages that are always woven into the framework of the story, they’re subtle 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, particularly going into the 1980’s where the genre was becoming increasingly dumbed down by studios conveyor belting franchises left right and centre with increasingly diminished returns.
Day was however considered a box office flop initially, failing to make back it’s $3.5 million budget on its domestic release, mainly down to poor marketing and a massively limited release only recouping on home video sales. It faired much better in overseas markets like Europe making $28.2 million, far from a complete disaster.
It’s a film that slowly over the years has developed quite the cult following, nodded to in the closing scene of Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil, sampled by Gorillaz on their debut album for the track M1A1. It’s a film that has slowly gained the recognition and 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.