After dissecting '60s race relations with 'Night of the Living Dead' and satirizing '70s materialism with 'Dawn of the Dead,' director George Romero turned his piercing eye to the military mindset with a third zombie outing in the '80s -- 'Day of the Dead.' The defiant director continues to refer to this undead trilogy capper as his "personal favorite," but it splits audiences today as much as it did twenty years ago.
As 'Day of the Dead' opens, the zombie plague from 'Night' and 'Dawn' has engulfed the globe and completely destroyed civilization as we know it. The undead outnumber the living by a margin of 400,000 to 1, and hope is a fading commodity in a dreary world of death and despair. The film focuses on a group of survivors who have locked themselves in a military complex in an attempt to try to outlive the apocalypse. The survivors are at constant odds -- soldiers like the hot-headed Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) want to destroy everything they find, while scientists like the unraveling Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) want to study the zombies to discover a solution to the epidemic.
But ignore the survivors in this bleak allegory -- the ironic hero of the film is "Bub" (Howard Sherman), arguably the last agreeable entity on the planet. The problem is, Bub's a zombie who wants to eat everyone he sees. Logan has kept him safe from the military while conducting a series of behavioral experiments that lead to startling results. Apparently, Bub can be trained and civilized to co-exist with humans. He learns chores, enjoys hobbies, and can even communicate on a limited basis with anyone who attempts to connect with him on a personal level.
Romero has never shied away from including controversial commentaries in his films, and 'Day of the Dead' is no exception. In fact, for many, the film is likely to have surprising relevancy in today's political climate. As Romero sees the situation, destruction is the path of least resistance and the easiest solution a gun-toting bully will embrace. Instead, he offers a counter solution that suggests that understanding one's enemy is the true path to peace and conflict resolution. While I’m not here to stir up a political argument, it's a cinch to see the parallels between this twenty-year-old response to Vietnam and the current situation in the Middle East.
At the time of its release, ‘Day of the Dead’ was hardly welcomed with open arms. Fans of his earlier zombie efforts were disappointed with Romero's sudden introspection in this smaller character study. Critics, meanwhile, were annoyed by the film’s lack of likeable human characters. For my own part, I can't imagine a more fitting resolution to Romero's initial zombie trilogy. His examination of humans as their own worst enemy is intriguing, and I find that 'Day of the Dead' engaged my intelligence more frequently than the action-packed 'Dawn of the Dead.' His elimination of attractive qualities extends to his lead characters and amplifies the inherent humanity in his intended Everyman -- Bub.
That's not to say that 'Day of the Dead' is great cinema or that it trumps 'Dawn of the Dead.' The characters function as caricatures in Romero's satire, and the performances are intentionally over the top, bordering on Hammer-horror-awful at times. While this does give characters like Logan a certain "mad scientist" edginess, it also alienates the audience more than necessary. The characters aren't just unlikable; they're downright grotesque, giving the film a heavy-handed quality that isn't present in 'Night' or 'Dawn.'
It may be a singular flaw, but it's a sweeping one. 'Day of the Dead' is conceptually fascinating but it stumbles when it comes to execution. I can't imagine a more fitting story to follow 'Dawn of the Dead;' I only wish it was one that provided a more nuanced look at humanity's devolution.
Much like the Starz/Anchor Bay Blu-ray release of 'Dawn of the Dead,' the 1080p/AVC transfer of 'Day of the Dead' is a welcome upgrade from the standard-def DVD, but it can't compete with more notable catalog titles available in high definition.
Among this transfer’s most positive attributes, colors are more vibrant than the DVD and reds have a nice contrast with the rest of the bleached palette. Fleshtone saturation is in line with the film's mood and doesn't flush or fade at any point. Detail also receives a decent boost with the increased resolution; clothing texture isn't smeared, background elements aren't obscured by softness, and skin and hair looks much sharper than ever.
On the not-so-bright side, a fair amount of dirt is evident on the print. There's also a disappointing contrast waver that appears in several scenes in the underground tunnels. Among this transfer’s other issues, black levels are generally solid but can't seem to render the deep ends of the spectrum; a handful of shots are rather soft (look no further than the blurry opening); there are a few instances of distracting noise reduction; and finally, I noticed some minor edge enhancement.
All in all, 'Day of the Dead' fans will likely see past these issues and appreciate this transfer as one that makes their DVD editions worth putting aside. However, compared to other titles its Blu-ray brethren, 'Day of the Dead' is decidedly middle of the road.
This Blu-ray edition of 'Day of the Dead' features three tracks -- a PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/16-Bit/4.6 Mbps), a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (640 kbps), and the film’s original mono track (192 kbps).
My personal preference was the plain but still effective mono track. Simply put, the two remixes lack surround presence – in fact, for most of the film, the rear speakers may as well be disconnected. Ambiance is disappointing (especially for a flick that takes place in a complex of echoing tunnels), and room acoustics tend to be stagey and unconvincing. The dynamics are acceptable, but the LFE channel lacks power, and the treble tones are occasionally lost beneath the film's synthesized music.
Thankfully all is not lost. Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, pans are natural, and the occasional surround usage is better than nothing. Even better, the zombie moans are lovingly rendered in the soundscape, and the screams of the dying are both stable and chilling. For the most part, though, I’m sorry to report that this is a disappointing audio offering that doesn't take advantage of the format like other catalog titles released on Blu-ray with bigger and badder audio enhancements.
Happily, this Blu-ray edition of 'Day of the Dead' includes nearly all of the supplemental content from the most-recent Divimax DVD release. (The only things missing are a few photo galleries, some text-based bios, and a cool sketchbook/diary that came in the DVD case.)
First up is a feature commentary with George Romero, effects guru Tom Savini, actress Lori Cardille, and designer Cletus Anderson. The track isn't quite as interesting or entertaining as the one included on 'Dawn of the Dead,' but Romero and company once again deliver some chatty observations about the shoot, the story, and the satire. The only void this time around is Cardille, who seems lost amongst all of the excitable boys in the room. I also wish Romero took more time than he does to address the individual criticisms of this film. Still, I laughed more than I expected and would definitely recommend everyone give this track a listen.
Next you'll find a dry commentary with writer/director Roger Avery (‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘The Rules of Attraction’), who had no responsibilities on 'Day of the Dead' whatsoever. Avery is clearly a fan of the film, but unfortunately he doesn’t have much interesting to say about it. This is a long, silent, meandering commentary that adds little to the overall discussion of the film.
On the opposite side of the coin, "The Many Days of ‘Day of the Dead’" (40 minutes) is a wonderful documentary that explores the script, its changes, the on-set shenanigans of the cast and crew, Romero's vision, and his impact on horror films over the years. This one features interviews with everyone under the sun -- simply put, If a person was involved with 'Day of the Dead,' you're likely to find them here. My favorite parts of the doc focused on Savini's increasingly disturbing makeup applications.
"Behind the Scenes" (29 minutes) is even better. It keeps its eye on the makeup department and follows the creation of the unique zombies, the death scenes, and the complicated practical effects. Filmed with a handheld camera, this featurette has a fly-on-the-wall feel that results in a candid and illuminating study of Savini's illusions.
Rounding out the supplemental package is a commercial for the "Gateway Commerce Center" (8 minutes), an audio interview with the late actor Richard Liberty (15 minutes), and a selection of trailers and TV spots for the film.
(Note that all of the video-based features listed are presented in 480i/p video only.)
'Day of the Dead' may not be as pitch perfect as 'Night of the Living Dead' or 'Dawn of the Dead,' but it is a worthy successor to Romero's zombie classics. As a Blu-ray release, this one’s a mixed bag. The video is an upgrade over the DVD, but it can’t compete with the best catalog transfers. The audio is more disappointing, with two surround remixing failing to improve upon the film’s original mono track. On the bright side, all of the major extras from the flick’s most recent Divimax DVD release have been ported over, and we even get a brand new Blu-ray exclusive "Fast Film Facts" subtitle track.