This is the third instalment of George A. Romero's original "Dead Trilogy" series of zombie films and it picks up the story sometime after the conclusion of the hugely successful "Dawn Of The Dead" of 1978. However, the film did not go on to repeat the previous entry's huge theatrical success, losing out to the far less serious Dan O'Bannon-directed "Return of the Living Dead" which was released the same year. Romero's film was a hugely more claustrophobic and despairing piece of work - too much so for mid-eighties audiences, it seems. "Day of the Dead" has since enjoyed something of a renaissance among fans though, and Arrow Video's new, luxuriously packaged Blu-ray release only looks set to further enhance the film's increasing reputation. In it, the walking dead have now completely overrun the human population of the planet (outnumbering humanity by four-hundred-thousand-to-one, we're told at one point). A small group of scientists are holed up in an underground missile silo & cave system, and, aided by a ragged, gung-ho band of military personnel, are desperately working on understanding the mechanisms by which the zombie catastrophe has occurred, hoping to develop a method of getting back on top of the situation. Unfortunately, there is not exactly a harmonious working relationship between the two groups, to say the least; members of both are going more than a little stir crazy from the confinement, the danger and stress of the situation, and from the ever-worsening state of the personal relationships between various individuals. The unruly military men, lead by the unhinged Rhodes (Joe Pilate) are becoming less and less willing to put their lives at risk in order to capture the zombie specimens roaming the caves for the experiments of obsessed scientist Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), whose macabre work is aimed at conditioning the undead into suppressing their natural flesh-eating instincts. When Rhodes discovers that Logan has been feeding the remains of his fallen comrades to his star zombie "pupil" Bub (Howard Sherman), they brutally murder him and leave the rest of the scientific team to the gathering zombie hordes. But those shambling cadaverous masses outside the base have already invaded, and this last bastion of "civilisation" looks like being finally overrun...
With this film, Romero relates the final death-throws of society as we know it and then takes a long sober look at what, if anything, would be worth fighting to preserve. As is usual with Romero's work, it's not obvious which point of view the director himself favours aside from the generalised anti-military tone of the film. The director simply presents the opinions most salient in contemporary culture at the time, and lets them butt up against each other in close confines. Romero's constant refrain throughout the whole trilogy though, seems to be close to the one expressed by the film's stoic helicopter pilot: "people have different ideas about what they want out of life"; and it is this central idea that always means that humans - at least in Romero's zombie features - can never pull together in the face of adversity until the odds against them are so overwhelming that it simply doesn't matter anymore!
These "different ideas" are represented by several key characters in the film, the main one being Sarah (Lori Cardille), who is played ostensibly as a strong female in the mould of Ellen Ripley from the Alien series (she looks a bit like Carrie Fisher circa "The Empire Strikes Back" as well); but it soon transpires that she also is secretly suppressing the terror that is already beginning to unhinge many of the other inhabitants of the base, occasionally manifesting itself by way of her horrific nightmares. She is part of the scientific team that is trying to find an answer to the zombie problem, and it is suggested that her motivation is the preservation of civilisation: if the zombies can be understood, then perhaps they can be controlled, and humans will eventually be able to rebuild society. The chief scientific investigator Dr. Logan, on the other hand, is more interested in knowledge for knowledge's sake, regardless of it's usefulness. The rest of the characters, including the other scientists, all refer to him as Frankenstein, which succinctly encapsulates a common feeling to this, the purest form of the scientific spirit -- divorced as it is from any form of sentiment -- as well as the challenge to conventional morality this kind of research invariably generates with its discoveries. It's typical Romero irony that rather than create new life, or anything of that sort, Logan's horrific and undignified treatment of his experimental subjects leads to the discovery that some kernel of humanity actually still exists in the zombie mind, locked away inside their most basic brain functions. Just to drive home the Frankenstein message though, Logan's star pupil "Bub" is made to look very much like Karloff's version of Frankenstein's monster with his pale green skin and shuffling gait, and the scene where a form of human-like sentience finally begins to descend upon him, reminds one of a classic sequence in "The Bride Of Frankenstein". The hostility Logan receives from the military personnel is easy to understand, seeing as he has been feeding their dead to his "pet" zombie, and Logan's detached rationality has quite clearly become a deranged and dangerous madness by the end of the film. But the most articulate opposition to the scientists' position comes from the Jamaican helicopter pilot John, who suggests that it is not even worth trying to rebuild civilisation, and they should all just fly off to an island somewhere! The search for knowledge is a futile remnant of a failed society and the zombie plague a punishment for trying to understand too much of the Creator's plan, according to this world view. But the helicopter pilot seems to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, and it is his idea that wins the day when the base is eventually overrun with zombies.
In the main, "Day Of The Dead" has indeed aged rather well since the mid-eighties. True — the synth score by John Harrison does veer disturbingly close to sounding like a Tears For Fears backing track on occasion, (and what on earth the deal was with that cheesy end credit song I do not wish to consider) but mostly it recalls the more commercial synthed up moments from Goblin's revered soundtrack for "Dawn Of The Dead" which is no bad thing. The oddball library music cues that Romero resorted to often throughout "Dawn ..." have also thankfully disappeared with this entry in the trilogy. The thing that really makes an impression of course, is the outrageously realistic gore and the sheer amount of it. These days, it's easy to forget just how incredibly nasty and brutal this film must have looked to an audience in 1985. Even so, the special effects still carry the sickly stench of the morgue about them."Day of the Dead" stands, even today, as one of the nastiest - if not the nastiest - zombie movies ever made. Greg Nicotero learned his craft on this film while helping Savini, and the kind of ultra-realistic effects that we take for granted nowadays in mainstream horror pretty much started here. It still gives modern gore-drenched flicks like the "Saw" franchise a run for their money, so it's sobering to remember how it felt to see this kind of thing on screen for the first time back when it was first released. Bodies are literally torn to pieces before your eyes, foreheads are drilled, throats are ripped out, entrails slop around all over the place; every greedy zombie bite is so painfully realistic you can almost feel it. Perhaps because of the surroundings - bland, tunnel-like bunkers and dimly-lit caves - the fact that one of the last remaining outposts of humanity chooses to surround itself with zombie body parts and vats of rancid gore even as humanity becomes one vast shuffling pile of walking death, is the reason for the infection of madness that overtakes almost everyone in the film. The end, where the survivors manage to fly away in a helicopter (what is this thing about helicopters providing deliverance?) to an uninhabited island, thus escaping this relentless creeping encroachment of Death, seems like a complete cop-out, but maybe Romero was subconsciously aware that by eradicating all hope he was lumbering himself with a film almost no one would want to go to see, at least in mainstream circles. Or perhaps, the ridiculously upbeat echo of the helicopter pilot's dream of Caribbean paradise is not meant to be taken literally at all, and it is this final scene that is the real fantasy, merely a dream of escape from the inescapable, much as characters in David Lynch's work often resign themselves to self-constructed fantasy at the end of his movies.
It is safe to say that "Day of the Dead" has never looked better than it does on this new UK Blu-ray release from Arrow Video, who continue their policy of presenting and packaging their releases in highly stylised, art-conscious special editions that eclipse pretty much everything else on the market. The film starts off looking fairly soft in the first few minutes, but then continues to get better and better as the film progresses until we reach the escape through the caves sequence near the end of the film, which now looks as darkly gorgeous and colourful as anything you'd expect to see in "Suspiria"! This is a two-disc affair, the second disc being a standard DVD which includes all the extras originally to be found on the old Anchor Bay DiviMax Special Edition. The Blu-ray includes plenty of new stuff though, not least the original uncensored mono track and a fairly robust 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix, both of which now have all those awful censored naughty words fully restored; both sound very good indeed. There is a commentary track from the special effects team included which comprises Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, Everett Burrell and Mike Deak in an enthusiastic and voluble conversation, full of wild anecdotes about the team's exploits (they were all young men at the time, and it shows) during the shoot, that make it sound like a miracle any of them survived the increasingly reckless practical jokes that appear to have been a normal part of the process of working with Tom Savini during this period. (Joe Pilato relates an anecdote elsewhere in the set that makes Savini sound like a total madman!)
There are a couple of brand new documentaries that have been commissioned by Arrow Video and they are included on the Blu-ray disc. The first of these, "Joe of the Dead", features a gnarled-looking but 'actorly' Joe Pilato discussing his career in great depth, starting from his early days in experimental theatre, moving on to his involvement with and first impressions of George Romero, then talking about acquiring his role in "Dawn of the Dead" (mostly cut from the theatrical release), his appearance in "Knightriders" and giving a fairly detailed account of his experiences making "Day of the Dead", which includes a blow-by-blow account of the unpleasantness experienced while filming his grossly vile death scene. He then goes on to examine the themes and some of the interpretations of the film that have since proliferated and how they've developed over subsequent years. The actor also mentions his experiences of Quentin Tarantino (he appeared as Dean Martin in the Jack Rabbit Slim's sequence of "Pulp Fiction") and on missing out on a role in "From Dusk Till Dawn". Pilato proves to be an unexpected charmer during his talk and the 50 minute running time flies by, even though the entire thing consists of just a single shot of Pilato in a blandly wallpapered hotel room, inter-cut with stills and clips from his movies. He is tactful about commenting on the remake, and ends by shamelessly touting for work, but who could blame him for that? The actor's ability to effortlessly hold an audience in the palm of his hand is illustrated once more in the second original film on the Blu-ray, "Travelogue of the Dead": an entertaining slice of fandom in which Pilato is filmed by Naomi Holwill travelling across Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow by train in October 2009, giving talks and meeting the fans in celebration of "Day of the Dead"s 25th anniversary. There is plenty of footage here of fans interacting with the great man, Pilato proving always courteous and polite ("would you like that signed 'choke on 'em' or 'puss-fuck?'") even in the face of rambling bohemian American women! It comes as something of a revelation to find that the man responsible for one of the most heinously unpleasant cinematic representations of villainy in cinema history (outside of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet", that is.) turns out to be a thoroughly nice fellow!
Disc Two kicks off by featuring another outing for the old Anchor Bay documentary "The Many Days of TheDead": a typically professional-looking 38 minute assemblage of anecdotal recollections from the film's principle cast and crew members, with George and Chris Romero recalling the rather clammy and foul conditions that prevailed inside the Wampum mine while Gregory Nicotero (one of Savini's make-up team and, as Pvt. Johnson, also the victim of a particularly nasty zombie throat gouging!) eulogises the original script Romero had intended to film, but which would have required too big a budget for producer Salah M. Hassanein to risk on an unrated movie. Lori Cadille, Joe Pilato and Howard Sherman talk about their experiences on the film, Sherman describing the development of the 'Bub' character during improvised scenes with Richard Libery (who played Dr. Logan) and relating how the idea of having Bub get his zombie mind blown from hearing Beethoven on a Walkman (ah yes, this was the eighties remember!) was a moment of inspiration not found in the script but which George loved after Sherman suggested it. Joe Pilato's unfortunate experience during his climactic death scene is related once again, but the main body of the documentary is taken up by looking at Tom Savini's career pinnacle special make-up effects on the film. One thing that comes across here, is just how pivotal Savini was in defining the aesthetic style of the two Romero zombie movies he worked on. "Dawn of the Dead" is usually thought of as a knockabout comic-book slice of action mayhem, but surely this wouldn't have been so evident without Savini's botched job on the fake blood (which made it look like orangey bright paint). It's this unrealistic look that must have played a large part in helping to establish that reputation. In "Day ..." Savini goes for the classic Dick Smith formula blood: a much more convincing concoction that adds immeasurably to the film's gross-out reputation. More care is taken over the zombie make-ups too, with Savini spending much more time creating individual zombie characters that are largely defined through their make-up, rather than just slapping grey/blue paint on everybody as was the case in "Dawn ..." (again, this contributes a lot to that particular film's unrealistic comic-book style).
A further look at the regime that was at the heart of creating this gruesome mise en scene is provided in a twenty minute behind-the-scenes segment entitled "Behind The Zombies", which starts by looking at the job of two rather giggly make-up assistants (including doling out cheap promotional baseball caps to the zombie extras with "I was a Zombie in Day of the Dead" printed on them) and progresses to examine Savini and his team at work on particular effects, finally culminating, of course, in the infamous bodily decimation of Captain Rhodes; plus there's a look at the rehearsal of some of the more traditional action stunts the film contains. The material is shot in quite grainy 16mm footage in 4:3 but is an invaluable record of the atmosphere on set, which, despite the unpleasant conditions documented elsewhere in this material, seems typically to have been light-hearted and jovial in nature.
The rest of the disc's extras consist of minor bits and bobs such as the Romero Zombography: a list of George's work as a director, writer, producer, editor, cinematographer and actor (where an uncredited appearance in "Silence of the Lambs" is listed).
There are several TV ads for "Day of the Dead" and a trailer for "Dawn of the Dead" as well as one for the egregious re-edited John Russo 30th anniversary edition. We also get a picture gallery of zombie make-ups and publicity stills and a Souvenirs section depicting an array of video artwork and lobby cards. A minor curiosity is included in the form of a promotional video for the warehouse storage company that owns the Wampum Mine, providing ample footage of some very fat American forklift truck-drivers trundling around the familiar location we know so well from the film!
Finally, the supplementary DVD also includes a fifteen minute audio recording of an interview with actor Richard Liberty in which the actor talks about his experience of working with Romero on "The Crazies" and "Day of the Dead", citing the latter as one of the pinnacles of his career, with nothing since coming close to equalling the experience.
Arrow's latest range of genre releases is as notable for its enticing presentation as it is for the amazing content, and this set is no different, coming with a choice of four covers: the art from the UK video release, the Japanese artwork, the original US cover art or the Arrow 'house style' of artist Rick Melton's eye-catching paintings - which also comes as one of the options for the fold-out double-sided poster (the other featuring a reproduction of the original UK quad poster) you will also be getting with this release.
Next up, the set has a spiffing, sixteen page full-colour booklet featuring an extended essay by genre writer Calum Waddell, entitled "For Every Dawn There is a Day: or Why George Romero Would Never Direct a Rambo Movie". It starts by reminding us of the social climate that dominated the mid-eighties - the fag-end of the Cold War - at the time the film was released: the folksy militarism of the Ronald Reagan era and the jingoistic cinema that reflected its politics with such films as "Red Dawn" and "Rambo: First Blood Part 2" (he doesn't pass up the opportunity of mentioning that the logic of the anti-Russian sentiment of its follow up, "Rambo 3", saw Stallone cosying up to those lovable freedom fighters the Taliban!). Meanwhile, the horror genre was sinking in a mire of endless "Friday the 13th" sequels and a slew of cheap but relatively successful zombie movie rip-offs (swap "Friday the 13th" for the "Saw" franchise, and I guess not a whole bunch has changed!) Waddell then gives us a potted history of the development of "Day ...", how the film was something of a compromise after Romero's original script had to be abandoned, when, coming off of the back of the commercially unsuccessful "Knightriders", the director no longer had the clout to get the film made unrated as he originally intended. There's an examination of some of the themes of the film, in particular the anti-vivisection subtext (which Romero claims was never consciously in his mind at the time); and Romero's fear of militarism is discussed in relation to deep fears seeded in the director's childhood.The principle cast members are quoted in relation to the development of their characters, with Lori Cardille claiming she wanted to appear less glamorous than she was made to look in the film, and Gary Howard Klar, who played Private Steele, musing that his character wasn't all bad (although he always appears to be a gibbering, unstable madman to me!). Waddell's text is a light, breezy but informative read and an ideal companion to this polished, high definition re-release of an eighties classic.
But it still isn't over guys! Purchasers of the set will also be getting an exclusive collector's comic - "Day of the Dead: Desertion", which features zombie "Bub" in his own storyline! I did not receive this for review but the sample of the artwork above certainly makes it look exciting. It hardly remains for me to say that this really is an essential purchase for all zombophiles - Arrow have done it again!