31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Day of the Dead”

Now that's what I call a classic movie poster...
Now that’s what I call a classic movie poster…

Third entries in horror franchises can be divisive.  Witness the initial furore over “Halloween 3: Season of the Witch”, which boldly divested itself of The Shape and then suffered the wrath of a fanbase not getting what they expected. George A. Romero’s trilogy-capping “Day of the Dead” enjoyed similar slings and arrows from critics and fans alike expecting the satirical underpinnings of “Dawn…”, only to get a dour and claustrophobic drama which is a slog even at 97 minutes.

Whereas “Halloween 3” has latterly been privy to critical and fan reappraisal, the third instalment of the “…Dead” series hasn’t been welcomed with open arms.  Perhaps this is due to Romero’s latter zombie films – “Land of the Dead”, “Diary of the Dead” and “Survival of the Dead” – enjoying progressively poorer reviews and box office returns in a pop culture space where “The Walking Dead” on TV and “World War Z” in cinemas have captured contemporary attention.

Romero’s film is set largely in a Floridian military base, with a small band of soldiers and scientists working at cross-purposes  in a world now overrun by the undead.  As the soldiers hold back the barbarians at the gates, scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille) and her colleagues are experimenting on zombies captives to determine whether or not the effects of the plague can be reversed and the undead pacified.

When the base commander dies, a power struggle simmers between the two camps, as an untiring army of zombies hammers at the gates and threatens to overrun this small pocket of what passes for humanity.

A major issue with this sequel is the decision to explore a comparitively small conflict amongst a group of broadly-drawn archetypes.  The characters are largely uninvolving as they represent philosophical positions rather than convincing as people. The conflict is very clear-cut and we’re in no doubt about whose side we’re supposed to be on – the military are itchy trigger-fingered racists and everybody else isn’t waving M16s and threatening rape at regular intervals.

The film really becomes involving in it’s last half-hour when the perculating tension boils over and the two sides come to blows.  It’s here that the undead finally breach the base and Tom Savini’s still excellent make-up effects come into play. The best CGI can’t really hold a candle to what Savini and his crew accomplished here – Romero’s zombies are still genuinely ghoulish and the stuff of nightmare fuel, some 29 years later.

The performances are, shall we say, varied?  Cardille does good, understated work as Sarah, one of the few characters in the film holding it together as the world comes apart – her dream sequences provide some of the bigger jolts in the film. Pilato is gloriously over-the-top as Rhodes but the real honours in the film, for me, go to Sherman Howard as the increasingly domesticated zombie Bub.  He’s a memorable horror protagonist, with a uniquely expressive performance that ranks amongst the greatest movie monsters.  The showdown between Howard and Pilato results in one of my defining horror climaxes – the ‘choke on ’em’ moment giving us some of Savini’s most grotesque and convincing effects work.

Not the best Romero zombie movie but it still has moments of real power and bleakness amidst the hand-wringing, petty power-struggles and truly inexplicable synth pop on the soundtrack (what is that end-credits music doing here?).

 

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