As a kid, George A. Romero was instrumental in cultivating my love of horror. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was the first zombie film I ever watched. It was also among the first VHS tapes I ever owned: a double VHS at that! Zombies were niche back in the ’80s. There frankly weren’t a lot of undead films to watch unless you were into Italian horror. I wasn’t. Fortunately, my craving for human flesh was sated, at last, when Day of the Dead hit video stores. I was officially hooked on zombies and well on my way to becoming a Romero fan for life.
How does Day of the Dead compare to Romero’s previous zombie films? Look back with us on a horror classic 35 years later: “The dead shall have their day!”
Day of the Dead (1985) Synopsis
A small group of military officers and scientists dwell in an underground bunker as the world above is overrun by zombies.
Horror icon George A. Romero wrote and directed the film. It stars Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato, Richard Liberty, Jarlath Conroy, and Howard Sherman. The story takes place in an underground military complex in the Florida everglades. Despite the Florida locale, Romero shot the bulk of the film in his old stomping ground, Pennsylvania.
A scientific research team, led by Sarah Bowman (Cardille), searches for solutions to the zombie apocalypse. The group butts heads with the soldiers at the compound, led by the newly-in-charge Captain Rhodes (Pilato). Tensions rise as the impatient Rhodes grows frustrated by the scientists’ apparent lack of progress and his own unit’s mounting casualties.
Here’s a look at the official poster art!
Release And Reception
“Forget it, Billy boy. It’s a dead place. Like all the others, you know. Listen. You can hear it over the engine.” ~ John
Day of the Dead premiered on June 30, 1985, as a sneak peak before receiving a limited US release on July 3. Showings expanded to a wide release July 19. The film opened in 13th place that weekend behind big budget holdovers like Back To The Future, Cocoon, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and the re-release of E.T.. Romero produced the film for roughly $3.5 million, a figure is about half the original, intended budget. It earned $1.7 million over three days, on its way to a decent $34 million box office haul.
Renowned film critic Roger Ebert gave Day of the Dead 1.5 stars. He praised the film’s gore FX (thank you, Tom Savini) but railed mercilessly against the acting. His parting shot: Romero “should quit while he’s ahead.” Ebert’s cohort, Gene Siskel, was even less forgiving. One star. Both critics heaped praise on Romero’s earlier films, Night and Dawn, but felt Day of the Dead fell short by comparison. That analysis is prevalent in the bulk of the negative critical reviews of the time. Horror fans are more forgiving, however. Rotten Tomatoes has the overall audience score at 75% fresh.
An Irresistible Force
“Let him go, goddamn it! Or I’ll cut you in half.” ~ Sarah
Front and center in Romero’s story is scientist Sarah Bowman. She’s tough. No nonsense. A real fighter. Moreover, she’s family. Sarah is played by Lori Cardille, daughter of Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, who played the news report in Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Sarah is no typical Final Girl. She’s a badass. A hero. This is in stark contrast to Romero’s earlier heroines, Barbara (Judith O’Dea) in Night of the Living Dead, and Fran (Gaylen Ross) in Dawn of the Dead. Sarah belongs in the same conversation as Ripley, Buffy, and Nancy Thompson, some of the all time badass women in horror pantheon.
Day of the Dead opens with Sarah in a helicopter, searching for survivors alongside pilot John (Alexander), radio man McDermott (Conroy), and her lover, Pvt. Miguel Salazar (Antoné Dileo Jr.). It’s immediately clear that Sarah is in charge of the civilian operations, and she’s holding up better than most in this undead hellscape. She’s the only woman at the compound, and she’s not about to take any shit from the soldiers who seem to clash with her at every turn. Sarah stands her ground.
An Immovable Object
“I’m runnin’ this monkey farm now, Frankenstein, and I wanna know what the FUCK you’re doin’ with my time!” ~ Captain Rhodes
The soldiers are led by Captain Rhodes, portrayed to maniacal perfection by Joe Pilato who, like Cardille, is a member of the Romero film family. He played one of the police officers on their way to the docks in Dawn of the Dead (1978). He also appeared in Romero’s Knightriders.
Rhodes ascends to command with the death of his superior officer, Major Cooper. Once in charge, he makes it no secret that things are going to be different. He wants progress. He wants to understand what the science team is doing. And he absolutely doesn’t want anyone questioning his command. Rhodes is unhinged and one of those movie villains you just love to hate.
“They have overrun us, you know? We’re in the minority now. Something like four hundred thousand to one, by my calculations.” ~ Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan
Roger Ebert was right: the gore FX in this film are fantastic. They’re light years ahead of the gray skin and bright red blood from Dawn of the Dead (1978). Tom Savini really outdoes himself. There are gunshots to the head, missing jaws, two guys ripped in half, a savage bite, a severed arm, and piles of blood and guts at every turn. It all looks wonderful. Watch for FX whiz Greg Nicotero as one of the soldiers (and marvel at his amazing, severed head).
I’ve already talked about Sarah and Rhodes, who are great as the hero and villain, respectively. The other bright spots in the cast are the eccentric Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan, played by Richard Liberty, and the main zombie, Bub, played by Howard Sherman. “Frankenstein’s” descent into madness delivers real chills as he attempts to domesticate the undead and make them behave. Bub, an advanced zombie experiment of Logan’s, steals pretty much every scene he’s in.
John Harrison’s musical score is quite effective. It’s a bit more subdued than the Dawn soundtrack. If you like techy/synthy stuff, you’ll really dig this. Harrison’s audio cues have great shock value, too.
Day of the Dead has some really effective jump scares. I’ve seen this movie a million times and most of them still manage to get me. Keep a firm grip on your popcorn and soda, kids.
What Doesn’t Work
“You almost killed Rickles! Yeah! You almost fuckin’ killed Rickles! You dirty yellow spic bastard!” ~ Pvt. Steel
Much of the acting is subpar. Roger Ebert was right about that, too. The soldiers are forgettable, one dimensional, racist assholes. Rickles and Torrez are particularly bad actors. Woof. The science team extras aren’t much better. You really don’t care about much of the cast beyond Sarah, John, and possibly McDermott. Bub might be the most sympathetic character here.
Romero’s budget was slashed, as I mentioned earlier, and it shows. The film feels small as a result. You don’t get the hordes of zombies or the sweeping environmental shots you saw in Night and Dawn. Much of the zombie mayhem is saved for the film’s final act. As such, the core of the film focuses on the soldiers vs. scientists conflict, and that drama suffers greatly because of the acting.
Romero does what he can, though, with what he has to work with. Much like his contemporary, John Carpenter, George is pretty good at doing more with less.
“Choke on ’em! Choke… on ’em!” ~ Captain Rhodes
What can I say? I love this movie, warts and all. It really feels like it’s gotten better with age. I feel the same way about Romero’s Land of the Dead (read our retro review here). There’s something timeless about George Romero’s commentary on the human condition that really shines here. Our world is a dark place, and humanity’s darkness is at the heart of the abyss.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen Day of the Dead, I recommend revisiting it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The film is streaming for free on Tubi at the time of this writing. Physical media fans will love the Shout! Factory Blu-ray. It features a brand new transfer, a new documentary, and audio commentary from both George Romero and Tom Savini. You can grab that on Amazon.
If you enjoyed this retrospective, be sure to check out this PopHorror article written about the film after George Romero’s death. It’s a really thoughtful, well constructed tribute. You’ll love it!
What do you think of Day of the Dead? Where do you rank it among George Romero’s zombie films? Tell us in the comments!