Romero’s ‘Dead Trilogy’ and The Politics of Zombies (Part 3)

By Oliver Barnfield, Reporter

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  • Bub the friendly zombie salutes. Photo Courtesy of Ottawa Times

    Photo By Ottawa Times

  • Lead character Sarah (Lori Cardille) has a nightmare in the opening scene of ‘Day of the Dead’. Photo Courtesy of Life vs. Film

    Photo By Life vs. Film

  • An artistic rendering of Bub and a crowd of zombies used for Day’s poster. Photo Courtesy of Empire Online

    Photo By Empire Online

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Day of the Dead (1985)

The 1980s were comparatively sedate after the tumultuous ’70s. But that didn’t mean horror director George Romero was going to stop providing his social commentary through the lens of zombie films. After the success of Dawn and Night, he wrote an original draft that was over 200 pages, and for obvious reasons, it had to be cut down. Sadly, this massive first draft has never been released, and the final film was heavily cut from the original draft. Romero’s original version is easily my most wanted cancelled film. Can you imagine three and a half hours of pure uncut zombie madness? If Day of the Dead had gone as planned, it would have easily been the greatest zombie film in history. But what we ended up having didn’t turn out too bad. 

Day of the Dead has a lot of things going for it, from an incredible soundtrack to the genuinely fantastic special effects, but it lacks the charm of Dawn or the eerie atmosphere of Night. The setting is an underground base, which is admittedly a very boring location to set a film in. In the original draft, the film takes on a much more adventurous tone, not being confined to one location. I do wish that fans could have seen a sprawling zombie film from Romero, showing the ultimate effect of the apocalypse from multiple views. The characters lack the authenticity of those in Dawn, and several lapse into cartoonishness, especially Dr. Logan, the stereotypical mad professor who domesticates a zombie. This sentient zombie, nicknamed Bub, is easily the best part of the film. He is more likable than any of the human characters and has a unique humanity within him that is lacking in the rest of the cast. 

Bub wouldn’t be possible without the excellent special effects, though. Here we see the most realistic zombies in the trilogy and the most gruesome and original zombie death of all time. Captain Rhodes, the villain, literally gets torn in half by zombies, as viewers see his guts spray out of his body and his vocal cords snap, causing a voice crack in his scream. It’s a nasty and visceral moment that isn’t anything like the goofy deaths we see in Dawn or the off-camera ones we see in Night. Day is brutal, and is the most genuinely scary. 

The previous two films had relied on library music, songs created for no specific purpose that could be sold to directors for use in their films. While this gave them both a quirky atmosphere, the music never really gelled with the image and often felt disparate. In Day, howe

ver, the score matches perfectly with the visuals. Nearly every scene is scored with John Harrison’s doomy synths. Some of his music was composed during when Romero planned to set the film in the Carribean, so some of the songs have a distinct tropical flavor. 

Day’s social commentary is just as strong as the first two as well. While Dawn reflected the “Me Decade” with its rampant consumerism, Day perfectly reflects cold war paranoia with its hostile military conflicts and chilly paranoia. It isn’t as obvious as it is in Dawn and not as striking as it was in Night, but it gets the job done. 

Day, being the conclusion to the trilogy, is the first to reference the previous films in the series. There are references to Dawn in mention of malls, the reuse of the nickname “Flyboy,” and a reprisal of Dawn’s main theme at one point, a moment which never fails to send chills down my spine. 

Day of the Dead is my second favorite film in the series, with Dawn being my favorite. I do love Night, but I think some aspects haven’t aged as well when compared to the elements in Dawn or Day. I enjoy all three, of course, but I think that Day actually holds up the best in  the trilogy. It all comes down to personal taste, and I honestly believe all three have their own merits. 

Day of the Dead, despite being the most expensive in the series, was a flop commercially and critically. Because of the anomalous copyright laws pertaining to Night of the Living Dead, another sequel to that film was being released, although like Romero’s films, it shared no characters with the first. It was called Return of the Living Dead, and it had a much sillier tone, similar to Dawn. It was released around the same time, and because of their similarities, viewers only wanted to see one zombie film, and naturally they chose Return because of its more commercial tone. While I love Return, I can’t deny that Day is much more powerful. Return is much more fun and lighthearted, and isn’t trying to be anything deep. It’s simply a silly movie about funny zombies.

Although a flop upon release, Day has found it’s audience. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer included several references to it in their hit Netflix series Stranger Things, and Bub was even referenced in AMC’s The Walking Dead. Day may not be as groundbreaking as it’s siblings but it has developed a following on the level of Night and Dawn

Future of the Dead

After the success of the aforementioned Dawn remake, films such as 28 Days Later, and zombie video games like Resident Evil, the undead were in vogue. Beginning in 2005, Romero made a trilogy of new zombie films, similar in themes to his original masterpieces. However, none of them come close to recapturing the magic of the originals. Although benefitting from a larger budget, they don’t have nearly as much atmosphere, comedy or charm that the originals have. 

These three films make up my favorite film series ever. If you’re interested in them, I would highly recommend watching them. Finding the first installment is easy, and can be found on Amazon Prime and Youtube for free. Unfortunately, Dawn of the Dead has been in rights limbo for years, and finding it on streaming platforms is impossible, free or otherwise. 4K quality Day of the Dead is streaming for free on Tubi, Hoopla, IMDb TV and for rent on Amazon and YouTube TV. If you can find the time, be sure to watch all three on the same night, and immerse yourself in the original zombie classics.