Day of the Dead (1985)

Truly gruesome special effects, and some genuinely scary moments elevate this zombie film beyond some of its over the top acting and way too 80’s soundtrack.

Confession time, I don’t like zombies. I think they’re boring as monsters. I think they’re totally lacking in scare factor. They just lumber around and get shot in the head. Is a zombie coming for you? Don’t worry, just jog and you’ll be fine. However, there are now three zombie films that I have come to really like. All three are in George A. Romero’s original “Dead” trilogy. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and now Day of the Dead.

Why do I like the zombies in this film? For one, the makeup effects are truly unbelievable. The first zombie in the movie is missing its lower jaw, and the effects work is stunning. It is horrible to look at, but I couldn’t stop because the makeup was so real and effective. Throughout this film, the zombie makeup is tremendous. They are distinct and hideous. The special effects here are top notch, when a zombie bites a man, it feels real. When a crowd of zombies tears someone apart, and we get to see every detail in an unbroken single take I was convinced I just watched a man get torn to pieces. The truly horrendous blood and guts on display is astonishing and reinforces my belief that tactile makeup and props will always look better than slick cgi.

Another reason I like the zombies here is because they aren’t in most of the movie. They are a constant looming threat to our heroes, but they aren’t on screen much. They are the devil waiting to strike and when they do strike it is visceral and horrifying. Using them as an unseen threat that motivates everyone in the film increases the tension and helps us forget their sillier elements.

Also, this film actually tries to explain and explore what zombies are. They are people, but all their higher functions have been removed. They are pure instinct. They just want to feed. This exploration dives a little deeper into what they are and what makes someone human. It’s a nice addition to the zombie mythology.

Finally, this movie uses the zombies to claustrophobic effect. Characters are swarmed and surrounded by zombies here in a way that feels uncomfortable to watch. One particular character toward the end tries to escape behind wooden pallets only to discover more waiting for me. He tries to leap to safety, but ends up flat on his back as hundreds swarm him. That claustrophobic fear of crowds is used here better than in most other zombie media.

The main characters are solid. Lori Cardille plays Dr. Sarah Bowman. She awesome. She’s smart and capable. She’s strong and resourceful. My favorite is Terry Alexander who plays John the laid back helicopter pilot who just wants to bail and live on an island somewhere. He’s got the right idea. However, they can’t leave. They are trying to find a cure for zombies with the help of Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan, played by Richard Liberty. He’s a delight. He’s such a broad and borderline camp creation that it is always fun having him onscreen. He certainly breaks up the drone of the horror. The villains in this movie are huge let down. They are broad caricatures who mostly scream their dialogue. The chief villain Captain Henry Rhodes, played by Joseph Pilato, is particularly over the top. He sounds like he’s doing a Jack Nicholson impression, but only crazy Jack Nicholson. It’s like he’s just trying to match Jack’s manic energy from the end of the Shining. Imagine end of Shining Jack turning it up to 11 for an entire movie, and you’re in the ballpark of where Rhodes is in this movie. After a while it’s like, “we get it buddy, you’re the bad guy.”

I really don’t like the soundtrack to this movie. I really dislike it. It is the most 80’s it can be. It’s very techno and artificial sounding. It underscores every moment with the most obvious notes possible. Spooky moment? Low pulsing techno. Jump scare? Loud techno blare! Adventure scene? Adventure techno! It really annoyed me throughout the movie. This is purely my experience. If you love it, it won’t bother you at all. For me, I couldn’t stand it.

This movie didn’t convert me. I still think zombies are mostly silly, but here they work. They scared me a couple of times and grossed me out a lot of the time. Some of the characters are awesome, and some are not. The soundtrack irritated the heck out of me, but the effects were absolutely stunning (in the grossest way possible). All in all it is my cup of tea. B+

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