Day Of The Dead – The Horror Show You Just Can’t F**k With!

George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead is rightly viewed as a classic. It’s eerie and unbearably claustrophobic and, given its antiquity, bone-jarringly violent, and has gone on to be arguably the most influential modern horror film of all time.

But when Tom Savini decided to remake it in 1990, I wasn’t mad.

Because, at the end of the day, most of the actors in the original were shite. This is fair enough, they were, for the most part, rank amateurs, many of whom would never act in a film again – Night… is a classic horror in spite of its cast, not because of it.

George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead is rightly viewed as a classic. It’s an all-too-feasible view of a society gone to shit, with amazing action sequences, white-knuckle tension and plenty of satirical gristle to serve up along with the human offal.

But when Zack Snyder decided to remake it in 2004, I wasn’t mad.

Because, at the end of the day, most of the actors, with the exception of the main foursome of David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross and Scott Reiniger, were still shite, and the make-up for the living dead (in a nutshell: Just paint them all blue) wasn’t much to write home about. Also, Zack Snyder’s remake was sick. So like I say, I wasn’t mad.

But when, this year, Hector Hernandez Vicens decided to remake, if indeed his effort is worthy of the term, George A. Romero’s Day Of The Dead, I was more than mad. I was apoplectic. Because you do not fuck with the original Day Of The Dead.

The new remake, glorying in the funky full title of Day Of The Dead: Bloodline, was, its makers assured us, designed to cling affectionately to the storyline of the original, as there was actually a 2008 effort, starring Ving Rhames and Mena Suvari, but it was a remake in name alone, designed to cop some of the shine of Snyder’s Dawn… In this Day Of The Dead, the zombies were able to, among other things, crawl along on ceilings, so the less said about it, the better. It’s a fuckin’ travesty, to be blunt, a road sign that shows us how far Ving Rhames’ career has veered off-path.

So when I first heard about Day Of The Dead: Bloodline and its grand plans of honouring its source material, I was enthused, excited, salivating, the scent of blood and offal in my nostrils. The opening few minutes, scenes of splattery carnage on a busy city street, are promising – and then the rest of the film happens.

Yeah, it turns out the new Day Of The Dead is all kinds of shite. Weirdly, the script is written by former Radio 1 DJ Mark Tonderai, about the most interesting thing about it. It keeps two aspects of the original – a military bunker complex housing human survivors, and a sentient zombie in the Bub role, albeit one entirely lacking in charm and boasting the ability to talk and hide – but the entire rest of it stinks worse than any festering corpse on show. I went into it hoping that they’d do it justice, and left it thinking… Well, let’s just say that I sent the film’s Twitter account a summary so unpleasant that I deleted it the next morning.

I don’t intend to waste too much energy on Day Of The Dead: Bloodline even though there is so much to hate about it and they say that anger is an energy. There’s the uniformly buff and ripped young hotties who make up the military presence (one of them is the bloke who was Rhino in ITV’s Gladiators, fact fans), the piss-poor acting from said hotties, the risible dialogue, the abject lack of basic logic in all of the major characters’ narrative-shaping decisions. There’s even a smattering of cutesy kids, FFS. You can work your way around all of these in the right conditions, but you’re still going to be left with that one universal truth – you don’t fuck with George A. Romero’s Day Of The Dead. YOU DON’T FUCK WITH IT.

It’s my contention that Day Of The Dead is the perfect horror film, and even if it is not that, it is certainly the perfect George A. Romero film. It’s scary, disturbing, smart, uncommonly literate (about which, more later) and, for perhaps the first time in a zombie film, really well-performed by a faultless ensemble cast.

The strange thing about Day… is that it was never supposed to happen – Romero had knocked up a script for what was supposed to be a Dawn Of The Dead sequel in which the living dead had been domesticated and converted into a labour force, and said script, which can be found on the internet, thus reads like a slavery allegory. But his hand was forced by budgetary restrictions and so he kept some of the main characters and re-drafted it as an end-of-days scenario in which a small band of soldiers, scientists and civilian specialists toil fruitlessly to if not avert the end of the world, then at least slow its inevitability. His hands tied, Romero went and wrote a masterpiece.

Bizarrely, the supposedly authoritative Halliwell Film Guide criticises Day Of The Dead, and rates it lower than its two prequels, for being ‘talkative’, as if dialogue is somehow anathema to a horror film, and as if the film isn’t scary or shocking enough when the talking stops. I’d argue that it’s the talking that sets Day… apart from most horror films, as it establishes a good ten or more well-drawn and exquisitely portrayed characters –  the frazzled heroine Sarah, cynical helicopter pilot John, psychotic warmonger-in-chief Rhodes, boozy radio ham McDermott (whose perpetually horrified thousand yard stare is worth the price of admission on its own), thespian mad scientist Logan and, most touchingly, the nearly-human zombie with a heart, Bub, chief among them.

In just over an hour and a half, Day Of The Dead establishes a clear hierarchy of sympathy within its large cast while still amping up the ever-growing threat of climactic horror, with the zombies being the agent of destruction but the humans having the means to unleash or restrain them. It would function as a study of humans under intolerable pressure, but it’s just a bonus that it also packs some of the most spectacular gore ever seen in the undead genre. It may have only surfaced a mere seven years after Dawn… but Savini’s abilities had ballooned in the interim. There’s one moment when an unfortunate military grunt is separated with his still-screaming head for which, when I watch it 33 years later, I still cannot find an answer to the question: How did they do that?

But amidst all of the offal and carnage, there’s a scene which I’d argue underlines just what an ‘other’ horror film Day Of The Dead really is. It comes when Sarah pays a visit to John and McDermott in the exaggeratedly luxurious mobile home where the pair live, and John sits her down and speaks about the folly of their collective mission. To an eerie soundtrack of distant moans, he delivers an electric, loquacious soliloquy.

“We don’t believe in what you’re doing here, Sarah. Hey, you know what they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top 100 companies. They got the Defense Department budget down here. And they got the negatives for all your favourite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records, census reports, and they got the accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good ole U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? We ever gonna give a shit? We ever gonna get a chance to see it all? This is a great, big, 14-mile TOMBSTONE! With an epitaph on it that nobody gonna bother to read. Now, here you come. Here you come with a whole new set of charts and graphs and records. What you gonna do? Bury them down here with all the other relics of what… once… was? Let me tell you what else. Yeah, I’m gonna tell you what else. You ain’t never gonna figure it out, just like they never figured out why the stars are where they’re at. It ain’t mankind’s job to figure that stuff out. So what you’re doing is a waste of time, Sarah. And time is all we got left, you know.”

That speech is probably my favourite few minutes of any film ever. There’s a real boldness to affording one character that much time to wax lyrical instead of serving up minor characters to be eviscerated. It may have been forced upon Romero by his budgetary concerns but it’s a stark reminder of what a writer he was in his prime.

He would never top Day Of The Dead, nor even come close. When the noughties zombie renaissance afforded him the chance to come out of retirement, his Land Of The Dead was a dropped ball, a passable yarn with agreeable splatter, duff main characters, a corny script and a bizarre theme urging empathy with the living dead, which is not what zombie films are for. The subsequent Diary Of The Dead was even worse, a risible attempt to surf the social media / blogging wave in which Romero clearly had no idea what he was scripting about. Survival Of The Dead was better, but it betrayed the fact that, after his brief Indian summer, nobody wanted to give Romero any money again. After that, he made no more zombie films.

In a strange way, I hope that Day Of The Dead: Bloodline achieves levels of success it does not merit, so that nobody else feels the need to have a tilt at Romero’s finest hour. You simply cannot out-act it, out-script it, out-shock it, and never in a million years will you out-gore it – if you are not yet familiar with the grand demise of Captain Rhodes, then I hope it is no spoiler to say that you really need to see it to believe it – so I say it again, loud and clear. Leave it well alone.

words by @TweetCashmore