Originally seen as the black sheep of the late, great George A. Romero’s dead trilogy, the climatic installment of the peerless horror franchise has defiantly shuffled into fans appreciation over the decades to become at least as influential as it’s two timeless predecessors. While the first film, Night Of The Living Dead dealt with the beginnings of a zombie infestation in the 60’s and it’s successor, Dawn Of The Dead tackled the tipping point between the living and the dead in the 70’s (think of the timeline as a rubbery as James Bond’s), Day was originally set to approach the 80’s with a vastly ambitious script centred around an apocalyptic world where the living dead has completely taken over. However, due to massive budget cuts, Romero was forced to wrestle the expensive script down into something more manageable meaning that a huge, end of the world finale was now reduced to essentially scientists and military personnel arguing in a cave. Fans of the previous classics were initially outraged at the reduction of scale but horror has always worked far better the more intimate it is and the intense, claustrophobic, character study, fused with some of the finest Tom Savini special effects you ever seen eventually won over the world to proudly stand toe to blackened toe with its other flesh eating breathen.
The staff of an underground military installation have been tinkering away, trying to discover a way to reverse the plague of animated, flesh eating corpses that have overrun the cities on the surface but desperation is setting in. Their supplies are running out, radio transmissions have ceased and many of the scientists and soldiers are beginning to fray under the stress. Matters are made even worse with the promotion of the seriously temperamental Captain Rhodes (the late Joe Pilato turning his every line into shouty 24 carat gold) who has no interest in catering to the whims of the people under his “protection” and deals with any dissension with the promise of a bullet. Pushing against his tyranny is Sarah, a strong willed research scientist who is desperately trying to hold things together in the belief that a “cure” can be found if they all just work together while John, a civilian helicopter pilot and boozy radio man McDermott, watch from the sidelines.
The final straw comes from head surgeon Dr. Logan (dubbed Dr. Frankenstein by the rest of the staff due to his eccentric carving up of the zombies he’s supposed to be studying) who claims he’s found a way to make the dead docile and subservient and aims to prove it with his prized pupil, Bub, an unusually thoughtful member of the unliving who has been trained to barely use a razor and mumble incoherently into a phone. Soon the powder keg explodes, things go hideously south and herculean amounts of viscera covers the screen, but who, if anyone can escape this giant tomb intact and even if they can, where do they go?
While some have pointed a wagging finger at the simplistic way the characters are laid out (scientists=good vs soldiers=bad with only about one exception on either side), the film uses this to make a bold claim that the biggest victims here are, in fact, the zombies despite the fact they outnumber the humans a staggering 400,000 to one. They eat people, sure, but they act on pure instinct without prejudice and they’re certainly not the racist, misogynistic thugs that Rhodes uses to enforce his will.
The cast is uniformly excellent with Lori Cardelle as Sarah putting in one of the greatest female performances in a genre rotten with bubble-headed slasher fodder, and Terry Alexander sporting one of the most soothing Jamacian accents in cinema history. Leave it to Richard Liberty and Gary Howard Klar as Doc Logan and hulking henchmen Steele to join Joe Pilato in chewing the scenery as enthusiastically the undead chews on ones liver but it’s truly Howard Sherman’s slightly cerebral gut cruncher, Bub, who steals the show.
Incredibly well directed and smartly scripted by Romero (the film is insanely quotable), the last piece of the puzzle – and arguably the most prominent – are the world class, super gory, set pieces deployed by effects legend Tom Savini and his team which produced the greatest scenes of zombie carnage that wasn’t equalled until a little show called The Walking Dead came along (Greg Nicotero, who is not only in charge of the effects on the show, but produces and directs too was part of Savini’s crew). Jaw loosening scenes of grue including a man’s head being pulled off making his voice raise in pitch as his vocal chords stretch and the most famous disembowlment in horror movie history (“CHOKE ON ‘EM!!”) pack the climax with unforgettable images while the nauseating results of Logan’s research and an immaculately edited scene of makeshift amputation involving a machete and gasoline pad out the rest of the runtime. Truly, the dead have never looked better.
Add a marvelously offbeat score by John Harrison, who also collaborated with Romero on the similarly excellent Creepshow, and you have have the final piece to a horror maestro’s masterwork; a horror trilogy of rare intelligence and (literal) guts to match. George made other zombie movies after this (Land, Diary and Survival Of The Dead) but none ever came close to ever touching the original three with the dead ultimately having their day with Day Of The Dead.