The late great George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) are considered scary movie masterpieces, that much is incontestable. But what of the third movie, 1985’s Day of the Dead? Here we are in murkier territory, the dark midnight of fetish objects and occult fan debates. I was told by some trusted colleagues that I needed to give it a go, and by others that I should avoid it at all costs. There’s no surer way to pique curiosity. Besides, what could be more appropriate for a scary movie marathon than doing something people have warned you not to?
Romero is famed as the father of all zombie movies (never mind he avoided that word), and it’s still striking how sincerely and seriously he takes the idea of the zombie apocalypse. Night and Dawn are both allegories: Night for the chaos of the 60s, and Dawn (even less subtly) for mass consumerism. Day, set at a military base where survivors plot our species’ next move, is a far less likable film, somehow the most claustrophobic and abrasive film in a franchise built around people trapped in close quarters shouting at one another. Dawn of the Dead, where humanity’s last stand comes at a mall, was in retrospect an insane balancing act, mixing the silly with the gruesome in a way that obeyed no logic but its own. In Day, the clash of tones starts to crack.
But what remains fascinating is the timing. “It was 1968, everyone had a message” is what Romero said about Night of the Living Dead. But now it’s 1985, and the two things that are most startling about Day of the Dead are a) its unreconstructed 60s liberalism during Reagan’s morning in America, and b) its ultimate conclusion that no amount of utopian idealism will ever save us. It’s a sour, detached film, covered in red corn syrup and fake intestines.
Already, Romero seemed to be running out of new things to say about zombies. And yet even the film’s fatigue feels sincere. Maybe Day of the Dead was just his way of wanting to say “fuck it all” to the world of 1985 and run away to an uncharted island. It’s the best idea anyone had.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.