Blu-Ray Review: Day of the Dead

SEPTEMBER 12, 2013


I'm sure I'm not the only one who saw Day Of The Dead at an early age and walked away a bit disappointed; the limited zombie action seemed a big step back from the epic Dawn of the Dead (and even Night), and none of the new protagonists were as memorable as Peter or Ben. But while the latter complaint is still valid, as an older, somewhat wiser man I've come to my senses - it may not be as "fun" as either of the other two, but Romero's themes, now much more clear than they were to 14 year old BC, are remarkably still relevant. It may not be the best one to put on during a late night horror movie marathon, but it's essential viewing all the same.

One thing that I definitely appreciate (and even did to some degree as a kid) is that it kind of blends Night and Dawn's strengths. As with Night, we have a group of people trapped in one location who are at odds with each other, bickering over stupid things instead of banding together to take care of the real threat (or at least, create a safer environment from it). And like Dawn, it boasts top-notch effects work - even though there isn't as much traditional action, the Doc Logan character and his experiments allow for plenty of disembodied heads and other marvels, and Romero makes up for the reduced zombie "cast" by making sure each and every kill is something that you remember. Interestingly, some of the ideas that he couldn't afford to use here (he had a choice; 7 million for a movie that had to be R, or 3.5 million for one that was unrated - he chose the latter) ended up in Land of the Dead, so you can retroactively include that one in the "it's got a bit of everything" idea.

But it's also the bleakest entry by far; some characters survive (more than Dawn, in fact), but at this point it's clear that the human race had lost the "war". As Logan explains, the numbers are something like 400,000 zombies for every 1 human, and the chances of finding some of those other folks appears to be quite slim. In the film's opening, which I always loved even as a kid, some survivors fly out to a big city 200 miles away to search for survivors, and find nothing but a few zombies - even their numbers are seemingly thinning (and the alligator roaming around is a nice touch). With the other films, it still seems like civilization is ongoing despite constant threat - now it just seems that all is lost. In another great scene, two of the characters try to convince heroine Sara to join their way of life, which is basically to hang out in their Winnebago (and delightfully "cute" little patio area) and pass the time reading old financial records, rather than risk their lives holding on to the idea that there's a chance to stop the zombie plague (or "train" the undead).

Also, like Knightriders, it's a bit of an autobiographical concept for Romero - the scientists are the stand-ins for the filmmaker, who wants to try new things and go about it his own way, with the military assholes taking place of producers who just want successful results. The film's reception just made this element incredibly ironic and sad - audiences seemed to side with the military, dismissing the film for not being Dawn, and looking down on Romero for not giving them what they wanted. Time has been kind to it (a bad remake and an atrocious "sequel" only helped), but you can't help but wonder how different things might be for the master if the film had performed better at the box office. He's only had three major theatrical releases since (Monkey Shines, The Dark Half, and Land of the Dead), but nothing ever hit the way his previous successes did, and he can't get anything off the ground anymore unless it has "Of The Dead" in its title. It was also trounced by Return of the Living Dead a few weeks later, as if his brand (and its "slow" zombies vs Return's faster model) was no longer the way to go. A shame, really.

However, like I said, its reputation has improved, and despite a pretty solid release in 2003 from Anchor Bay, Scream Factory has seen fit to put together a new special edition on Blu-Ray that carries over most of its bonus features. There's a fun commentary by Romero, Tom Savini, Lori Cardille, and production designer Cletus Anderson that packs in a ton of info and anecdotes; Savini will explain his FX, Romero will talk about the story, Cardille covers acting, and Anderson pipes in with info about the set and the mine where the film was shot. Sometimes they reminisce a bit too much about things that won't interest the average fan ("I remember I went to a play with you and your husband..."), and Savini more than once interrupts Romero to point out a bladder effect or something, but otherwise it's a great track and I'm glad they ported it over. They've also brought over Roger Avary's commentary, but I have better things to do with my time than listen to a guy who killed someone by drunk driving.

Most of the bonus features from the previous release's second disc are also on hand - I loved the goofy promotional video for the Wampam mine, which is still open and serves as a data storage facility nowadays. Savini has offered up some of his personal photos and on-set videos (similar to The Burning and his other films), which is fun to watch because it's seemingly unedited, which means you get to hear him occasionally be a complete dick to someone on his crew. And the usual trailers/stills material is all accounted for as well; the only thing of note that is "missing" is the original retrospective documentary, but in its place is one that runs over twice as long and features far more participants. Seriously, Red Shirt has really outdone themselves on this one - utilizing no less than five areas of production (New York, LA, Philly...) and assembling pretty much every living principal from the film for new interviews (the only omissions of note are Greg Nicotero, who was probably too busy with Walking Dead, and Jarlath Conroy), it runs almost as long as the film itself and covers pretty much everything you could ask them to; why the Dawn characters didn't appear (legal shit), the original script (which Romero seems to think, now, was inferior to the finished product), late actor Richard Liberti... you won't be left wanting, that's for sure. My only complaint is that there are no chapter breaks - it's 85 minutes long, so if you're like me and tend to doze off while watching things, getting back to where you left off requires a lot of fast forwarding, which is fine for a movie but kind of hard when it's just a bunch of talking heads and out of order film clips.

The only other new bonus feature is a look at the mines today, with insight from an employee who worked there now and is apparently about to retire. It's very similar to the usual Horror's Hallowed Grounds pieces by Sean Clark (right down to the shtick-y reenactments of key lines), but not as thorough as it's limited to just the mine - Clark would have found the opening city, the big fence where the zombies were converging, etc. It's also kind of "flat" - more than once it seemed like the host was merely greenscreened over a still shot of the location, so it's hard to see how much has changed since (it also lacks the usual accompanying film clips). As for the transfer, it's good, but perhaps a bit aggressive with the DNR than I'd like. Closeups are fine, but characters who were slightly out of focus in the background now look like clayfaces on occasion. Otherwise, it's pretty great; the color in particular is a big improvement to my eyes, especially during those red-tinted scenes in the tunnels during the climax. Savini's FX, unsurprisingly, hold up wonderfully with the improved definition, and the sound mix is also quite good. Overall I was pleased with the transfer; maybe not reference material, but solid all the same, and if you don't like grain you won't have anything to complain about anyway.

This is the first time Scream has redone a disc that already had a big blu-ray special edition, and that it's one from their sort of rival Anchor Bay excites me, as other recent titles (Q, the upcoming Witchboard) were originally released to disc from them as well (in rather slim or barebones editions). With the Bay seemingly more interested in releasing horrible Syfy movies and Weinstein/ Dimension fare these days, I wouldn't mind seeing Scream take over their other titles, bringing over the relevant extras and creating their own. Sure, we can't possibly need another Evil Dead or Halloween edition (ditto for their sequels), but maybe some of those Argento/Bava films that AB presumably still has control over? Or things like Fear No Evil? Nothing makes me sadder than seeing titles languish thanks to companies that want to hold onto their rights but not actually DO anything with them, so if they can play nice with a big title like this, maybe those little titles still have a shot at proper presentation.

What say you?


  1. Sounds good. Yeah, I think time has proved this one as essential to the lasting impact of Romero's trilogy as the previous entries. It's consistently the best-looking of the series, and if it never reaches the heights of its predecessors, it probably has fewer weak points than either, too.

    While I still have some reservations, mainly concerning the slightly too theatrically villainous figure of Capt. Rhodes, the conflict at the heart of the story, centered on the increasing tension between the military personnel and the science team, actually reveals itself to be pretty complex, especially given Frankenstein's increasing instability. Plus the grim overall mood, the austere underground setting, and probably still the best bunch of zombies I've seen, altogether I think it's as strong a final act to Romero's apocalyptic vision as anyone could've hoped for.

  2. Day of the Dead will always hold a special place in my heart for two reasons:

    1) The only movie I was ever a part of (Scary Tales: The Return of Mr. Longfellow. Google it!) had a cast member (Bill Cassinelli, a great guy) who was a zombie in Day of the Dead. My young teenage horrorhound self ate up his stories like so many zombies nosh on flesh.

    2) That opening city is my hometown of Fort Myers, FL. I actually work just a few buildings down from the Edison Theater where that alligator strolls out from. The city has an annual Halloween party downtown called ZombieCon, which has devolved into a generic party atmosphere, but was started by the fact that Day of the Dead shot there. It's my lameass town's one claim to fame, in my opinion anyways.


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