Day of the Dead is a nightmare. Occasionally literally, with writer and director Romero not afraid to rely on a recurring “it was just a nightmare” bit. But more symbolically… Day is about a group of scientists working in a secured location in the Florida Everglades, ostensibly protected by the U.S. Army; they’re on a mission from the government, which started in the early days of the undead plague. It’s unclear how long they’ve been at it—at least a month (Romero’s got a great calendar device). Long enough scientist Lori Cardille has had time to get romantic with soldier Anthony Dileo Jr. and long enough the group has lost something like six men.
There’s a helicopter and its pilot (Terry Alexander, the only Black non-zombie), a radio operator (Jarlath Conroy), the soldiers, the scientists, the zombies they’ve captured, and the zombies above waiting to get into their bunker. The movie opens with Alexander, Conroy, Cardille, and Dileo on a search mission to Fort Myers. Real impressive empty street shots, but it’s the only time the movie’s out of the bunker until the end. As usual, Romero’s got to do what he can on a budget.
We get some of the team dynamic, but mostly Dileo going through a mental breakdown and Cardille unintentionally aggravating the situation. Dileo and Cardille’s relationship status is never important to the plot, but since the other soldiers really hate Dileo and really want to rape Cardille, it gets an early emphasis. The soldiers in question are mostly bully Gary Howard Klar and comical(?) dipshit Ralph Marrero. Klar’s super-duper racist towards Dileo (for being Hispanic, though Klar seemingly has no issues with other Hispanic soldier Taso N. Stavrakis; well, playing Hispanic). It doesn’t help the situation Dileo’s falling apart and can’t do his job, which usually involves keeping zombies from eating his fellow soldiers.
When the helicopter expedition returns to base, we find out the Major has died and, now, Joseph Pilato is in command. Pilato thinks the scientists are wasting everyone’s time and making things more dangerous. Given what it’ll turn out lead scientist Richard Liberty has been doing… Pilato’s not exactly wrong. Cardille’s trying to either reverse the zombie process or at least prevent the continued contagion, while Liberty’s training the zombies as pets. His main project is played by Sherman Howard. Howard won’t single-handedly save the film, but he gives its only transcendent performance. There will be other good performances—there will be abysmal performances—but Howard’s is singular.
The majority of Day is the human drama. It’s the end of the world, you get eaten when you die, there’s nothing to eat but beans. Everyone’s on edge. Romero’s script keeps moving pretty well, but he gives his actors dialogue they can’t possibly essay. Like, again, there’s bad acting. But, holy cow, is Romero’s writing a lot at times. It’s like he’s compensating for the lack of budget both in scope and casting—why give Liberty great (or even good) dialogue when he’s just going to play it like he’s cutting prices on a used car commercial. Eventually, Alexander will get to walk off with the movie (for the humans), but Romero spends a lot of time focused on “protagonist” Cardille. Cardille’s always fine, often good, especially considering how bad the other acting gets.
Pilato’s amazingly bad. Klar, Marrero, and Dileo are all varying degrees of bad, but Pilato turns it into an art form. Day’s all about how much you don’t want the U.S. Army involved in anything. No lies detected and all, but they’re still cartoonish.
Of course, one can easily make the argument no one knows how living in a zombie apocalypse is going to affect id vs. superego when communicating with others (i.e., the Howard Hawks “no one knows how Ancient Egyptians talked” argument from Land of the Pharaohs). It also doesn’t matter because the human drama’s real enough, and the zombie horror is exceptional. Once things go wrong, they go spectacularly wrong. And there’s such good gore. Day’s mesmerizingly revolting.
Exceptional editing from Pasquale Buba is a plus, but the technicals are all solid. Michael Gornick’s photography’s always at least good, sometimes better (though he can’t hide some reused locations), and John Harrison’s score is outstanding. And Romero’s direction’s exceptional.
If only he had the budget to hire some better actors. At that level, he’d presumably have the time to fix the dialogue too. But still, good show. Day of the Dead’s an exceptionally human (and humane) nightmare.