Day of the Dead may be the talkiest, goriest (thanks to the fantastic work of Tom Savini and Gregory Nicotero) and most languidly-paced of Romero’s Dead trilogy, but it’s by no means the slightest.
DOTD focuses on community building, rather than one that’s being torn down. It’s a post-apocalyptic zombie film rife with Platonic tension between guardians and auxiliaries — the former rulers, the latter society’s defenders against outside invaders — bloodthirsty zombies, of course.
A small team of scientists, soldiers and a helicopter pilot are holed up in a subterranean Florida military base. The soldiers are becoming increasingly impatient with efforts by the scientists to understand the zombie plague when they, the militiamen, want to shoot first and ask questions later.
Initially, soldiers take undead hostages for scientific experimentation, using operant conditioning* to ameliorate their undesirable behaviors, not the least important of which is a hunger for human flesh. When the studies are going swimmingly, at least according to the researchers, the soldier/auxiliaries begin to question the received wisdom of their leaders and the utility of the whole enterprise, disparaging the lead scientist as “Frankenstein.”
And they were right to be concerned, as one of the captive zombies escapes compromising the integrity of the survivors’ makeshift society.
In the US, the average national recidivism rate for released prisoners is 43.3%, according to Pew Research. Day of the Dead could be seen as a nature / nurture / punishment / rehabilitation critique of the justice system.
The film basically explores “root cause” vs “public safety” dynamics, a tension exploited on both sides of the political aisle to this day. Can good, productive behavior be socially engineered? Can individual behaviors be subsumed under the collective will?
Romero’s series (at least the canonical Big Three) is a rare breed: a strong case could be made for any one of them being strongest of the bunch. (The same cannot be said of Jaws or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for example).
Does Night of the Living Dead reign supreme for how it dealt with race and being the first (and arguably most influential) modern zombie film? Would you give the nod to Dawn of the Dead for its unabashed action and consumer critique, however heavy-handed? Or would the cerebral Day take it by a nose?
It’s damn-near impossible to say.
Romero’s vision here has the root cause Utopians win out, even if they ultimately failed humanity. But that’s just one conception among many. Lots of food for thought here…
**** (out of 5)
[According to lead researcher Dr Logan: “Civil behavior must be rewarded…If it’s not rewarded, there’s no use for it. There’s just no use for it at all!”]