Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Zombie cinema isn’t exactly known for bringing out the best in humanity.
That’s an age-old axiom, and one that has stood as a central tenet of zombie movies ever since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. In that film, Romero illustrates the extremes in how our reactions to a survival situation are likely to differ based on the inherent moral standings of a group of characters—some assertive and empathetic, and others bigoted and ruled by fear. Every subsequent zombie film is in some way indebted to this sort of structure, with the true conflict of many tales of the living dead centering around the clash of survivor personalities, rather than the imminent danger of being devoured by ghouls.
Nowhere is this more true than in Romero’s own Day of the Dead in 1985. The third entry in the “of the dead” series is the ultimate deconstruction and critique of toxic masculinity and the corrupting force of power within the zombie genre; Romero’s most cynical hour when it comes to the man’s already low opinion of human nature. Never does the writer-director seem more sure of the inevitability of our destruction, and never is his gallows humor more effectively ugly than it is here.
Day of the Dead has long been one of the more divisive films in the Romero canon. There’s no small number of zombie devotees who consider it the finest film in the series, but there’s an equally large contingent who criticize Day of the Dead as long, slow and relentlessly morose, noting its oppressive atmosphere and sometimes underwhelming secondary characters, in comparison with the preceding Dawn of the Dead. On the other hand, the film contains some of the very best Tom Savini effects work of the decade, and ultimately earns high marks from us for both its stand-out antagonist and its unprecedented exploration of the deeper meaning of “zombification.”
In the latter sense, Day of the Dead very directly continues the line of thinking that Romero was exploring in Dawn of the Dead when his characters noted that the zombies seemed to feel a certain compulsion to return to those places they frequented in life. As it was stated in 1978, they possess: “Some kind of instinct … memory … of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” It begs the question: Is there more going on behind the lifeless eyes of the undead than the audience had been conditioned to believe for almost two decades? What if there’s still a spark of life there? A memory of consciousness or morality? What new layers of horror does that thought add to the threat of becoming a zombie yourself, knowing that your soul could be locked away behind those eyes? And how much harder does it become to casually exterminate a ghoul, knowing that it might be able to think and feel in its own way?
These revelations come to the audience via the research of Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty), a delightfully loony researcher who seems to be making steady progress toward understanding the undead condition, even working in the incredibly limiting conditions of an underground military bunker in the Florida Everglades. The prize of his research is “Bub,” the single most iconic zombie in the history of the genre, a non-violent and largely docile ghoul who remarkably seems to possess a vague memory of his past self and the common objects of everyday human society. To horror geeks of 1985, this must have seemed quite the revelation in and of itself—a zombie, saluting a military officer, or holding a gun? Such a redefinition of the undead could have been a stumbling point, but Day of the Dead applies exactly the right, gentle touch in forcing its audience to confront the questions this raises, without completely ditching the fearsome, flesh-eating ghouls of the previous two films. No definitive answers are offered—just an inkling that this apocalypse has taken on a far more profound and horrible portent than we ever realized.
The most telling thing, ultimately, is just how little this particular revelation impresses the psychotic Captain Rhodes, one of the greatest human antagonists the zombie genre has ever seen. Joseph Pilato plays Rhodes as a man possessed, so filled with impotent rage and bitterness that he’s blind to the degradation of his own faculties; the slow abandonment of his sanity and authority over this group of survivors. It’s unclear what more he wants from Dr. Logan—an outright cure for the infection, perhaps, as completely unreasonable as that is. He strikes us as a guy who might have been able to function as a cog in a bigger machine, but when he assumes power, it was always a move destined to fail thanks to his latent self-loathing and complete lack of compassion.
Look no further than how Rhodes manages a setting that initially seems to be the ideal place to ride out a zombie apocalypse. The bunker in which he resides is theoretically an impregnable bastion against the dead—it contains everything that should be needed to provide a safe refuge for the survivors, as long as the food holds out. But Day of the Dead stresses that it’s not the strength of your gates that matters, it’s the strength of your mind and its ability to resist despair, to stave off the seed of hopelessness that justifies brutality and petty abuses of power, with the rationale that nothing really matters. Captain Rhodes fails that test the moment it’s first presented to him, and it starts the misanthropic downward spiral we know from the get-go will result in the destruction of this place. Abuse to the point of bloody catharsis becomes a foregone conclusion. In that sense, you might describe Day of the Dead as a zombie tragedy.
Depending on who you ask, Day of the Dead might be considered the crown jewel, or at least a star attraction, in what was ultimately the greatest year in the history of zombie cinema, 1985. Not only did we get the third iteration in Romero’s series, the year also contains Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead, and Lamberto Bava’s Demons, a movie that is demonic in name but undeniably zombie in structure. Together, that’s a quartet of the living dead that has never been toppled, and likely never will be.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.