At the time of its release, Day of the Dead was met mostly with audience indifference and a collective critical shrug. In one sense, that's understandable -- there were a lot of zombies running around in 1985, and most of them were a lot wilder than Romero's. A month after its release, Return of the Living Dead came along with its punk aesthetic and brain-eating zombies, and two months after that the perverse undead of Re-Animator were unleashed on the world. It was easy for Day of the Dead to get lost in the shuffle, but it was a mistake, because the modern zombie apocalypse, as depicted in the uber popular Walking Dead and elsewhere, is basically little more than elaborate fan fiction for this film.
Day of the Dead was the apotheosis of Romero's zombie vision. His earlier works, while groundbreaking, haven't aged as well as they could, especially in the visual department. His later zombie works, while not without merit, are little more than a coda to Day. It was here that we first saw the true scope of the zombie apocalypse. In the film, the last remnants of society -- a handful of soldiers, a few scientists and some civilian contractors -- are stuck in a bomb shelter somewhere in Florida, searching desperately for a cure, or any kind of solution, to the plague of the living dead that's everywhere. While most of the film takes place in the shelter, there are enough scenes of the outside world to make it clear that this is it: the end of the world.
Cities full of nothing but wandering dead, shambling toward the few survivors who dare to come out to search for the last few living. The last remnants of the American empire reduced to a bunch of stir-crazy soldiers and unhinged scientists holed up in an underground bomb shelter. Humanity itself teetering on the brink of extinction. It's a bleak, dour vision, and not surprisingly, it didn't resonate all that strongly with mid-'80s audiences. But modern audiences are apparently more apt to accept the total destruction of humanity as solid entertainment.
Consider the film in the context of The Walking Dead. Apart from the few period-specific touches, it might as well be concurrent with the first season. The season one finale, where they meet up with the possibly unhinged doctor at the CDC, even skirted close to the film's plot. The remainder of the series could easily be seen as a continuation of its story. Hell, Greg Nicotero, one of the show's current executive producers and the man in charge of its visual effects, got his start on Day of the Dead. It's no coincidence that the zombies you see on that show are clear descendants of the gruesome, grisly undead in the film, which set the high-water mark for Romero's monsters, and they look great to this day.
My personal favorite zombie movie is still Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and it may have the marginal edge as simply being a better movie. But as far as zombie movies go, specifically zombie apocalypse movies, there are none finer than Day of the Dead -- and there may never be. It looks good, it's smart and dark and disturbing, and it even has a kernel of hope for those who can't face the utter bleakness of human extinction. Plus it has Bub, the most charming zombie ever, and a genuine mad scientist chopping zombies into pieces to see how they tick. It crams more entertaining set pieces and meaningful social commentary into its 100 minutes than The Walking Dead manages in a season, and you don't have to suffer through Rick's atrocious attempt at a Southern accent. What else can you ask for, zombie fans?
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