Day of the Dead (Scream Factory)
Day of the Dead seems destined to always be the black sheep of Romero’s Living Dead trilogy. It was a box office and critical disappointment upon its release, and as many of the filmmakers interviewed on this disc note, it represented the end of an era for Romero and the entire Pittsburgh filmmaking scene. Over the years the film has grown in stature thanks to home video, but it still doesn’t have the cache of a Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. Look only at the remakes of each film to tell – one is a celebrated spin by Tom Savini starring Tony Todd, another was a box office smash that launched the career of Zack Snyder, and the other was a direct-to-video movie that featured a zombie barfing on the cover. Guess which one was Day of the Dead’s remake? Despite being the odd flick out, Day of the Dead sure has been treated well on disc – its original DVD was one of the first on the format, and yet it still had a great little behind-the-scenes doc (that’s never been ported since), the DiviMax DVD featured a much restored transfer and a whole spate of extras (many of which are here on this new release) and then the Anchor Bay Blu-ray brought everything to a higher definition. And now, six years later, we get yet another Blu-ray, this time from the celebrated horror preservationists at Scream Factory. They have a pretty glowing track record – do they shine an even brighter light on Day or is this another one for the fire?
The film begins with a claustrophobic shot of Sarah (Lori Cardille) sitting alone in a barren room. She counts down the endless days on a calendar, and then the hands of zombies jut through the wall, grabbing at her. The nightmare motif is established, and the true story begins. Sarah and her group land down in a Florida city looking for life, but as the newspaper proclaims: "The Dead Walk!" Humans are the minority now, and zombies dominate the abandoned landscapes. Unable to find any survivors, the group returns to their underground barricade.
They have been cooped up there for months, and sanity is beginning to fade from even the strongest members of the group. Capitan Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) is the biggest victim of cabin fever, as his short fuse burns moment by moment. The self-appointed leader of the group, he has become the tyrant, obsessed with his power and afraid of his extinction. His strength is contrasted against the equally loony Dr. Logan. Logan's insanity is more understated and harmless; he is obsessed with the dead and the possibility of controlling their cognitive movements. Logan has a guinea pig, Bub (Howard Sherman), who is slowly, like a child, learning the simplicities of human life. Logan's research gives promise in the thought that one day the humans may be able to control the seemingly uncontrollable zombies.
Unfortunately, Logan's progress is not quite brisk enough for Rhodes, and he demands some changes, while at the same time threatens to leave the group stranded. As the group tries to round up more zombies for study, problems ensue and nerves snap. The military, lead by Rhodes, goes against the medical doctors, in the mean time unleashing the legions of zombies. Will the relationship meltdown destroy the two institutions, or will humans continue to prevail?
There are no likable characters in Day of the Dead. Everyone, from Rhodes to Logan are so self centered and dire that it makes it impossible to identify with any of the human characters. They are mostly cruel, uncaring and cold, but what the hell else are they supposed to be. The biggest knock Romero's Day has taken is the fact that it does not provide a likable human character, but neither do many of the best films of modern times. Taxi Driver, Aguirre: Wrath of God, The Rules of Attraction, and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, feature a cast load of despicable characters and they manage still to be fantastic works of art. To call a film flawed simply because it offers no likable characters is a shameful misjudgment. In order to push the limits of cinema and story narrative, one must probe into the darker and under seen undercurrents of society, and that is just what Day of the Dead accomplishes.
The characters in Day have been locked away for months (years?) and their edgy and loud antics are just what is to be expected. Isolation and desperation has settled in, and these characters are all experiencing the worst forms of cabin fever, and Romero handles it admirably. The characters indulge in profane yelling matches, but it isn't overacting, it is a dynamic of claustrophobic human desperation. These characters are on their last legs, and they certainly show it.
Claustrophobia is a major part of the film, and is in many ways a return to the roots of Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. Of course it features another strong African American character that becomes a major player in the end. It may be day outside, but these characters never see it, as they fight it out in the darkened mines. In Night the characters were barred in a tight house and basement, and there are definite echoes of it in Day. Because the characters are so close together, their patience and tolerance levels are extremely low, and it makes for good, gritty drama. Dawn of the Dead had their characters cooped up in a mall, but it was always presented as a type of surrogate earth, where they could live and get along with each other forever. I appreciate the tightly composed shots of Day, that really emphasize the constricted nature of the characters. It gives the film a taut urgency, one that makes the viewer wish the characters can escape into that titular day.
Day is also a return to Romero's original zombie vision in its stark photography. Other than the blood red of various body parts, the movie works on a very muted color palette. In fact, the entire image appears washed out to the point where it nearly recreates the black and white photography of Night of the Living Dead. This film lacks the comic book lightness of Dawn, and its restricted color usage returns the series to its darker origins. It is a bleak portrait of the future that Romero paints, but it is fitting with the apocalyptic story he tries to tell.
What has elevated Romero's apocalyptic zombie films above the likes of Fulci or Lenzi's work is that he fuses it with relevant social commentary. Day, arguably more than Night and Dawn, offers plenty of subtext to mull over. The film presents two distinct social institutions, science and the military, and pits them against each other. As the world decays around them, they too eventually crumble. Romero has always taken jabs at governmental institutions in movies like Martin, but here he really knocks them front and center. As the two institutions quarrel and destroy themselves, it is somewhat reassuring which one emerges victorious. It is a cold film, but at least Romero gives some sort of relief.
As interesting as the battle between institutions is, the best part of Romero's story centers around Bub. It seems logical that if one is going to be living amidst zombies that they should be studying them, and Dr. Logan does just that. Mankind has never resisted its analytical tendencies, and Logan's studying of Bub is slavery in an apocalyptic age. In creating his human characters so cold, Romero makes Bub the most human of all. Like a child he re-learns the bits of life we all take for granted, and his story is quite touching. As Roger Avary asserts, Howard Sherman's performance as Bub was probably the best of the year. The kind of emotions he allows to shine through his face is remarkable. Never has a character without lines been so effective at creating such a strong, expressive presence.
Sherman is not alone though, as Cardille, Pilato and Liberty all give stellar performances. The stone faced, but beautiful, Lori Cardille brings to the series the strongest female lead, and it remains one of the most assured and powerful female performances the genre has ever seen. Joseph Pilato is wonderfully over the top, and his shouting monologues are wholly memorable. The late Richard Liberty gives his Dr. Frankenstein character a quirky sense of awe at all of his creations and discoveries. It is an ensemble cast, and definitely up to par with the casts of Romero's other Dead films.
This review would not be complete without mentioning the groundbreaking gore by splatter legend Tom Savini. Sure, he may have done Friday the 13th, The Prowler, Maniac, Dawn of the Dead and Trauma, but none of that work even comes close to his creations in Day of the Dead. Fingers, arms and even heads are ripped off in graphic detail, and bodies are literally torn apart on screen. All of Savini's past tricks are included in this film, and it becomes a kind of "best of" compilation of his astounding work. The sheer volume of effects and the uncut nature of the film make this arguably the benchmark for all gore films to refer to. Rivaled only by Bottin's work on The Thing, Savini's make up effects here are jaw dropping in their graphic and complete nature. Definitely the high point of the trilogy when it comes to graphic dismemberment.
It comes with all trilogies, the inevitable question: "so which is the best film?" Which is the movie that extends far and above the others to proudly be the flag bearer of the series? Day of the Dead isn't that film, but neither is Dawn or Night. Romero's three films work so well together in such different ways that it is impossible to compare them. Let them exist solely as a cohesive whole, three masterpieces that define each timeframe in which they were released. Much more positive comments could be directed at the initially under appreciated Day of the Dead, but holding it in the same light as Dawn and Night is compliment enough for this great zombie film.
The same print used for the Anchor Bay discs is sourced here, but this is an entirely new transfer. The differences make themselves readily apparent in the comparisons – this is a much warmer coloring of the film than what we’ve seen in the past. I’ve always approached Day of the Dead as a colder, more industrial vision of our future, with more muted colors and a bluer overall hue. This transfer challenges that, and a lot of whether you’ll appreciate it or not comes down to preference. Personally, I think I prefer the previous Blu-ray palette; I just think it fits the film better. You'll notice that the Scream Factory transfer is more contrasty, which results in a more saturated look. Again, preference. Another noticeable difference is that this new transfer is noisier than Anchor Bay’s transfer – you can really see the pixels dance on textures in the lower end of the spectrum. The Anchor Bay transfer is much cleaner in that regard, although it’s a tiny bit softer, too. With the film being shot in the large, dark, cavernous spaces of the mine, the filmmakers needed to use a higher ISO stock to capture everything, and as a result this film will never have the clarity of many other major horror films, no matter how high the resolution or advanced the transfer. I think this Scream Factory transfer really pushes Day of the Dead to its visual limits, and as a result some of the faults of the stock are more visible this time around than ever before. Given the source material, it’s a strong transfer, but Anchor Bay’s aims lower and still I think stands up as the best way to view this movie.
Reading the spec sheet, this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track seems like a pretty big downgrade compared to the wealth of 6.1 tracks contained on the previous DVD and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay, but in actuality, this track is the new gold standard for the film. What this mix lacks in channels it gains in actual content – this mix uses the original uncensored audio track contained on the old 1998 DVD. The remastered Anchor Bay discs previously sourced a Japanese master for their surround tracks that had six minor censorship changes (“Jesus” becoming “Stuck” or “Shit!” becoming “Right!”). Thankfully, all six changes are nowhere to be found on this track, thus finally restoring the original mix the film had in theaters. While the DiviMax release had no original mono track, Anchor Bay did include it on their Blu-ray, albeit at a very compressed rate. Despite all the superlatives of ES, EX, 6.1 and the like, the Anchor Bay tracks weren’t much more than glorified mono tracks, and to be honest, I found this new mix from Scream Factory to sound a little fuller. Technically, the bitrate on this audio track is almost 5 times higher than the surround tracks on the Anchor Bay release, and 15 times the original mono track on the previous Blu-ray, and you can feel it. Impact sounds, from the low spectrum of boulder smashing to the highs of chains rattling all register with depth, and John Harrison’s underappreciated Caribbean-cribbing synth track sounds as omnipresent as ever. Simply the best this great film has ever sounded.
The previous releases of these films had more extras than Rhodes did entrails, but this one advertises an “onslaught of new Scream Factory extras”, so here we go…
Ported over from the previous DiviMax DVD and Blu-ray are the commentaries, one with George A. Romero, Tom Savini, Lori Cardille and production designer Cletus Anderson, and the other with fan boy director Roger Avary. The first commentary has all the participants reunited together, and it is nice to see them catching up on old times and recollecting about the now 18(!) year old movie. They talk about the fun on the set, Lori's young buttocks, the reception of the movie and what it was like working in the mines. Although some content is covered in the documentary, the track still makes for a fascinating listen, and while not fantastic, will still please fans of the Dead.
The commentary with Roger Avary (Director of Killing Zoe and my favorite film of the aughts, The Rules of Attraction) is a bit of a mixed bag. I applaud Anchor Bay (and by extension Scream Factory) for sanctioning a commentary by a true fan, rather than somebody who would probably rather do other things, but Avary's commentary is entirely off the cuff. He is not well prepared, and as a result he struggles at times for things to say. He goes into detail about board games and how he thinks kids should play guns with zombies, and some of the anecdotes fall flat. He is full of life though, and the commentary is definitely worthy of a listen, even if he doesn't bring much information to the table. Avary offers some perceptions about the film, and hearing how him and Quentin Tarantino met George before they were famous is interesting. Not all it could have been, but definitely still a commentary to be heard.
Missing from this release is the 39-minute retrospective documentary on the film that was on the Anchor Bay releases, but it’s been overshadowed by this even more exhaustive documentary, “The World’s End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead” (1:25:26). It’s Produced and Directed by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher, who at this point is arguably the de facto historian for all things Living Dead after organizing the massive 4-disc Dawn of the Dead DVD set from Anchor Bay back in the day and documenting production on-set for Romero’s last two Dead pictures. This new doc does Day proud by assembling virtually all the key surviving cast and crew members (minus, oddly, Greg Nicotero, who Felsher has interviewed in the past). We get new interviews with everybody, the always lovely Lori Cardille, Martin himself John Amplas, the whacky Joe Pilato and Howard “Bub” Sherman are just some of the people from the cast. On the crew side we get the usuals, Romero and Savini, as well as DP Michael Gornick, 2nd AD/composer (that’s a dual-credit you don’t see much) John Harrison and many more. What I liked about this lengthy doc is that it never really gets into the rut of people congratulating themselves or praising the picture – perhaps because the film underperformed everyone involved here felt a greater need to justify the following the film has today instead with a multitude of facts, theories and anecdotes. The resulting doc is therefore a very enlightening piece that, despite all the extra material about the film already available, still rings through as fresh and informative. I popped this in to watch a snippet before bed and ended up finishing it through in one sitting. Significant time is spent breaking down each effect in great detail, but I actually found myself most compelled when the actors were talking about their craft – how they approached each character (Anthony DiLeo talking about his depression and how tough it was to sustain that throughout a picture without any sunlight was particularly interesting) and how they received direction from Romero (Pilato kept cursing Romero for letting him go so big but Romero loved the performance). The doc is informative, but it’s also well assembled and a lot of fun. I’ll leave you with two takeaway words on that: Moose Clit.
“Underground: The Day of the Dead Mines” (7:37) is another new extra, revisiting the Wampum mines with the facility tech from Day of the Dead, Skip Docchio. Skip is a humble and warm personality to show here, and his recollections and embarassments from Day of the Dead are great to hear. Pittsburgh horror guru and Cult Magazine mastermind Ed Demko hosts the piece, and white it’s well shot, it’s probably too well shot for what they were trying to accomplish here. The depth of field is too shallow in most of the shots from the film that Demko is re-creating, and as a result most of the memorable backdrops are blurred out in the background. It would have really helped to have had some clean shots of the locations without the personalities visible, sort of like what they do with “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds”. Still, it’s an affectionate piece for Skip, who admits at the end that he’s now leaving behind the mind after having worked there 35 years.
If you know anything about Tom Savini you know he likes to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of his effects, and if you’ve previously owned any of the Anchor Bay releases of Day of the Dead you’ve likely seen his footage here. The same 31-minutes of videotape based footage are included once again on this release, and it’s a pretty great window into what it was like to be on set back in the day. You get to see most of the major effects as they are being created in the makeup room, and then as they’re being performed and executed on set. This film is one of the high watermarks for practical effects, and it’s so great that there will always be all this extra footage to remind us of the brilliant work here done by all.
The Gateway Commerce Center (8:12) promotional video that was included on previous Anchor Bay releases of the film is also again included here. It’s a big piece of corporate fluff, the kind that Romero actually used to make before he went on to make Night of the Living Dead. It’s a very 90’s look at what the mine set from the film is like today, and how it has become a major commercial and industrial storage hub. If you ever need storage space, you know where to look.
Rounding off this release are all the press and promo materials you could ask for, with theatrical trailers (one teaser, three trailers), TV spots and four different photo galleries (which were in part previously on the DiviMax DVD but nowhere to be found on the Anchor Bay Blu-ray). These galleries are updated with even more stills, including pictures of those previous Anchor Bay releases and shots of a non-zombie-inhabited Florida.
As always, I have to pay tribute to Scream Factory’s packaging here. Nathan Thomas Milliner’s art fits very well with the existing art commonly used for the film but still does what many of the better Scream Factory covers do in encapsulating key moments and characters from the film. This one even has the alligator! The art is reversible with the original poster art, although they made a gaffe in forgetting to turn off the “GEORGE A. ROMERO’S” text layer from their design, which is just visible on the Night part of the top art (both covers must have been contained in the same file). The old Anchor Bay DVD release probably still wins when it comes to collectible packaging, though, with the Velcro Bub head and the little hand drawn notes done to look like a doctor’s sketch pad.
Speaking of the Anchor Bay release, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about what hasn’t been ported over here. Already mentioned was the “The Many Days of Day of the Dead” documentary, but also missing is a solid audio interview with the late Richard Liberty and a “fast film facts” pop-up video track for the feature film. Lastly, yet another opportunity was missed to bring over that great 20-minute doc that had a lot more footage of Romero directing on set that was originally included on the 1998 DVD from Anchor Bay. It’s never been released since, but it really needs to be. So sadly, for fans of the film, if you want all the goods at this point you’d need to track down each and every release of this film. Ugh.
Day of the Dead may have been the least respected Romero Dead film out of the gate, but these days it seems it’s the one that just keeps getting more relevant. It has proven itself to be timeless, with gore effects that have never been bested since, and a damning message about the human condition told with such conviction by Romero that it will always remain relevant as long as there’s a humanity out there to experience it. It’s relevance is probably why it keeps getting re-released, but unfortunately none of the releases seem to have the complete longevity of the film in question. This new Scream Factory release is a mixed bag – the sound, although only mono, finally restores the original, uncensored sound mix, but the picture is noisier than the Anchor Bay Blu-ray, and the warmer, more saturated color temperature may put off many who remember the film as a colder, muter indictment on society. The new documentary here is fantastic, but with extras missing here from past releases it’s tough to call this definitive. There’s no question that Day of the Dead belongs in every horror fan’s collection, what version you choose will depend on your preference for image, sound and extras. The good news is that whatever version you pick, whether it’s Scream Factory’s or Anchor Bay’s release, you’re in for a release that does this masterpiece justice. It’s a Day that’s lasted 28 years…may the sun never set on Romero’s grim goresterpiece.
The original Mono mix was on the Anchor Bay Blu too as well as the original 1998 DVD.
Good honest review!
I have a feeling Nailwraps is right though. AB's blu had the censored PCM track, but the uncensored mono track as well... can anyone confirm?
Looking back at the Anchor Bay Blu-ray, yes, that's correct, the original uncensored mono track is included. It's only at 192 kbps though while the Scream Factory mix runs at 3000 kbps. Theirs is definitely preferred. I've updated the review to address this, thanks for the notes, guys.
I am not at all a fan of Scream Factory's transfer. It's colors are definitely artificially over saturated. I wish you would have taken some screen grabs of some of the shots in the cafeteria area...whenever there are people in the background, their faces appear overtly orange.
And the reds are way too bright.
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