Day of the Dead (Blu-ray)
Anchor Bay was one of the first companies to really latch onto the DVD medium with early releases of key titles like Halloween in 1997. Let’s just say that wasn’t the most auspicious of starts. Anchor Bay proved to be on the cutting edge, once again, with early support for the Blu-ray format this time a year ago. Not surprisingly, their key titles, Halloween, Evil Dead II, Masters of Horror: Season One and their two Romero Dead properties, Dawn and Day, were their first releases. A year later, they remain their only horror releases on the format. Who knows when they will start dropping their Argento, Coscarelli, Barker and Bava properties, but hopefully the sooner the better. Today, though, let’s seize the Day and check out the Blu-ray upgrade to their already stellar two-disc Day of the Dead set. Has Anchor Bay done the format well, or is this the early days of DVD all over again?
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.
Anchor Bay’s special edition DVD upgrade over their original Day of the Dead release was a significant improvement. The contrast was better, the picture sharper and the restoration cleaner. It was a beautiful transfer. As one of their “DiviMax” titles, it was simultaneously mastered in high definition upon transfer, so it’s surprise to no one that the transfer used here is the same as the stellar DVD source. With that out of the way, this 1:78:1 16x9 1080p MREG-4 AVC still offers the improvements we’ve come to expect with the new format. The most notable enhancement is the increased contrast latitude, which provides a significant amount of increased detail that before fell to the shadows. Zombies stuck in silhouette in the previous discs now come out with a visible texture out of backgrounds, and walls and other objects in the periphery also show new shapes.
Sharpness is also improved without edge enhancement, although it’s not quite as significant as per usual with HD. There are definite times when the images “pop” off the screen, but for the most part the effect is more muted. That said, the 3D effect is still apparent in several scenes, including the memorable opening in the brick room and all the apocalyptic shots in Florida. Considering the gore in this movie, it should be pretty obvious to note the thousands of incarnations of red throughout, and how they’ve been improved on Blu-ray. Innards take on a realistic texture rather than the light smear found on the NTSC DVD, and all of Savini’s effects really stand out on this upgraded track. Day of the Dead didn’t quite blow me away the way other HD transfers have, but it’s no doubt another significant upgrade of a very significant horror film.
The special edition DVD advertised DTS ES and Dolby Digital 5.1 EX tracks, but they really didn’t sound much better than your usual restored mono track. There was a bit more fidelity and umph, but in terms of channel separation, it was same ol’ same ol’. The dropping of the DTS track and the extra channel on the included Dolby Surround 5.1 and PCM Lossless 5.1 audio tracks, then, shouldn’t be of much concern. New to this disc, though, is the original mono track, which many fans requested when it was absent from the previous DVD. Nice job on that, Anchor Bay. Losssless or not, this track still sounds virtually the same as the DVD version whichever way you cut it, and that is very clear and without any hiss, crackle or pop. It just won’t blow your speakers away, either.
The previous disc had some notable audio substitutions that drove purists nuts. Six minor changes in all, they were culled from a Japanese release and sanitizes obscenities like “Jesus!” and “Shit!”. Despite significant complaints, Anchor Bay hasn’t changed a thing on this new release. Honestly, though, the changes are so minor, and usually in the background, that they would be near impossible to notice. The only one that really stands out to me isn’t even a sanitization – it’s when Cardille says “I can’t look!” instead of “Oh, Jesus…” since it clearly doesn’t match her mouth at all. The rest of the changes are seamless, though, and don’t affect the film negatively in any way. In fact, considering how much profanity there already is in the film, some of these changes might be welcomed with open arms.
For reference, here are the changes in question:
Anchor Bay's special "Divimax" label, promised big things, and it deliverd. Thankfully, this Blu-ray retains almost all of the two-disc content on this single Blu-ray disc. All that's missing is the DVD-ROM content (screenplay and production notes) and the still galleries. The impressive packaging and the nice notebook included with the previous DVD has been trumped by your bare, standard Blu-ray package. The one addition is a feature-length "Fun Facts" trivia track, with pop-ups every ten seconds or so saying a fact about the scene in question. There is some nice information here that is not addressed in any of the supplements. The menu structure on this DVD is slick and easy to navigate, with a menu similar in approach to the special edition disc, with body sketches and the like. Okay, with that out of the way, here's all the stuff from the previous DVD.
First we have two solid audio 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 is a bit of a mixed bag. I applaud Anchor Bay 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.
Moving on, the biggest featurette is a 39 minute look into the making of Day of the Dead, entitled "The Many Days of Day of the Dead." Romero, Savini, Cardille, Joe Pilato, Howard Sherman, Greg Nicotero and many more participants in the film are all back with new interviews. The documentary looks at the following behind the Dead films, the production in the underground mine, the methods used to do some of the macabre effects and much more. The best parts of the documentary though, are spent with Howard Sherman, as he talks earnestly and fondly of his Bub role, and the complex thought he put into the character. Kudos to Anchor Bay for rounding up so many of the key participants in the project, it really makes this documentary worth the look. Romero and Savini even tease the fans at the end with their hinting at working on the next Dead film.
Like some of Savini's other films to hit DVD, like The Prowler and From Dusk Till Dawn, included here is a 31 minute behind the scenes reel of gore footage. It takes time to show the makeup and masks behind applied and removed, and then by the end looks at the gore shots featured in the film. Savini always does a great job of covering all his effects on tape, and this little piece is no different.
An interview with the late Richard Liberty is also included, and it runs about 15 minutes. The quality is pretty rough, but still audible, and Liberty talks about how he got involved with Romero in The Crazies, and then how that made way for Day of the Dead. He provides some nice anecdotes about the shoot, and even talks about another zombie film he made...Porky's II! A significantly lesser supplement is the Wampum Mine Promotional Video, used to promote the mine used in Day of the Dead. It is a pure puff piece, and actually kind of funny in a campy sort of way. If you need storage space in the future, you'll always have this featurette to refer to.
Three TV spots and three trailers are included, as well as a nice George A. Romero biography and filmography.
The original flipper DVD had a great, 20 minute behind the scenes look at the shoot of Day of the Dead. It had footage and interviews of the zombies in between take, it showed Romero in action and it even spent time with some of the lower crew members, like those responsible for calling people to be zombies. It would have went great with Savini's own footage, but sadly Anchor Bay has neglected to include it on this DVD set. So those with the original DVD may want to think twice before dumping the disc.
George A. Romero reaches far past the simplified “Death as consumerism” metaphor of Dawn of the Dead to literally dissect the essence of zombies in gory detail with Day of the Dead. Of all his Dead films, Romero probably had the most to say here, and despite its underrated status, it’s probably his most substantial contribution to the zombie canon. If you can’t agree to that, then at least concede it’s the pinnacle of Savini’s work. This new Blu-ray offers an improved audio and visual transfer, with the original mono track now included, and the video sharper and with greater detail previously lost in the shadows. The audio is still the hardly noticeable sanitization from the previous DVD. The extras gain the amusing “Fast Film Facts” pop-up track, but miss the galleries and screenplay included on the DVD. The rest is all the same, and there’s a lot there to digest! The DiviMax DVD has that exquisite packaging and the nice notebook, but if disc content is all that matters, bury your DVD. Let it rest in piece. Blu-ray signals a new Day for Romero’s enduring franchise.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Nice review rhetty boy. I picked this one up a couple of weeks ago. It is indeed awesome in terms of quality, and one of my favorite zombie flicks. Gotta love when Savini is involved :)
OMG I can see the latex clearly!
My favorite Dead film. Nice review, rhett. You do seem a bit muted in the praise for the upgraded transfer, and I guess it's understandable given how excellent the prev. edition is. I came in here prepared to stress over the leap to Blu-Ray, but I think I'll hold off for just a while longer. This will be one of my first purchases, however.
I listened to the mono track and the original soundtrack without the audio drops was there I heard oh jesus instead of i canæt look etc
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