The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead
Plexus, London, 2014
224 pp, $24.95
It was nearly thirty years ago this year that George Romero’s third zombie film, Day of the Dead, was released, some seven years after Dawn of the Dead (1978), the original, celebrated sequel to his classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Dawn, one of the most critically and commercially successful sequels in movie history at the time, was undoubtedly a tough act to follow, as was Romero’s cult classic vampire coming-of-age film Martin, released earlier the same year. Romero initially took advantage of these successes by directing Knightriders (1981) – a personal, if problematic, film ostensibly about a group of medieval traveling troupe that jousts on motorbikes, but symbolically dealing with Romero’s own experiences operating a small, independent film company – and the Stephen King-penned anthology film Creepshow (1982).
Shortly after Dawn’s release, Romero intended to produce a third film and, perhaps spurred by Dawn’s upping the ante on the size of the zombie spectacle, Romero’s initial screenplay for Day was envisioned as a kind of zombie Gone With the Wind. Despite the commercial success of Dawn and Creepshow, Romero faced studio interference with regards to the violence of his script: either Romero tone down violence or accept a smaller budget. He chose a smaller budget and rewrote the script, retaining and fleshing out the core narrative themes. (Some of the excised material would be utilized in the somewhat disappointing Land of the Dead , the first of a second zombie trilogy for the 21st century.)
Much of what remains is a claustrophobic study of the continued disintegration of civilization, symbolized by the survivors who, though faced with a zombie apocalypse, cannot put personal differences aside in the interest of survival. Here, it is the military who wants to kill the undead, the scientists who want to study them, either to find a means of reversing the zombification, or to exploit them for more nefarious ends (the latter objective was more explicit in Romero’s original script), and a third society, represented by helicopter pilots, want to escape society, to stop trying to fix world and instead “drop out,” a reflection of Romero’s liberal, 60s-era values.
Romero has long been interested in how human society faced with disaster undoes itself from within, how our true enemy is not the “other” represented by zombies, but ourselves. In this sense, Day has more in common with Night of the Living Dead, which similarly took place almost entirely in a single location. But where Night – unintentionally or not – draws upon the civil unrest of the 1960s due to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, and Dawn is largely a comparatively light-hearted satire of 1970s-era consumerism, more disco than dead, Day, which takes place chronologically after the first two, when the dead have finally come to outnumber the living some 3,000 to one, is unarguably the darkest of the three, infused by 1980s Reagan era Cold War dread and hopelessness. It’s also easily the most feminist; unlike the lead females of the first two films, who are mostly ineffectual, it’s the lead actress here, played capably by Lori Cardille, who exhibits the most strength and capability.
Day was initially not a commercial or critical success due to its nihilistic tone, and audience expectations for a replication of Dawn’s irreverence. These “shortcomings” were exacerbated by 80’s horror having come to be dominated by Halloween (1978) slasher film knock-offs, and the release, practically to the day, of a competing zombie film, Dan O’Bannon’s punk-infused – and decidedly more successful – Return of the Living Dead. And while Day is not as historically consequential as Night, or as critically revered as Dawn, it is undeniably the best-acted and most technically proficient of the initial trilogy, the zenith of in-camera horror special effects, and is undeniably, special effects supervisor Tom Savini’s masterpiece.
Almost from the start, the film attracted a small yet devoted following; comprised mostly of “ghouls” as Romero describes them. Moreover, Romero continues to pick Day as his personal favorite of his zombie films. In retrospect, Day was ahead of its time, its tone more in keeping with post 9-11 US horror films. Indeed, the zombies in Day can be viewed as a lobotomized populace, and the scientists and military underground that exploit them as symbols of eroded liberties.
Day, notably, also marked the end of era, and the split-up of Laurel Entertainment, Romero’s production company since Martin. Following Day, Romero “went Hollywood,” directing the studio-meddled Monkey Shines (1988), and the Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half, both box office disappointments. In many ways, Romero’s career would never recover from this post-Day Hollywood excursion. Romero eventually relocated to Canada and produced the independent Bruiser (2000), followed by the aforementioned second zombie trilogy, the studio-produced Land of the Dead, and the independently financed, abysmal Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009), his last “major” film to date.
The history of Day’s production, derived from interviews, call sheets, production memos, news articles and more, is lovingly – and sometimes repetitiously – detailed in Lee Karr’s book The Making of George Romero’s Day of the Dead. Divided into five neat chapters, Karr’s book covers Day’s origins, its pre-production, its 56 days of production – the book’s longest chapter, thankfully peppered with anecdotes, news articles and context to make for easier reading – its post-production and release, and its legacy.
Karr’s book, for all its merits, is however not terribly well-written, and is certainly non-academic. This is not always a bad thing, yet there needs to be more energy to propel the narrative. Karr’s book suffers from a lack of concision, much repetition, and it needs better transitions, or at least more of them. The large third chapter, a day-by-day recounting of 56 day shoot, can be a bit taxing, though, as I mention, it is helpfully peppered with anecdotes. Most problematically, quotes from interviews need editing, as many appear to be mere transcription. This isn’t courtroom testimony, one wants to tell Karr, it’s a book about a zombie movie. Finally, the formatting is lacking: photographs are haphazardly placed, out of order or context, as if placed not by necessity or design, but out of carelessness or apathy.
Despite numerous drawbacks, Karr is to be commended for his exhaustive research; it’s clear that Karr has a long-lasting and abiding love for the source material, and that enthusiasm keeps the book from becoming too bogged down in minutiae (though there is plenty of that). Karr’s book is also copiously illustrated with rare behind-the-scenes photographs certain to whet the appetite of any Romero zombie fan.