Lori Cardinelle plays Dr. Sarah Bowman, a cool-headed member of the science team and, for most of the film, its focal point. The primary antagonist is the profane, perpetually pissed Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), an instantly unlikable character who leads a dwindling corps of soldiers, most of whom are unmitigated idiots or psychos, not the least of which is the brawny, bigoted Private Steel (Gary Howard Klar). Cardinelle does her best to work with Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), whose penchant for cutting up zombies to see how they work has earned him the nickname "Frankenstein." Dr. Bowman's most trusted colleagues are the civilians -- helicopter pilot Bill McDermott and the communications technician known only as John (Terry Alexander).
Down in the underground complex, the military is ostensibly working for the science team. Periodically, zombies must be trapped and delivered to Dr. Logan, who spends most of his time locked in his lab amid the scalpels and bone saws, with scarcely time enough to wash the putrid blood from his lab coat. In fact, he doesn't bother any more. Nice duds, Doc. Zombie-wrangling is dangerous -- even deadly work -- and the soldiers are dwindling in number with little progress being shown from the science team.
|Bub makes a call -- but to whom?|
There's a great deal of arguing among the principal players, with a measured dose of excellent zombie encounters in Acts One and Two. There's just enough undead hanging around to keep the audience from getting bored amid all the yelling. Needless the say, the whole operation is unsustainable. In Act Three, one injured soldier loses his mind and, in a fit of vengeance or hopelessness (it's not clear), he lets a whole freight elevator full of zombies into the compound, and everyone pretty much gets eaten. Dr. Bowman and her two civilian pals do their best to make a run for it out the "back door" of the underground complex, and their escape makes for some of the most entertaining and carefully constructed zombie kills in the film. Cranky old Captain Rhodes is torn asunder in particularly fine fashion, and Bub turns in some fine moments as well before it's all gone to hell.
Although Romero has said that Day of the Dead is his favorite of the zombie film's he's made, and both critics and audiences generally appreciate the movie, this 1985 entry doesn't fare as well in comparison to 1978's Dawn of the Dead and 1968's Night of the Living Dead. What's most interesting in the film -- the notions 1) that there are still some groups of survivors well after the initial collapse of civilization and 2) that there is some sort of consciousness inside a zombie -- seems to be cut off because of the need for the story to fit into a feature film and hence charge to the inevitable will-they-escape-from-catastrophe ending. What's most distressing about the film is its one-sided portrayal of the military as largely corrupt and homicidal -- a carry-over, one suspects, from cynicism the Vietnam era. One can see Romero struggling to find ways to extend the premise of the plot in new directions. If only they would have given him a TV series!
All in all, Day of the Dead offers Romero's usual thoughtful take on the problems of people as they are brought out by disaster, with truly excellent make-up effects from Tom Savini and an action-packed third act. While not as fundamentally sound a narrative as his two earlier films, Day of the Dead is still a severed head and shambling shoulders above the usual zombie films of the period.