Day of the Dead begins with the films heroes landing a helicopter at the edge of a city. They are calling out as the camera explores a desolate empty world seemingly only occupied by animals. But then we see a shadow and the camera pans up to the mutilated face of a zombie.
Day of the Dead shows us a world over run by zombies. There are few members of the living. In fact, our heroes are part of a secret base of scientists and soldiers who are starting to wonder if they are all alone on the world. Set on a small island in an underground base, tensions between the civilian staff and military men are running high.
Captain Rhodes and his men are starting to become more aggressive, believing the scientists work unimportant. The military men just want to find another outpost and leave. But the lead scientist Logan is obsessed with the idea that he can “domesticate” zombies. His best example is the zombie Bub (which he explains is a nickname of his father). Bub seems to remember things like tools, books, phones. He mainly is mimicking what other people do (he simply thumbs through a Stephen King book, runs a disposable razor down his cheek, etc). But Logan believes it is more, and the end of the film does suggest that Bub is not as mindless as he seems.
Eventually, it all explodes, the scientists plan an escape, while Rhodes and his men plan to leave the island and the scientists behind. You might be surprised to find that not everything goes as planned.
A new theme enters Romero’s films with Day of the dead…one of…”Who is worse?” Not unlike Ripley telling Burke you don’t see the aliens “f***ing each other over for a percentage”, Rhodes and his men may be more terrifying as they bully and abuse the scientists. It has been said that as the movies have gone on, George Romero started to side with the zombies. Day of the Dead is the seeds of that.
It is not just the callous obsession of Logan or the cruelty of Captain Rhodes. It is, ultimately, Bub. Bub, who barely says a word is remarkably sympathetic. Sherman Howard packs a lot of emotion into his performance, and it is no surprise that Bub is a popular character.
Truthfully, Day of the Dead is my favorite Romero zombie movie. I like and admire the previous two films, but Day is my unabashed favorite. Being set beyond the zombie outbreak allows an exploration of that world based in something other than confusion and desperation. It asks the most intriguing questions about human nature and our desire to control situations that may be far from our grasp.