The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Day of the Dead

George A. Romero is unique amongst filmmakers in that he essentially created a genre all on his own. Ever since 1968's groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, zombies have been a fixture of screen horror. And while others have worked in the realm of undead cinema, no one has mastered it quite as fully as Romero. The director raised the stakes with his first sequel, Dawn of the Dead, by mixing satire of consumerism into the zombie formula. For the second sequel, 1985's Day of the Dead, which hits Blu-Ray in a first-class special edition from Scream Factory on Sept. 17, Romero went as dark and grim as possible. This is an undead movie that packs a massive punch.

The story is set entirely in an underground bunker, where a small band of soldiers and scientists hide from the zombies who have overtaken the world. Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) and Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) are researching the zombie outbreak, hoping to find a cure, or at least an explanation. Logan is even making progress on taming one of the undead, whom he calls “Bub.” In spite of some promising developments, the dictatorial military commander, Capt. Rhodes (Joe Pilato), feels things aren't progressing the right way, given how dire the situation is above ground. He wants to sadistically kill the zombies, not cure them. Rhodes fuels the tensions between his men and the scientists, further destabilizing an already dangerous situation until all hell breaks loose.

Day of the Dead is perhaps the most hardcore of Romero's zombie films. It is about desperation and the way communication breakdowns help facilitate catastrophes. The film's characters are on different wavelengths, working toward incompatible goals. This creates tension, then infighting, then an opportunity for the zombies to invade the bunker. Romero is not interested in levity here; he wants to show people at their most desperate in a situation that defines desperation. To sell the point, Day is gruesome – notoriously so, in fact. The special effects are often stomach-churning (which, it must be emphasized, is entirely appropriate in a movie like this), as people have their guts ripped out and their bodies torn apart by feeding undead. Romero is fearless in creating such a perilous atmosphere; it's a huge part of what makes the film so effective. Even by today's standards, Day of the Dead is shocking.

Here is a horror movie that fires on all cylinders. Romero rounded up a solid cast for this film. Some of the actors underplay things, while others veer into the over-dramatic. The effect is striking, helping to emphasize the personality differences among the bunker's denizens. The make-up and gore effects are top-notch, setting a standard that zombie pictures are still held up to. Perhaps most interestingly, Romero even manages to create empathy for the undead. Bub (nicely portrayed by Howard Sherman) serves as a reminder of lost humanity – a threat the characters face from each other as well as from the zombies. This kind of thematic richness is rare in the genre; that's why Day of the Dead is an indisputable classic.

Blu-Ray Features:

Day of the Dead comes to Blu-Ray in a special edition on Sept. 17. Scream Factory has been putting out excellent discs dedicated to films like The Fog, The Howling and Lifeforce, but this release sets their new gold standard.

The bonus goodies begin with two audio commentaries. The first features Romero, Cardille, special effects guru Tom Savini, and production designer Cletus Anderson. The second is from self-described fan Roger Avery (best known as the director of Killing Zoe and co-writer of Pulp Fiction). The first commentary focuses on the making of the film, while Avery's is a loving appreciation of it.

Next up is “The World's End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead,” an 85-minute, all-new retrospective on the movie. Romero is one of the interview subjects, as are most of the surviving cast members, including Lori Cardille, Joe Pilato, and Howard Sherman. The casting of each actor is discussed in detail, as are the challenges of filming in an actual underground mine in Western Pennsylvania. Also addressed is the movie's release and subsequent box office performance, which was not what all involved hoped it would be. (Going out unrated, with a “No One Under 17 Admitted” probably didn't help.) Romero is bluntly honest in assessing that many fans probably wanted the satiric elements of Dawn rather than the grim story they got, yet he's also rightfully proud of his film. “The World's End” is beautifully produced, filled with insight into the making of a horror masterpiece. It's thoroughly enjoyable.

Additionally, the disc contains a 30-minute segment of behind-the-scenes footage from Tom Savini's personal archives. Test shots and on-set effects work are shown in glorious detail. “Underground: A Look at the Day of the Dead Mines” offers a modern-day tour of the mine where the film was shot. You also hear one of the employees talking about how the production used various sections of the facility for different scenes. On a related note, another feature is a promotional video for the Wampum Mine. In some ways, this is one of the most fun features on the disc. Even though it's not specific to the movie, it does give you a firm idea of what Wampum Mine is and how perfect it was for a set.

Finally, there are some extensive photo galleries, several trailers (one of which humorously features a zombie going to the cinema), and a handful of TV spots.

Day of the Dead is an important film in the horror genre, and it deserves the five-star treatment Scream Factory has given it. Bottom line: One of 2013's best home video releases.

Day of the Dead is unrated, but contains adult language and mind-blowing levels of gore. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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