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DAY OF THE DEAD
2 Disc Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato, Richard Liberty
Director:  George A. Romero
Audio:  Dolby Digital EX 6.1, DTS ES 6.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  August 19, 2003

“Choke on it…CHOKE ON IT!!”

Film ***

After watching Day of the Dead for the first time in a number of years and looking around for other reactions to the film, I realized I was not alone.  I was one of a fairly big number of fans of George A. Romero’s original two Dead movies to originally dismiss the final chapter as a bit of a let down, but later saw the picture with fresh eyes and found it to have its own unique style and merit.  Perhaps we should form a national support group to pick each other up and encourage others…yes, it’s indeed okay to like this movie.

It still pales a bit in comparison to the first two, but most horror films do.  Night of the Living Dead is probably the apex of the low budgeted, simply conceived yet superbly executed horror film, and it was arguably the most pivotal modern moment in the history of the genre.  Dawn of the Dead took the concept and reimagined it with style and fury, elevating the shock value while working on the levels of parody and social commentary and at the same time spinning a dark apocalyptic vision.  I consider it the greatest horror movie ever made.

Day of the Dead was primed in our minds to be a climax of unprecedented scope, yet for monetary and other concerns, it was scaled back instead.  Writer/director George A. Romero tried to convince us of a world where the living dead had all but taken over, humanity was barely a petrie dish specimen, and mankind’s time was running out.  But here was a case where our imaginations couldn’t quite fill in the gaps of what wasn’t shown.  We hear about the end of the world, but we spend almost all our time in an underground base/storage area where the living people argue and scream at one another and where hoards of zombies are corralled for experimentation in a desperate last ditch effort to find a solution and save the world.

The limited scope doesn’t lend to the script’s suggestion of worldwide calamity…maybe if you played the three in order it would have more effect?  I’m not sure.  What plays out is highly serviceable horror, but it doesn’t seem to exist beyond the aperture the way it did in the first two pictures.  Not even television or radio broadcasts lend to the illusion of a widespread disaster.

As before, the setting takes place in a world where the dead are returning to life to feast on the living.  Only now, the game is just about up.  As Sarah  (Cardille) and her science team scope far and wide for human survivors or even a radio signal, none is found.  Believing there has to be others somewhere but isolated in an underground chamber with an odd fellow scientist, Logan (Liberty) and a dwindling Army unit led by Rhodes (Pilato) for protection, the stress and bleakness of their situation has taken a toll on all.

The final hope is to learn something from the zombies that can be used to either reverse or stop the process, or to fight back against them.  Time is running out, as even in a secured underground mining area, the specimens of dead are often too much for the remaining humans to handle.  Logan performs bizarre (and sometimes gruesome) experiments dealing with behaviorism while Rhodes, a captain who has just about reached the end of his rope and is becoming more monstrous than even the undead, is running out of men and patience.

There is a lot of screaming in this movie, which is probably what turned me off of it at first.  The world is hanging by a thread and all humanity’s last hope can do is yell and posture and curse at one another?  It’s enough to make you lean toward hoping for no survivors, and at first, it almost seems to smother the gravity of the situation Romero is trying to create.

But the more I see of this picture, the more I realize that the disparity of his vision is probably an accurate one.  The question that is subtly posed is not whether or not we will be saved, but whether or not we even deserve to be.  One character even suggests that mankind had failed so miserably in its domination of the world that the current catastrophe might just be God’s way of wiping the slate clean to start anew.

When the horror happens, it happens with great gusto and ferocity.  Tom Savini, who continued to supply Romero with make-up effects for his creatures, really outdid himself with his work here.  His undead look more horrifying than ever…and of course, when they have their meals, you may just lose your last one.

It does ultimately work as a horror film; a point I didn’t concede before but willingly do so now.  It succeeds more than it fails, though a couple of major hurdles kept it from being equal to its predecessors:  namely, the aforementioned lack of proper scope, and also the strange stab at optimism Romero goes for at the end.  It seemed false.  Merciful, maybe, but false as well.

Still, I have to join my brethren in criticism, as well as standing up for myself as a professed horror junkie, and say that Day of the Dead deserves a second look from those like me who gave up on it too quickly the first time.  It’s also a good time for newcomers to take a look while the film is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, after being mostly buried for nearly 20 years as a video shelf curiosity.  I guess things sometimes do come back from the dead after all.

BONUS TRIVIA: Actress Lori Cardille’s father was radio personality Chilly Billy, who appeared in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as himself!

Video ****

To be frank, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.  After the original presentation of this movie on DVD was decidedly sub-par, I began to think that there was no hope for this film, considering how much of it was shot in darkened, murky settings.  This new treatment from Anchor Bay is a revelation.  The flaws are all gone; no softness, grain, color problems or distortion.  Every shot, from the few bright outdoor scenes to the many darkened underground ones, showcase an amazing new integrity.  Every color is perfectly rendered, image detail in all light levels is remarkable, and the print is clean and free from debris or grain.  I kept thinking the other shoe would drop and it never did.  Prepare to be dazzled.

Audio ****

Anchor Bay continues to service horror fans with their excellent audio work.  Here, Romero’s original mono track has been skillfully remastered for both Dolby Digital and DTS extended surround tracks.  True, the mono is not included, but I never miss them when it’s Anchor Bay handling the remixes…they always do the audio up right and bold.  Especially impressive is the music score, which utilizes all channels for optimum effect.  Dynamic range is very strong, and crossovers are smooth and plentiful, realizing the illusion of being in an underground base with lots of space for sounds to bounce around it.  Top notch.

Features ****

The extras package is a sumptuous banquet, starting with two commentary tracks on Disc One.  The first is the more fun listen, as it unites George Romero with make-up artist Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson and lead actress Lori Cardille.  If you’ve heard Romero’s other tracks with cast and crew, you know what to expect…lots of memories and laughs, kind of like a reunion party.  The second commentary featuring filmmaker and fan Roger Avary is a little more one-leveled, but also a decent listen.

Disc Two stars with a retrospective featurette containing new interviews with Romero, Savini, Cardille, Pilato, Howard Sherman (the zombie Bub) and other crew members.  A second featurette takes you back to the behind-the-scenes of the movie and mostly focuses on Savini and his terrific make-up and gore effects.

Three trailers (the second one is especially a hoot) and three TV spots are included, along with a 15 minute audio interview with actor Richard Liberty from 2000, a promo film for the Wampum Mine, production stills, advertising and make-up galleries, a bio on George Romero and DVD ROM extras including screenplay and production memos.

Finally, the set contains a very cool booklet designed to look like a mini legal pad with sketches, blood spots and Dr. Logan’s notes, and the packaging itself with the Velcro zombie flap is a nice touch as well.  An outstanding effort!

Summary:

Day of the Dead has come back stronger than ever thanks to Anchor Bay’s solidly impressive special edition re-release, which has to be considered one of the year’s best DVD offerings.  For fellow horror lovers, unequivocally recommended.