The day of the Dead (1985) is the third part of George Romerofrom the Dead series. With special effects from the legendary Tom Savini, not only was it the goriest movie of the trilogy, but the darkest. Originally intended to be the carried away by the wind zombie films in terms of scale, the film received a budget cut in exchange for an unrated release. Despite the small script and initial mixed audience reaction, The day of the Dead is one of the band’s most philosophical films. It shows the characters’ struggles as they attempt to find purpose, happiness, and freedom in a turbulent world.
The day of the Dead continues the timeline we last saw in dawn of the dead. The dead came back to life and devastated the surface world. Meanwhile, a small group of scientists, civilians, and military attempt to find a solution from their base deep underground. The beginning of the film establishes three main facts that push the philosophical angle. The survivors are cut off from everyone else, the previous captain has died, and each character is trying to maintain order in their own way.
One of the film’s central themes is that of purpose. The team is sent into hiding by government order long before the events of the film but have since lost contact. Despite this, they continue to perform their duties. The biggest outlier for this is Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) that pushes the group to work together. Sarah has a purpose in her search even though she does not have the resources to do so. She understands that her efforts may be in vain but continues because she believes there is nothing else to do.
Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilate) turns out to be angry, demanding and authoritarian. However, her character represents something far more important to the narrative. It represents the illusion of authority and control. When the film begins, the former leader, General Cooper, has died, leaving Rhodes in charge. This causes him to use his newfound power to compensate for being in a situation he cannot control. Rhodes can’t leave the facility because there’s nowhere to go. He can’t fight the dead because there isn’t enough ammo to realistically do so. It’s only during the climax that he finally decides to run away with his men, but even then he doesn’t know how to fly the helicopter himself. Be that as it may, Rhodes is at the mercy of the surrounding situation. In the end, he gives up his bravado in the face of a horde of undead. He abandons his men and flees further into the compound as his true colors are revealed. In an instant, any illusion of power he tried to build for himself while safe underground is gone. It’s every man for himself.
Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) has a different way of approaching the problem. Rather than destroying the undead or healing them, he believes they can be conditioned to behave. He wants to bring them into the norm by teaching them to act like people using rewards as an incentive. In other words, he tries to give purpose to their actions. The same way humans are incentivized to play by the rules in exchange for a raise in pay, status, or opportunity, Dr. Logan wants the dead to behave in exchange for the food they crave. Once again, this shows how even Logan still approaches the situation from a civilized perspective rather than for what it is.
Interestingly enough, the living and the dead are mirrors of each other. As revealed by Logan, the dead get nothing from the food they eat, but they crave it and pursue it aimlessly. The same could be said of the humans in this story. Sarah longs for a cure, but even if she had it, she would have no way to administer it. Rhodes aspires to power but despite obtaining it, he remains powerless. Logan yearns to domesticate the undead using a system that doesn’t apply to them.
Meanwhile, Bill McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) and John “Flyboy” (Terry Alexander) discovered a new possibility. Unlike the people living in the resort, they have created their own little sanctuary which they call “The Ritz”. This makeshift tank may be in the middle of a mine shaft, but it’s decorated like a house. The backyard also has a large mural of the beach and the concrete floor is covered in faux grass. It’s important because it shows that they’ve accepted that the world they knew is gone. For them, they see that there is no purpose in what everyone is trying to do. Instead, they decided to chase after happiness instead. In this same scene, John gives a speech trying to convince Sarah that there is more to life than rotting underground. He envisions an island away from the facility. He dreams of starting over and learning from past mistakes. For him, it’s a happy life.
The final scene is also ambiguous. At first glance, it looks like a happy ending. They found John’s Island, seemingly free of the dead and the confines of the basement. However, a few details cast it in a different light. While John and Bill are enjoying the beach, Sarah wakes up from a nightmare. The events of the last days still haunt her but above all, she sighs and pulls out a makeshift calendar. This small detail may seem insignificant, but it tells the viewer a lot about where their character stands at the end of the film. Despite everything that’s happened, Sarah is still metaphorically trapped. She may not be underground, but she still performs the ritual of keeping a calendar. Maybe Sarah will be safe from the dead now, but deep down she still values old-world ways, which indicates that she may never be truly free. This brings us to the next philosophical question. What is freedom?
The day of the Dead has one of the most iconic zombies in horror history and his name is Bub (Sherman Howard). Bub draws a line between the living and the dead. Unlike many other characters in the film, Bub breaks the cycle. Each time Bub appears, he is shown to have evolved somewhat in a literal and metaphorical sense. He starts jumping forward when Sarah gets a little too close. In this scene, he is shown to still have the uncontrollable urge to attack anyone who walks among the living. Whenever he is shown after imitating or remembering things he used to do when he was alive. A key detail during all of this is the revelation that despite his progress, he still craves flesh and is rewarded for it.
Bub’s final scene mirrors the Remaining Survivor arc. Bub manages to free himself from the chains that held him in the laboratory. He searches for Logan only to find that Rhodes killed him during the mutiny. Here, Bub makes a conscious, grief-driven choice for revenge. He tracks down Rhodes and shoots him, allowing the dead to overwhelm him. This is the scene that shows Bub breaking free from the cycle as well and finding freedom. Rather than join the rest of the undead as they devour Rhodes, Bub simply walks away. This shows that Bub is no longer controlled by an insatiable desire for human flesh. He is capable of grief, sympathy and anger which make him more human. However, he also no longer needs a reward system to behave the way he does as he seeks justice for his fallen friend. So, in a way, does this freedom make him more human?
The day of the Dead highlights the themes of purpose, happiness and freedom. George Romero presents questions and then answers them in the film’s subtext in a more complex form than previously assumed. In the years since its release, the film has been seen in a more positive light. A closer look at the film today reveals that it’s more than loud and bloody for horror and tension. It makes you question the philosophy of the characters as they try to come to terms with the zombie apocalypse and see a better day.