5. Day of the Dead (1985; dir. George Romero) – One word, one syllable: Bub. Though not held in the same esteem as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, Day has Bub. It might not seem like a lot, but fans of Romero’s work understand. Bub, the zombie Dr. Logan is trying to instill civilized behavior in, stands at the crux of this film. Bub serves as the possible hope of saving the human race from the undead. “What if we can domesticate them?” the narrative asks, a concept we would see satirically explored in 2006’s Fido, but with Romero’s film, it’s a matter of life and death.

In Night, we have the immediacy of a catastrophe, survivors who don’t understand what’s happening or why, hunkered down in a house, terrified  ready to lash out and making bad decisions; in Dawn, the characters have begun to understand their predicament and they’re scrambling to get a hold on the problem; by Day, they’ve pulled themselves together, retreated to an underground facility, and have started exploring methods of dealing with the problem. The reason the three work so well as a trilogy and stand head and shoulders about the three that followed (Land, Diary, and Survival) is this natural thematic progression in terms of humankind’s response to the outside threat. Day details the scientific and military response to the problem, only the relationship between the scientists and the soldiers doesn’t work out too well and the results don’t bode well for our survival.

In the commentary track on DVD, Romero admits and, to an extent, laments that his plans for this one were much larger than the budget allowed for. Effects guru Tom Savini describes the original script as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” of zombie movies. They had planned for an above ground compound and village and many more outdoor scenes, but considering this, I wonder if  the budget constraints actually helped them to make a better movie. The film is larger and more expansive than Night in terms of scope and budget, but has the same sense of claustrophobia and darkness that I would argue was missing from Dawn with its shopping mall setting.

There was a sense in the first two that man could still prevail, that the smaller segments of survivors could unite and deal with the problem, but any hope of that is dwindling by Day, and perhaps the major problem with the film for most critics is that there’s no clear sense of a hero. The soldiers are caricatures and not fully formed as characters, though if you’re watching this through the lens of a Reagan-era satire, they’re appropriately anti-Rambo. The script is perhaps kinder to Dr. Logan, but only by degrees, as Richard Liberty bumbles about, rambling to himself, ignoring genuine safety concerns in the single-minded pursuit of knowledge, studying zombie specimens, not in order to find a cure, but to tame them, as he believes looking for a cure is a lost cause. Dr. Sarah Bowman, a tough as nails female lead in the spirit of Alien’s Ripley or Terminator’s Sarah O’Connor, helps hold the film together with her resourcefulness and practicality, trying repeatedly to bridge the gap between her scientific colleagues and the increasingly crude soldiers, but she’s written as a bit too cold for the audience to make a deep connection with.

So we’re left with Bub, the gentlest zombie. You might laugh, unless you agree, but Sherman Howard who played Bub probably gives the film’s best performance. A latex mask, grunts and gestures, he’s the Marcel Marceau of the zombie world. He develops a relationship with Dr. Logan—mentor/student maybe, father/son if you’re willing to stretch it—and you can feel the palpable connection between these two characters. They have a real affection for one another. Now it’s not the kind of affection that pulls at your heart strings, but it’s enough to make you think “Maybe this can work. Maybe Logan’s idea isn’t so crazy after all.” Then, of course, the shit hits the fan. The center can’t hold and whatnot. Zombie hordes, swarming, infiltrate the base and kill the vile Dr. Rhodes and his men by pulling them apart (in some of the greatest zombie effects/kills ever recorded on film) while Bub, former military in life, salutes and walks off into the sunset. Sarah escapes with the civilian helicopter pilot John and his “friend” Bill (which I’ve always read as an understated, subtle homosexual relationship) to a tropical island, but there’s the sense that this serenity won’t last long. That is, unless we’re meant to come away with the understanding that life would be more idyllic in a society without a military presence. But an old hippie like Romero wouldn’t want us to think anything of that sort, would he?