For the longest time Day of the Dead was my favorite Romero zombie movie. It was the first of his films I saw, which probably has something to do with it -though I’d definitely seen bits of Night and Dawn, probably through Fangoria. While Evil Dead was the very first movie I rented, I think Day was in the very next batch of tapes.
I don’t think it being the first was the only reason, though, as it remained my favorite of the bunch for a decade or more – long after I’d see the others. There was the gore, of course. The effects remain some of the most well-done of any horror movie – from ‘Dr. Tongue’ through the exposed brain to Rhode’s disembowlment. Tom Savini is at his peak in Day and you can see his influence in every zombie productions since. (Particularly in The Walking Dead – special effects supervisor/co-executive producer Gerg Nicotero’s first film was Day of the Dead, where he worked on both special effects and in front of the camera as Private Johnson.) There was also the dark, introspective, almost nihilistic tone – particularly attractive to me as a depressive, introspective, and nihilistic teenager.
But if I’m honest there’s really only one reason why Day held the top spot in my affections for so long – and that reason is Bub.
The 80’s had a lot of what I call ‘character monsters.’ In the 30’s you had Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, Mummy, and others – protagonists as well as antagonists. In the 80’s there was Jason and Michael and Freddy. Monsters that had their own agency – and fan followings. And there was Bub – a zombie, yes, but also a fully realized character who is also arguably one of the heroes of the movie. Out of all the 80’s movie monsters, he was my favorite.
As I got older my tastes widened somewhat (though they remain relatively shallow), and Day has fallen out of favor. Night is now my favorite of the Romero films, followed by Dawn. I still love Bub, though. Even as I type this I’ve got the Amok Time Bub figure staring at me, his reward bucket at his side.
The zombies in Day do what zombies do, mill about aimlessly until a living brain ambles by and then they get real focused. Bub, on the other hand, has regained some contact with what he used to be before he died. He tries to shave with a razor, read a book – he even listens to Beethoven with an expression of surprise and, maybe, joy on his face. Bub, in some ways, represents a hope for the future- the possibility of human experience living on beyond death. Bub is awesome and Sherman Howard just kills with his performance – bringing more life and humanity to a zombie than most of the other human characters provide.
On one level Day of the Dead is a depressing shitstorm of violence, nihilism, pseudo-philosophical bullshit and indictments of both the military and science. On another it’s a thoughtful, introspective look at what humanity means and what, if anything, is worth saving about it. And on yet another level it’s a gory zombie romp with a fantastic zombie character and fantastic effects sequences. While it may have dropped somewhat in my affections as a whole, I still very much enjoy the film – and Bub forever, man. Bub forever.