How Day of The Dead shaped the modern zombie movie

The impact of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead on modern horror cinema is unquestionable, but Romero's less-loved Day of the Dead has also left its mark. We explore its influences

Feature by Christopher Machell | 14 Jun 2018
  • Day of the Dead

The third entry in George Romero's original Dead Trilogy, 1985's Day of the Dead, is just as rich in satire and subtext as its much-celebrated predecessors, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Indeed, more than 30 years since its release, it's clear that Day of the Dead has had a profound influence in the shaping of the modern American zombie.

Following the satirical traditions of Night and Dawn, Day of the Dead introduced Bub, a zombie whose growing intelligence raises ethical questions over the protagonists’ gleeful slaughter of the undead. As gung-ho soldiers struggle to keep control of a besieged military bunker, a scientist, named Dr Logan, is convinced that understanding zombies as individuals is the key to humanity's survival. He successfully trains Bub to listen to music, remember instructions, and in so doing, demonstrates that he is capable of reason. Over the course of the film, Bub becomes increasingly sympathetic as the balance of our perspective shifts from the humans' to Bub's.

Bub's influence is felt throughout modern zombie cinema – Romero's own follow up to Day, the 2005 film Land of the Dead, expanded on the theme of intelligent zombies, albeit far less successfully. Transposing the American zombie template across the Atlantic, the recovering zombies in last year's Irish film, The Cured owe a clear debt to Bub. Having been 'cured' of their zombism, the infected attempt to reintegrate back into society, facing suspicion, institutional discrimination and violence. The othering that they experience is something to which Bub could no doubt relate.

Day of the Dead's post-apocalyptic setting has also been hugely influential on the zombie genre. That film's predecessors and their numerous imitators tended to focus on the early days of the zombie outbreak. But Day of the Dead presents a world where the zombies have already won, outnumbering humanity four hundred thousand to one. The Girl with All the Gifts, a little-seen but superb 2016 zombie film (adapted from a novel by MR Carey), clearly takes its post-apocalyptic setting and military theme from Day of the Dead – as does Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. Better still, The Girl with All the Gifts' protagonist, Melanie, is a fungally-infected zombie who has retained her human intelligence. Along with 28 Days Later, The Girl with All the Gifts is a British zombie film taking its cue from Day of the Dead - an American genre successfully translated into a British setting.

On TV, Bub's legacy has arguably been even more interesting. The long-running series The Walking Dead is the most obvious descendant of Day of the Dead, and the show features numerous homages to the film – Hershel's amputated leg in season 3 (following a zombie bite) is cribbed straight from the finale of Day of the Dead, and Greg Nicotero, the show's lead make-up artist, worked under Tom Savini on Romero's film.

But Romero's enduring legacy goes further than merely the tribulations of Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead. Both the police procedural series iZombie and the suburban comedy Santa Clarita Diet feature intelligent, sympathetic zombies in the lead roles. While their stars, Rose McIver and Drew Barrymore, bear little physical resemblance to their decomposing forbear, there's no doubt that the shows’ themes of otherness, victimisation and the right to life (should that be unlife?) can be traced back to Bub.

And while shows like The Walking Dead are inspired by the gory horror of Romero's films, Santa Clarita Diet takes Romero's satiric vision as its cue to disrupt the safety and conformity of everyday life. The power of Romero's zombies is a quintessentially American one – particularly in its most satiric forms – to expose the dream of comfy, conformist suburbia as a fantasy – to invert otherness by turn 'us' into 'them' and in so doing, conjure a uniquely American nightmare.


EIFF runs 20 Jun-1 Jul; Day of The Dead screens 21 & 23 Jun. Tickets and more info here: https://www.edfilmfest.org.uk/2018/day-dead/06-23_22-15

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