Stranger Things showrunners the Duffer Brothers paid one of their biggest horror movie homages to date in the premiere episode of the Netflix show’s just-released third season. How? By having Mike, Lucas, Max, and Will sneak into a screening of 1985’s Day of the Dead, the third film in director George A. Romero’s original zombie trilogy. Although not as ground-breaking as 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, nor as commercially successful as 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s third entry in his undead saga has over time shuffled its way into classic status. Below are five things you should know about the film.
It wasn’t the film Romero wanted to make
Romero originally envisioned a much more epic movie, set five years after the start of the zombie apocalypse, in which a ruling class of human survivors have created an army of the undead on a tropical island. The studio backing the project, United Film Distribution, agreed to give Romero a budget of $6.5 million, but only if the director guaranteed the movie would not feature too much gore and could secure an R-rating. Romero declined to give that guarantee and UFD cut the budget to $3.5 million, requiring the filmmaker to drastically alter, and cut down, the scope of the film, which was shot in both Florida and Pennsylvania.
“I’m very happy with Day of the Dead for what it is,” Romero told Paul R. Gagne, author of the 1987 book, The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero. “But it isn’t the film I wanted it to be. I just wish I didn’t have to make it.”
It has the best-ever zombie
Day of the Dead is set in a vast underground complex where a scientific team is researching an answer to the problem of the undead. While Lori Cardille’s Dr. Sarah Bowman tries to discover a way to reverse the process of zombification, Richard Liberty’s Dr. Logan (a.k.a. “Frankenstein”) is conducting experiments on the undead in an attempt to teach them civility. Logan’s star pupil is the former soldier “Bub,” who has been taught to mimic the skills of reading, answering a phone, and shooting a gun (which, yes, seems like a particularly terrible idea, but there you go). Unlike his zombie brethren, Bub does not try to eat people, but only because Logan is secretly feeding him human flesh. Played by stage actor Sherman Howard, Bub is that rarity among screen zombies, a genuine character, and one who is beloved by horror fans.
When Shaun of the Dead star and co-writer Simon Pegg made an undead cameo in Romero’s next zombie film, 2005’s Land of the Dead, he requested to be made up as Bub. “Bub, from Day of the Dead, is, for me, the single greatest zombie in zombie movie history,” Pegg told EW in 2017. “It is the most brilliant characterization, like a kind of a baby, everything about him is sort of new, and the way he moves his fingers and his face, it’s an incredible performance. It’s one of the most incredible performances that never won an Oscar, and wouldn’t even have come near a nomination, but I think is so brilliant.”
It has one of the great all-time horror movie deaths
The underground bunker is ruled by Joseph Pilato’s bombastic Captain Rhodes, who has little time for Logan’s experiments. After Rhodes discovers that Logan has been feeding human flesh to Bub, he kills the scientist. Bub later shoots, and badly wounds, Pilato’s character (see? We told you teaching a zombie to use munitions was a bad idea). Rhodes attempts to flee through a door but finds himself captured by a zombie horde who tear him in half and feast on his intestines. This prompts the still conscious Rhodes to yell out one of the undead genre’s most famous lines.
“Choke on ’em!”
The dialogue was an improvisation by Pilato, who passed away earlier this year.
“He kept telling me for weeks that he had a great line for his death,” Romero told author Gagne. “I had said ‘no, no, no’ to so many other lines he had ideas about that I actually promised he could use his last line no matter what it was. I was really delighted when I finally heard it.”
It had some stiff competition at the box office.
Day of the Dead was released in New York on July 3, 1985, and would eventually earn around a modest $5 million at the domestic box office. The film’s commercial chances were hurt by the release soon afterward of another zombie movie, and another classic-in-the-making, director Dan O’Bannon’s horror-comedy Return of the Living Dead, which would gross almost three times as much as Romero’s film. Even more painful for Romero, Return of the Living Dead had originally been the brainchild of John Russo, with whom the director had co-written Night of the Living Dead. Following the break-up of the pair’s business relationship, Russo was granted the rights to make Return as long as it wasn’t promoted as a sequel to Night. Inevitably, there was confusion in the summer of 1985 as the two zombie flicks battled it ours for cinemagoers’ eyeballs.
As Romero explained in The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, “Entertainment Tonight announced it as ‘George Romero’s Return of the Living Dead!’ Even people in Florida who had been zombies in Day were going to see Return of the Living Dead, and they were calling us and saying ‘Gee, I didn’t see any Florida stuff!'”
It has a rare onscreen appearance by The Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero
Actually, the special effects legend — who is currently overseeing Shudder’s TV revival of Romero’s movie Creepshow — has appeared onscreen on other occasions, but nearly always as a zombie. In Day of the Dead, he plays a living, breathing person, Private Johnson, at least until his character is accidentally shot and becomes, yes, one of the undead. Nicotero was working as a special makeup effects artist under another behind-the-scenes legend, Tom Savini, on Day of the Dead. So, how did the self-confessed “terrible” actor wind up playing Johnson in the film?
“In the original script, they find a head and the head is still alive,” Nicotero said last year, following a screening in Los Angeles of Dawn of the Dead. “It’s the head that doctor’s working on with the electrodes. When they started cutting the script down, George had said, ‘Well, that guy’s got to stay.’ So, Savini said, ‘Why doesn’t Greg do that? We’ll make a copy of his head, and then that’ll be the mechanical head that the doctor’s working on.’ And then, when the script got pared down, the gag didn’t really work without you seeing who that person was before. So, they said, ‘Oh, we’re going to give you a character.’ I’m not a terrible actor. I’m an okay actor. But — actually, I’m a terrible actor — but…they wrote a part for me.”
Watch the trailer for Day of the Dead, above. Stranger Things season 3 is streaming on Netflix now.
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