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The Making of George A. Romero's Day of the Dead

The following review was written by Nick Thomson. Nick is the author of 'Sleb', a darkly humorous thriller about the absurd world of celebrity. Find out more by clicking here.

George A. Romero's name is synonymous with many things, but above all else it is synonymous with "zombies". Building on voodoo legends and the allusions of literary work such as Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Romero birthed the flesh-eating ghoul the zombie which has, particularly in recent years, become a cultural icon. Zombies were once a niche subject matter, appealing only to horror nerds and gore hounds, now it's as if everyone and their grandmother is getting in on the act. However, even with the proliferation of walking (sometimes, curiously, running) corpses, Romero's place in cinematic history and his importance to the zombie movement is secured. It is with the help of the fans that milestones in the story of the undead do not end up forgotten and, on the specific subject of Day of the Dead (1985), Romero's third zombie film, it is Lee Karr who has penned what will surely stand as the definitive word.

Featuring a foreword by Greg Nicotero (of KNB and The Walking Dead fame) and a blurb by Lori Cardille (the actress who inhabited the role of Sarah in the film), Karr's book is a beautifully presented examination of all things Day of the Dead. Over the course of 224 pages he covers everything from the film's inception and original script, its fraught pre-production, its trying 56 day production, all the way through to its initial stumble at the box office and its ultimate revival as a classic piece of enduring horror cinema. Recounted through exhaustive research and a wide range of interviews covering the main cast and crew, the producers, and a whole range of zombie extras, this book is an informative and eye-opening read.

Digging through call sheets, production memos, promotional material, innumerable archives of photographs, and even the original script (which was considerably different to the finished product), Lee Karr guides us through what was, for many of those involved, the adventure of a lifetime. Written with a relaxed, but informed, sense of style, it's easy to tumble down the rabbit hole and get gleefully lost in a world of previously unknown stories from behind the scenes. Players, both key and bit, all get their due credit we learn who these actors, filmmakers, and crew members were (and are) and they share with us their memories. Fractious inter-personal relationships, raucous practical jokes, hinted-at tales of scandal and set gossip, moments of inspired improvisation every inch of everything that was, is, and continues to be Day of the Dead is held under the microscope.

Romero and Rubinstein on Sanibel Island near the false elevator platform (courtesy of Hollywood Book & Poster Company)
Romero and Rubinstein on Sanibel Island

It would be easy to wallow in the moments of strife, which admittedly crack some rose-tinted illusions of we fans, but Karr is respectful and measured in his approach. Indeed, over the course of the book we get a feel for the family nature of the production and, like all families, there are squabbles and tears but also laughter and joy. Nothing feels trivialised, nor exploited, under Karr's gaze and differing opinions are afforded equal standing.

There are numerous highlights throughout the book, which is filled with fascinating photos taken during the entire filmmaking process, and they range from small insights to big moments. Members of the crew are given the attention they're due, such as John Vulich's contributions to the special make-up effects (headed up by famous gore maestro Tom Savini), and there's an extensive run-down of the first and last versions of the screenplay. Romero's frustrations with budgetary problems (which necessitated drastic script changes) are discussed, while on-set nicknames and close calls lend a sense of warmth and spice to some of the book's more technical passages.

Thankfully, even with such a mountain of detail offered up to the reader, the pace is well-balanced, mixing the intricacies of the day-to-day production with personal tales and back stories. Being able to put voices, experiences, and humorous in-jokes to the otherwise mysterious names in the film's credits is one of the real joys of The Making of George A. Romero's Day of the Dead.

Jeff Monahan as the zombie who pulls off Steel's hat towards the end(courtesy of Jeff Monahan)
Jeff Monahan as the zombie who pulls off Steel's hat

In some ways Day of the Dead was the closing chapter in a period in Romero's career, in a certain way of filmmaking, and in the 'Pittsburgh zombies' family. The members of this merry band would head off in their separate directions, and while this is sad, it's also a part of life. Throughout this book you get a sense of everyone involved learning, changing, and moving on with their lives as they battled through the difficult filming conditions. It is a testament to the strength of their work however, that Day of the Dead stands as a fitting epitaph to a very particular chapter of cinematic history and one that has not only aged well, but the lessons of which can still be applied to society today.

Of course, even with a product that has benefited from such love and care, there are a couple of small gripes. The main one is the placement of some photographs, for instance: the infamous demise of Captain Rhodes is discussed on pages 154-159 but, strangely, the accompanying photographs are on pages 130-134. Such displacement is certainly not always the case, but it is noticeable when it occurs. The other slight issue relates to some of the interview quotes: for the majority of the time the verbatim translation to the page works, adding a conversational tone to proceedings, but a few bits of selective editing (without sacrificing context or accuracy) would have avoided rare occasions of stumbling thoughts that can trip up the reader. That said though, it's only a small complaint.

As stated in the book, upon its release, Day of the Dead suffered an unjust backlash from some fans and critics they were expecting the pastel colours and light tone of Dawn of the Dead, but instead found themselves with a dark journey into the bowels of hell at the precipice of oblivion. Interestingly, when Dawn of the Dead was released some viewers were disappointed that they didn't get another Night of the Living Dead, and likewise with Land of the Dead some fans were gutted that they didn't get another Night, Dawn, or Day. Each one of Romero's zombie efforts for good or bad, you be the judge stands simultaneously alone and as part of a wider conversation about our society.

Out of the original trilogy Night, Dawn, and Day Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead always get the attention. They fit into easy-to-define categories of academic examination civil rights and Vietnam with Night, and disco-tinted consumerism with Dawn but Day of the Dead has always been difficult to contextualise so easily. Perhaps it is this, along with the glut of horror movies in the 1980s, that has until now at least kept Day of the Dead somewhat in the shadows of its own underground storage facility. Much has been written about Night, and Dawn, but aside from some DVD supplemental material, little has really been said on the subject of Day. Lee Karr changes that with his book, which is a must-read for any fan of the film, of Romero, or of 80s horror cinema in general; authoritative and absolutely indispensable.

The book is available to purchase at major online stores such as Amazon.

The two images included in this review were kindly supplied by Lee Kar for the purpose of this article. These were not used in the book so are exclusive images. The first image is of George Romero and Richard Rubinstein on Sanibel Island near the false elevator platform (courtesy of Hollywood Book & Poster Company). The second image is of Jeff Monahan as the zombie who pulls off Steel's hat towards the end. This photo is from the set of Day of the Dead where someone had a Night of the Living Dead poster on the wall. Apparently there were posters all over the place from George's films: Martin, Dawn, Night, etc...

( Homepage of the Dead, September 2014)
Hits: 5377 since 7-Sep-2014

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