*. There is a firm narrative now attached to this film. It was envisioned as a much bigger movie but the budget was cut in half when Romero nixed an R-rating (you can read the original script online, and it’s worth a look). On release, it failed to catch on with critics and audiences, leading to a short, limited theatrical run. Then its fortunes revived, first on VHS and then on DVD, raising it to the status of a lost or at least overlooked masterpiece. Of the films making up Romero’s first zombie trilogy, it is even considered by some to be the best (and by Romero his favourite).
*. As is so often the case in such revivals or revisions in a movie’s reputation, the pendulum may have swung back too far. I’ll confess when I first saw this one (on VHS in the late ’80s) I was disappointed. It just didn’t seem as lively or essential as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. I have, however, returned to it several times over the years and it’s grown on me. I still consider it to be the least of the trilogy, but nevertheless there’s a lot to like.
*. What’s to like? The gore effects were the best yet. Savini really hit his stride here and pulled out all the stops. The underground storage facility was another great found location, almost as good as the Monroeville Mall. The script isn’t just a retread of the same old zombie siege conventions, and introduces lots of tension with the various group dynamics. And finally the actors are better, with at least a couple of performances being excellent.
*. And so why did I (and many other zombie fans) feel disappointed?
*. In part because it doesn’t break as much new ground as the first two. If it didn’t have Romero’s name on it, it would probably be considered only a minor gem of the period.
*. Another negative, at least to my ears, is the score. It sounds artificial and inappropriate to the action.
*. But I think the big problem is with the characters.
*. I was surprised to hear Romero remark on the commentary that he thought it didn’t go over well because it was darker and less “comic book” in its presentation. I had the opposite response, finding it more comic book than its predecessors.
*. The sense you had in the first two films was that you were watching real people trying to cope with an impossible situation. Here we are presented with caricatures: the mad scientist, the tough-as-the-boys heroine, the laid-back Jamaican dude, the drunken Mick (who keeps repeating “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” at the first sign of trouble), and the power-tripping military man with his gang of thugs.
*. These caricatures interact in a comic book fashion by mostly yelling and pointing their guns at each other. I actually lost count of the number of times this happens.
*. Another way of looking at it is to notice how in the earlier films the characters behave in an essentially rational manner. Things don’t work out that well, but every step of the way you can see the logic of what they’re doing: planning to get some gas in the truck so they can make it somewhere safe, holing up in the shopping mall because it’s a self-contained economy, etc. But here nothing makes sense. What use are Dr. Logan’s experiments in behaviorism when zombies outnumber humans 400,000-to-1? And what are they doing down there in the cold and the dark anyway? Why don’t they all go to the island paradise?
*. Now I’ll admit some of this is enjoyable. I mentioned the two performances that I thought were excellent earlier. These are Richard Liberty’s turn as Dr. Logan, which is fun because he really gets to play up the Dr. Frankenstein figure in a blood-spattered lab coat, and Howard Sherman (or Sherman Howard) brilliantly miming the character of Bub.
*. Also enjoyable in their over-the-top campiness are Joseph Pilato as the elaborately coiffed Rhodes (there must be quite a supply of hair gel in the mines somewhere), and Anthony Dileo Jr. as the quivering Miguel.
*. Just what does Sarah see in Miguel anyway? Like the rest of the characters he is an exaggerated caricature, this time of the useless coward. I love how his rage at his own worthlessness leads him to take his bitter revenge on everyone in the mine in the most spectacular, suicidal way. That’s how the worm turns! But how did such a wimp ever hook up with a tough cookie like Sarah? Did she take pity on him? Or are we to believe that at one time he had his shit together?
*. Meanwhile, just as the cast are imagined as less human and more like a set of stock characters, the zombies are becoming more human and, paradoxically, less threatening or interesting. As noted, I love Howard Sherman’s performance as Bub, but I’m not sure I like the idea of a zombie with a conscience. They are a force of nature, personifications of death, but not people.
*. Dr. Logan’s plan to “domesticate” them puts Romero ahead of the curve again, as this is an idea that will be picked up again at the end of Shaun of the Dead, and taken much further in Fido. But again, such an idea, while a natural extension of the zombie mythography, has the effect of making them less scary. They’ve gone back to their roots in the Haitian cane fields as a source of cheap labour.
*. It’s a good movie, but not a zombie classic in my book. I think that even on a bad day Romero is worth watching, and this is one of his best looking, most interesting zombie films. But the trouble with being such an original is that you are always taking chances. And they don’t always pay off.