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Day Of The Dead

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The generally mixed opinion of George Romero's 1985 zombie-trilogy finale Day Of The Dead mostly arises from the writer-director's uncompromising skepticism about human nature, which leads him to exaggerate chaos and venality to an abrasive degree. In 1968's Night Of The Living Dead and 1978's Dawn Of The Dead, Romero spun the simple, horrific scenario of the dead rising from their graves and dining on human flesh into a study of how crises turn nearly everyone into paranoid, pompous, bloodthirsty buffoons. Romero's government agents and roving posses behave worse than the zombies that plague them, but until Day Of The Dead, Romero always anchored his zombie stories in the mostly heroic actions of pragmatists who thought their way out of impossible traps and earned the audience's respect through patience and ingenuity. Day Of The Dead, by contrast, is more like Romero's scorching 1973 satire The Crazies, in which anarchy reigns and the very concept of heroes dissolves. Lori Cardille plays the liaison between a team of scientists researching captive zombies and the military unit assigned to protect them. The two groups share an underground bunker, and as the movie opens, their ranks have been thinned by the hungry corpses milling about. Roughly the first half of Day Of The Dead consists of unattractive characters screaming at each other, and in the second half, as is traditional in the Dead pictures, the tenuous barriers against the undead collapse, and more people get eaten. The action at the end is lurid, made giddily disgusting by Tom Savini's amazing gore effects, and made gripping by Romero's gift for the cold logic of systemic breakdown. Still, some audiences may give up early, fed up with the shrill claustrophobia. A frank, anecdote-filled featurette on the new special-edition DVD explains some of the problems that plagued the production, starting with a budget crunch that squeezed Romero's more expansive vision into one cramped location. (Not addressed: the cheap-sounding '80s synth-score or the flat, made-for-video lighting.) But Romero and his cast and crew aren't entirely wrong when they express fondness for Day Of The Dead. Like all the Dead films, it gains depth whenever Romero breaks from the shrieking and dismembering to peruse the makeshift shelters that his characters build, or to ponder how people learn to live with imminent death. Dawn Of The Dead had its lyrical stretch where the heroes made a paradise out of an abandoned shopping mall, and Day Of The Dead is boosted by a scene in which Cardille sits on an ersatz patio with two of her colleagues, debating whether it's worth leaving a body of human knowledge to a world where no humans will be left. The moment is stirring, in large part because it takes place amid the homey touches that even cynics can't resist providing for themselves. What keeps Romero's nihilism bearable is his underlying message that, though the world may be hell, home remains sweet.