Day of the Dead receives the most negative criticism out of all the films in Romero’s original Dead trilogy. People think the time spent on character development is boring. I say the film is a complex, compelling human drama that builds to a kick-ass final half hour. If you hate the happy-ish ending, you can just pretend that you don’t know whether it’s a death hallucination of Sarah’s. I don’t mind a happy ending sometimes.
I would say that if Night of the Living Dead is about racism, then Day of the Dead is about ableism. If Bub had become sentient only through behavioral therapy it would be easy to make that comparison. However, I’m not sure where that would leave the movie’s mostly sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Logan with his Mengele-like experiments on the undead. Treatment of Bub as a living being with value=good. Using Major Cooper as a living research cadaver=bad.
It’s my inability to put any of the characters, or their intentions, into neatly wrapped packages that makes this movie so infinitely watchable. Captain Rhodes is an asshole, but his anger at Dr. Logan is understandable. His reaction, however, is insane. Bub is a zombie, set up by the previous two movies to be a horrifying killing machine, yet he is sympathetic and endearing. John’s astroturf oasis in the cave is touching, and he works hard to save Sarah at the end, but he needs her for his plan to repopulate. Miguel is a coward, is abusive to Sarah, and his last act on Earth is one of revenge against Rhodes, but it takes great courage to lie down and be eaten just to send a posthumous “fuck you.”
More than any zombie movie I can think of, Day of the Dead makes the point that there’s no definite pattern when it comes to human behavior, especially in an emergency. It’s fun to be an internet tough guy, but the truth is that you don’t know what the hell you would do when faced with an army of the undead. I imagine that an end-of-the-world scenario would actually involve ill-advised love affairs, insanity, megalomania, panic, philosophy, friendship, nightmares, weird science, inclusion, exclusion, false dichotomies, and lots of booze. Watching Day of the Dead is the closest I want to come to finding out.