When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero’s third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it’s still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Still, it’s one of my favorites, and I was very curious to see what the book would be like.
My initial response is…wow. No, wait, that should be…WOW.
A bit of background here: I’m been a longtime fan of several genre directors: I admire John Carpenter for his clean visuals and amazing genre range, I used to like Tim Burton before he became a parody of himself, and if James Wan continues as he’s started, I’ll add him to the list. But George Romero has always been special.
For one thing, he introduced me to horror, via a Sunday afternoon broadcast of Night of the Living Dead. And I’d never seen a midnight movie before I saw Dawn of the Dead in 1979, made memorable by a nurse loudly announcing to her date, “I see this shit in the ER all day, I ain’t paying to watch it now!” before she stalked out. But it was his non-horror film Knightriders that made me a real fan. It’s Arthurian tale of an SCA-like troupe battling the dragon of the modern world resonated (and still does) with me, to the point that it was one of the movies I showed my wife on our honeymoon. (Read my about my real-life encounter with this film’s Merlin here.)
That meant Day of the Dead, as the third film in his original zombie trilogy, came with high expectations. The first time I watched it, I was uncertain if I really liked it; although it was particularly suspenseful in its final twenty minutes, the prior seventy were about as different from Night and Dawn as you could get. Finally, though, I realized that was part of the point: why do the same story over? It’s a lesson I’ve tried to internalize as a writer, so that my own series don’t just repeat themselves.
Then there was the character of Sarah, played by Lori Cardille. A full year before Aliens made a splash, Romero gave us an emotionally tough yet entirely believable female lead who–and this was especially notably in the 80s–never takes off her clothes (not even for a shower scene), never relies on a man to save her in a pinch, and is resourceful, but not unrealistically so, in a crisis. It’s a shame that Cardille wasn’t able to use this as a career springboard, because she, again like Sigourney Weaver, was basically a total unknown who effortlessly carried her first film.
The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead by Lee Karr is the kind of obsessive tome that (and I’ve seen this observation elsewhere) I wish I had for all my favorite films. Not only did Karr collect the usual stories that all fans have heard, but he recreated day by day (no pun intended) the shooting of the film. Each day of principal photography is covered in detail, richly illustrated and laced with interviews from the participants. It’s also well written, with little of the amateurishness that tends to mar fan-driven works like this.
When I was a kid, in the days before any sort of home video, every major movie had a “making-of” book, usually written by someone in the studio publicity department. These tended to be just as one-sided as the “making-of” documentaries you now find on most DVD releases, so none of the really interesting stories got told. But this book is no PR fluff piece; it’s cinematic archaeology. The raunchy hijinks of Tom Savini’s makeup crew are detailed, as are the contentious relationships between writer-director Romero, producer David Ball and cinematographer Mike Gornick. You get a real sense of what it must have been like working in the Wampum mine during the winter of 84-85, creating what is now rightly regarded as a classic horror film.
I don’t know if a casual reader will enjoy this as much as I did, or even a student of filmmaking in general. This is for fans. And I sure hope there are enough of us to make it successful, because this book deserves it.