An Alternate History of Horror: Day of the Dead

Romero had a grand vision for one movie that ended up fragmented into three

Making movies is an expensive, time consuming business that requires a lot of people to all get on the same page and stay there. This means that there are a whole lot more ideas developed – good or bad – and screenplays written than ever actually make it to theaters or home video. In this series, I’m going to take a look at a few horror movies that never quite made it in front of the cameras, or that ended up reaching us in radically different forms than what was originally intended.

Previously in this series: The Wolf Man vs. Dracula


Day of the Dead (1985-ish)

Written and Directed by: George A. Romero

George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) is usually ranked lowest among his original Dead trilogy (it was preceded by Night of the Living Dead [1968] and Dawn of the Dead [1978]). Although it made money on VHS, its initial box office performance was disappointing (which some attribute to competition with The Return of the Living Dead, released the same summer), and it was not well loved by critics. Although it has received significant critical and fan reappraisal, many still mourn that Romero was not able to realize his original vision for the film.

Day of the Dead was conceived as a much larger-scale movie than its predecessors, but, in order to obtain the kind of budget required, Romero would have had to agree to deliver an R-rated cut of the movie, where his preference (and the preference of most fans) was for the movie to be released unrated, so that he could fully indulge in – and even surpass – the kind of extreme gore that had helped make the likewise unrated Dawn of the Dead such a success. To bring down the budget, Romero attempted to shorten and simplify the script, but eventually realized that he couldn’t make his original concept work under those conditions, and so he started over largely from scratch. A few situations, incidents, and characters were retained, but the Day of the Dead that was eventually produced was essentially a completely different movie from what Romero had originally envisioned.

An asshole in every version

An asshole in every version

The received wisdom within fandom is that we were robbed of what would have been a much better and more successful movie. With the earliest drafts of the script unavailable, we can only judge based on and intermediate, scaled-down script draft, but what is there does not feel to me like an improvement upon the finished movie (of which I am very much a fan). The assumptions seem to be that the earlier concept was superior in part because it was more epic in scope, in part because it explored a wider range of concepts new to the series, and in part simply by virtue of being the artist’s original intent.

But a more epic scope is not a virtue per se; in fact, much of what makes all three of the classic Dead movies so effective is their intimacy. A wide range of ideas often means that none of those ideas are being explored as deeply as they deserve. And many filmmakers will point out that their most effective ideas come from having to adapt to their limitations.

Both more layered characters in the finished version

Both these characters are more layered in the finished version

The original concept for Day of the Dead was very busy, narratively and thematically. It has many, many more characters than the finished version; for example, the movie’s lead, Sarah (Lori Cardille), incorporates aspects of three different characters from the earlier version. And it is so packed with incident that, at least in the abbreviated drafts, everything is packed in too tightly. There is little opportunity to get to know characters except through blunt and expository dialogue, and situations and concepts are introduced at dizzying speed with little organic development and no breathing room.

The finished Day of the Dead is probably best remembered, and beloved, for the character of Bub (Sherman Howard), a zombie who is gradually learning to communicate and to behave, and who develops a genuine humanity which is a marked contrast to the coldness of the living cast. Bub is present in the earlier script, but his development has already occurred when we meet him, and he is just one (albeit the foremost) of many similarly advanced, educated zombies. Bub is not explored in nearly the same depth, and the leap forward in zombie cognition from the previous movies is too much too fast.

So much better developed in the final movie

So much better developed in the final movie

Perhaps the longer original draft of Day did not suffer from the shortcomings of the attempted abbreviations. But even playing out more slowly and organically, it could be that there was just too much being thrown in for a single movie, including an apparent end to the zombie threat. It is unlikely that a long, sprawling version would have had the immediacy, the tension, or the focus on characters and relationships found in the final, claustrophobic film.

We would have missed out on this scene, and that's not cool

We would have missed out on this scene, and that’s not cool

The notion that the original concept would have done better at the box office is hard to fully rationalize. A significantly longer run time might have been a turn-off to audiences and critics, but the shorter version probably just wouldn’t have been very good. Ultimately, Day’s poor box office showing relative to Return probably had more to do with Day’s being released unrated, where Return received an R, and it was that freedom from rating that Romero was protecting in reinventing the story for a smaller scale. Box office success for either version probably would have required eliminating the gore that fans wanted to see.

Some of Romero’s unused ideas from the earlier drafts were eventually recycled in Land of the Dead (2005) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Had Romero succeeded in producing his original vision, we might never have gotten these later films – both because he wouldn’t have had as many spare ideas lying around, and because the earlier concept of Day was set up to bring a definitive end to the series. Survival is basically a hodgepodge of ideas that are never properly tied together, and is at best an interesting failure. Land, however, while it holds a mixed reputation among fans, is a solid entry in the series, progressing naturally from Day and used to comment effectively on the era in which it was produced.

Seriously.  Such an asshole.

Seriously. Such an asshole.

It is impossible to accurately judge what a completed movie would have been based only upon a script, and in this case the available script represents an already-compromised version. However, based on the evidence at hand, and my own admitted nostalgia for what eventually reached our screens, I would not want to trade in both the Day of the Dead that we got and the later Land of the Dead in order to get the movie that might have been.


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5 Comments on this post.

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  • Josh Millican
    17 November 2014 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    No mention of Diary of the Dead? I think it’s amazing as both a zombie film and an indictment of you-tube culture. It’s also one of the most effective Found-Film movies I’ve ever sen. Best line: “If we don’t get it on film, it’s like it never happened.”

    • Evan Baker
      17 November 2014 at 8:23 pm - Reply

      Oh, my failure to mention Diary wasn’t a reflection of my opinion on the movie. I only brought up Land and Survival because they include elements that were right out of the unused Day scenario, and Diary doesn’t really have any such borrowed elements (that I’ve noticed).

      That said, I can’t say I’m nearly as positive in my appraisal of that entry as you are. I like a lot of what Romero was going for conceptually, and there are a few effective scenes, but I feel like the fact that the main characters were pretentious film students with an in-universe opportunity to provide VO gave Romero an opportunity to indulge his most heavy-handed polemical inclinations. I think maybe it’s supposed to be parody of heavy-handed polemical documentaries, but it’s hard to parse just where the characters’ voices end and Romero’s begins.

      • Evan Baker
        17 November 2014 at 9:19 pm - Reply

        Oh, just to be clear, when I make remarks about “pretentious film students,” that’s not to be dismissive of or mean to anyone. I was a very pretentious film student myself. 🙂

  • Josh Millican
    17 November 2014 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    Found FOOTAGE, I meant

  • Josh Millican
    17 November 2014 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    Parody is absolutely an element of Diary. Like the scene where we hear the zombies attacking but don’t see them because the guy is charging his camera and the cord won’t reach, and the way he’s more interested in getting the shot than helping his friends–or even watching his own ass! I thought it was great!