"Day of the Dead" is the third in the George Romero trilogy that began with "Night of the Living Dead," and it is by far the least interesting. It's a spectacularly gory but also a spectacularly windy movie, as if you'd tuned in to "Agronsky and Co." only to find James J. Kilpatrick gnawing on a bit of kidney.
Once again, the dead are on the march, cannibalistic gourmands, slow stalkers besieging a research complex run by Sarah (Lori Cardille), a scientist looking for a cure for the dead. On the other hand, her colleague, appropriately nicknamed Frankenstein (Richard Liberty), thinks a cure is impossible -- he just wants to make the dead behave. The soldiers assigned to the complex, for their part, just want to make the dead . . . well, dead.
Most of what follows consists of Sarah spitting stern words through gritted teeth, and Rhodes (Joe Pilato), the soldier in charge, spitting them right back. The military, of course, is the enemy -- one of the nice things about the "Dead" movies has been the way they've yoked right-wing blood lust to left-wing causes. Romero made the horror film socially acceptable for socialists. But what was once metaphor is now speechifying. "Day of the Dead" is awfully close to the kind of slasher film, such as "Friday the 13th," that Romero has repudiated; these talky sequences don't provide suspense, they just interrupt the good parts.
And good parts (or "prime parts," you might say) there certainly are. Once again, Tom Savini brings his makeup genius to the various hackings and hewings -- before your eyes, people are literally torn limb from limb, as their intestines spill out like a village of oversized maggots; fingers are chomped, then ripped from their sockets. When one of Sarah's colleagues becomes a zombie appetizer, Sarah clumsily performs an emergency amputation with a machete. And in a piquant touch, a decapitated head continues to wink and glance shiftily in the mire.
But this is mere shock effect -- "Day of the Dead" is plenty gross, but there's nothing scary about it. Horror comes from what isn't shown, as much as from what is -- the thing that made the cannibalism scene in "Night of the Living Dead" so scary was that, in the darkness, you could hardly make it out. And while "Dawn of the Dead" made the setting -- a surburban mall -- into a resonant metaphor, the research complex of the new movie is divorced from our experience. It's somewhere "out there," underground; the setting is familiar in science fiction, so the impact is less immediate.
The movie has some of Romero's mordant humor, in the way it cuts from Frankenstein in his lab, in which he's dismembered a number of "specimens," to Frankenstein scarfing down lunch. And Liberty, scolding the dead like a schoolmarm, oblivious of the gore smeared on his smock while he rattles off a lecture on the brain, creates a hilarious portrait of the Enlightenment gone a bulb short. Romero has some fun with cackling frat-style boors in the background, all of whom get their comeuppance. But by and large, the acting is extremely flat and strident, and shot in a much more conventional style than Romero's other movies.
Romero, in other words, seems bored by the whole enterprise, less interested in the story than in sausage-making. And in John (Terry Alexander), the helicopter pilot, he's even dragged out the old stock character -- the cynic who just wants to make his living, who won't help out but, of course, finally does -- and centered the story on him.
Buried in "Day of the Dead" is an interesting idea: What if you really could live with the dead, make them behave? But Romero doesn't pursue it. The dead, for him, aren't alive anymore.
Day of the Dead, at area theaters, is unrated but contains graphic violence, relentless profanity and sexual themes.