Thursday, September 29, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #69: George Romero's original DAY OF THE DEAD

Like many of his fellow horror directors, George Romero has a long list of unrealized projects (some of which we covered earlier here). Unlike his contemporaries, however, Romero can actually claim that he got an unmade project made with DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Confused?  I hope so.  The third in his initial zombie trilogy, DAY OF THE DEAD was a decidedly different beast when Romero originally put pen to paper.  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) had put Romero on the map and his follow-up DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) proved that not only did the horror filmmaker deliver the gut-munching goods, but also that audiences were receptive to the notion of a zombie nation.  DAWN grossed an estimated $55 million worldwide, unheard of for an unrated film.  Naturally, a third film was quickly considered by Romero and his producing partners at Laurel Entertainment.

The first public mention of the third film I can find came in a June 1979 Variety where Laurel listed it (“tentatively titled DAY OF THE DEAD”) among their future releases.  The article does mention that Romero had not started the script yet.  On December 13, 1979, a 5-page synopsis titled DAY OF THE DEAD written by Romero was granted a U.S. copyright.  The next three years saw little public activity on the script as Romero directed KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) and CREEPSHOW (1982).  This changed on December 18, 1982, just over three years from the first copyright, as Romero’s first draft of DAY OF THE DEAD was copyrighted. The screenplay came in at a whopping 216 pages, so the epic quality of DAWN definitely seemed to be carrying over.  A heavy editing session resulted in a third copyright just under a month later on January 13, 1983.  This script was registered at 145-pages and now bore the title OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE, SATAN SENDS THEM BACK!: DAY OF THE DEAD. Apparently ol’ George had it in for the folks who changed the movie marquees back then.

Now here is where things get interesting.  Romero’s new script was certainly more ambitious than DAWN in that it traded a shopping mall with minimal characters for an inhabited island with lots of characters.  That means more money to spend on production and Laurel figured they would need a budget of about $7 million to do the film properly.  United Film Distribution Company (UFDC), who had a three-picture deal with Laurel and had previously released KNIGHTRIDERS, didn’t feel they could recoup their investment on an unrated picture.  The film’s rating was the major sticking point as advertising for unrated films had been strangled in the years between sequels.  If Romero could deliver an R-rating, he could get the big budget.  If not, UFDC would only pony up $3.5 million.  Romero, bless him, would not budge on the rating aspect, knowing his main man Tom Savini needed a chance to shine (remember kids, this was before unrated video releases were the rage).  With a contractual filming deadline looming, the director again chipped away at his script during early 1984, bringing it down to 104-pages (the version we review below).  Regardless, it was still deemed too expensive to make ($4.5 million) and this led Romero to do a major overhaul of his original script, resulting in the DAY OF THE DEAD film fans know today.

A considerable sense of déjà vu will overcome any Romero deadhead when they start reading this script.  Opening 5 years after the zombie outbreak (the actual year given is 1987), the screenplay kicks off with the same opening as the released DAY as a group of survivors land (via boat rather than a helicopter) in an unnamed Florida city looking for other living humans.  The “Hellllllo? Is anyone there?” cries are met only with the groans of the dead walking the street alongside alligators.  Our survivors – latinos Sarah, Miguel, Chico, Maria, and Tony – then head out looking for gas and discover some in a small dock.  This results in a firefight with some unfriendly locals who want their weapons; several group members are injured in the clash with Sarah chopping off boyfriend Miguel’s arm to avoid infection following a zombie bite (a bit carried over to the final DAY). Once back in the safety of their boat and out to sea, the group loses Tony, who succumbs to his gunshot wounds and comes back as a zombie, and his girlfriend Maria.  The remaining trio decides it is best to try and make it to an island…any island.

Yup, Rhodes is still a prick
Their small tugboat finally reaches Gasparilla’s Island, an isolated “tropical paradise” with no visible inhabitants.  (It should be noted there is a real Gasparilla’s Island off Florida, but it doesn’t appear to be the one Romero is using here.)  While exploring the land, the group is shocked to discover the opening to an underground facility.  Hiding in the dense bushes, they watch as a group of military men led by Captain Rhodes emerge from underground.  Even more shocking is what they have with them – zombies in red jackets with rifles that seem trained to act as soldiers. Trying to sneak back to their boat, the interlopers draw the attention of the Rhodes and his undead army.  Miguel, who has gone quite mad since losing his arm, is killed in the ensuing shootout and Chico is captured and tortured by Rhodes before a sympathetic guard, Toby Tyler, puts the injured man out of his misery.  Naturally, this draws the ire of the sadistic Rhodes and he later has his underling drawn up on charges of insubordination.

John, Bill and Sarah -
together again for the second time
As the only survivor, Sarah tries to make her way back to the boat but is attacked in the night by some zombies.  She is saved by a group of humans that include John, Bill McDermott and mute girl Spider.  John breaks down the island’s caste system for Sarah. Living high on hog underground is former Florida Governor Henry Dickerson, who has adopted the nickname Gasparilla from the Spanish pirate, and his Doral Country Club cronies; below them is the military led by Captain Rhodes; working alongside Rhodes are Dr. Mary Henried and Dr. Julie Grant, who are responsible for the conditioning and experimental training of the zombies; and finally there is the working class residing topside in the fenced-in, zombie-surrounded shantytown Stalag 17 who do most of the manual labor and unwittingly supplying the zombie munchie incentives during instruction sessions.  Within the workers is a small rebel movement led by John and supported by various folks including Dr. Logan, a patchwork medic who is already certifiably insane.

Such conditions obviously set the stage for a battle between the have and the have-nots. Rhodes has Tyler sentenced to three months hard labor topside and he quickly joins up with the rebels, who are planning on escaping from the powers that be.  Their plan is to subdue the guards (using a plant with anesthetic qualities found on the island) and slip Dr. Mary, Tyler’s love interest, out so they can sneak off the island.  Trouble starts though when Logan goes off his rocker and decides he and a few followers are going to start their own holy war by blowing up the underground base with nitroglycerin snuck into the facility by hiding it in glass tubes inside Spider’s body.  Naturally, all hell breaks loose in the underground facility and our heroes have to survive both crazed military men and armed zombies alike.  Oh, and protect the children. Yes, Romero lazily introduces a room of school children out of nowhere during the film’s final battle.

As you can see, several of the main characters from the final DAY already existed in Romero’s earlier drafts.  Lead character Sarah is Latino in this script and it appears Romero fused her and a part of the Dr. Mary Henried scientist character into the role eventually played by Lori Cardille.  The best change is that Sarah doesn’t retain any of Dr. Mary’s timidity and isn’t as much of a push over.  John is the still the central male hero character; although he has a stronger Caribbean accent here and is deeper into religion (the final scene literally has him as John the Baptist as he baptizes everyone on the new island).  Bill McDermott still has his flask and quips handy.  Rhodes is pretty much the same old Rhodes, although here he has a vested emotional interest in a previous relationship with Henried.  Interestingly, his support system of equally despicable enablers/underlings is missing here.  By far the biggest change is with Dr. Logan, who is far removed from his final character.  He is crazy from the get-go here and has no interaction with the zombie students.  In the final film, Logan definitely has a few screws loose, but he also had the zombie teacher aspect applied to Dr. Henried here.  And, of course, there is everyone’s favorite zombie Bub.  He is again the top zombie in his class, but his evolution seems a bit too advanced.  Not only is able to fire two six-shooters from his hips, but he can slap on his own holster and reload as well.  He does still give Rhodes his comeuppance, but it is done in a classic western standoff with Bub shooting him twelve (!) times.  Joining Bub are a few other smart zombies with nicknames like Tonto (because he is Indian) and Bluto (because he looks like the Popeye character).

This evolution might be the script’s biggest problem – the leap between DAWN and this DAY is just excessive.  Going from the mindless “they can use tools” zombies in DAWN to the quick learning pus buckets (thank you, Joe Polito) in this script is just too much, too soon.  For example, Henried teaches Bub to shoot at a certain color in one quick scene in the finale.  Quick learner, this brain dead zombie is.  As it reads, this is the perfect fourth film in the series (in fact, several ideas would appear 20 years later in Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD [2005]), but there needed to be something in between
to bridge the gap.  The script does still have some other major problems, namely the dictator-in-chief Gasparilla. Described by Romero as a huge fat man with a handlebar mustache (really!) that “makes him look like Pancho Villa,” the character is a complete caricature and over-the-top.  No joke, his first scene has him gorging on fresh fruit during a military tribunal where he holds court in a General’s jacket with a Hawaiian shirt underneath.   He also likes to hold orgies where he makes hookers work out naked on exercise machines. Well, that ain’t too bad.  Someone as vicious as Rhodes listening to this guy’s commands is a bit silly.  Even if he is the benefactor of this island retreat, I have no doubt that, had the world ended in a zombie apocalypse, that someone would have made sure he “died” comfortably in his sleep rather than put up with him.

As it stands, even in its truncated form, Romero’s original DAY OF THE DEAD script is a fun read.  It has lots of action from the opening scene all the way to the end.  It is funny because Romero told The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh author Paul Gagne in 1985 that he couldn’t yet remove himself from the difficult process of having to rewrite his script in order to accurately gauge his final film.  More recently, Romero has come around and states that DAY OF THE DEAD is his favorite of the original DEAD trilogy.  I’m inclined to agree with him as it seems to have the perfect balance of personal and political struggles mixed with some jaw-dropping (literally) effects work and one of the strongest zombie performances in cinema history (Howard Sherman as Bub).  I’m actually glad that Romero didn’t make his original film as intended as the trilogy needed something like the released DAY to show the zombie evolution in its infancy.  When there’s no more room in development hell, the creator of the dead builds a better movie.

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