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|
|John, Bill and Sarah -|
together again for the second time
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 ), but there needed to be something in between
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.