There is an entire industry based on academic readings and interpretations of George A Romero's zombie series; whether the films represent the chaotic breakdown of law and order feared from the rise of anti-war generation onwards, or whether the zombies represent the industrial proletariat rising up to claim what is theirs, or whether the zombies represent the passive 'zombified' masses in modern consumer society (who can forget the zombies returning to the shopping mall out of ritualised habit in 'Dawn of the Dead'?). Most of these theories have at least something going for them and only enhance the general dignity of what is generally considered to be one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern horror (although this writer thinks any academic analysis of 'Creepshow' would be infinitely more challenging...)
'Day of the Dead' is no exception to this, and even at face value it is rewardingly nihilistic. The most obvious message of the film is that in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse the remnants of humanity are trying to pick up the pieces and survive, only for human weaknesses to ruin it. Based in their underground fortress performing a rearguard action against the zombie hordes the characters represent a microcosm of society as a whole – a mix of age, gender, nationality, race and temperament who ultimately fail to work together.
A little deeper than that is the struggle between the various ideological factions. Most obvious is the battle between the military, scientific and civilian elements, each of them with their own drawbacks: the military do most of the work and suffer the highest casualties, but are ignorant, violent, racist, sexist and arbitrarily authoritarian; the scientists are considered and constructive,but also self-indulgent and impractical; and the civilians are resourceful and independent but also indifferent and decadent. The struggle between the three factions as the concordat between them breaks down is the main source of the drama in the film. Additionally there is the theme of an irrational (masculine,white) central authority represented by Rhodes versus the rational, peaceful and increasingly sympathetic independence of the (feminine, black, Irish) Sarah, John and McDermott.
But unsurprisingly there is yet another reading of the film. In 1985 when the film was released the level of Cold War hysteria was its highest a generation – with the policy of détente well and truly over following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election of Ronald Reagan as US President, and the era of glasnost yet to begin, fears of an all-out nuclear war were rampant. In popular culture this was the era of 'Red Dawn', 'Threads', 'The Day After',' Invasion USA', and the US serial drama 'Amerika', as the idea of a final confrontation with communism dominated American political discourse.
One of the main reasons for that was due to one of the unique ideas of Reaganism- that of a 'winnable' nuclear war. It seems ridiculous now but the idea that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union could not only be fought (if necessary) but also won was the basis of American foreign policy in the 1980s. As Deputy Undersecretary of State T.K. Jones put it in 1981: "The United States could recover form an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union in just two to four years...Nuclear war is not nearly as devastating as we have been led to believe. If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it. Dig a hole in the ground, cover with with a couple of doors, and then cover the doors with three feet of dirt. It's the dirt that does it."
The planning behind this was based on the idea of underground bunkers where the US government could continue to operate and on the preservation of the country's industrial capacity, and contingency plans were put in place to that effect. The military bunker in 'Day of the Dead' is effectively one such operation, where the last remnants of the US military-industrial complex try to regroup.
The stupidity of this strategy is clearly expounded in the exchange between Rhodes and Frankenstein, where Rhodes still naively clings to the idea of a military solution to the zombie problem. In response to the idea that they could 'shoot them all in the head', the doctor replies: "We don't have enough ammunition to shoot them all in the head. The time to have done that would have been in the beginning. No, we let them overrun us. We are in the minority now, something like 400,000 to one by my calculation." - i.e. the strategy of a winnable war, whether against a zombie or nuclear holocaust, is doomed.
The only rational response to this dire situation is to do as the remaining survivors do – flee to somewhere inhabitable and try to live their lives in peace. The destructive finale is as much of an anarchistic rebellion against futile military authority as it is a human disaster. Luckily for us the chances of such a war being fought are rapidly diminished in the current era, but 'Day of the Dead' remains a potent reminder of times when losing 20% of a country of 180 million people was a price considered worth paying to fight a war that could not be won.