In the summer of 1985, horror movie aficionados faced a glut of zombie flicks in theaters. But the kids of Hawkins, IN are distracted from movie theaters when they find themselves living in a zombie story of their own.
In the first episode of season 3 of Stranger Things, a contingent of the show’s teenage crew including Will (Noah Schnapp), Max (Sadie Sink), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) sneak into the new movie theater to see the very R-rated movie Day of the Dead. And how could they, as self-respecting ‘80s kids, miss it? As the original 1985 trailer proclaimed, George Romero’s third installment in the Dead Trilogy was the “most eagerly awaited day in horror movie history.”
As the movie is winding up to its iconic first scene, where green-hued zombie hands pierce the wall of an underground bunker, the power in the mall goes out and the screen goes dark. That’s when the trouble in Hawkins begins. Eventually, Day of the Dead starts up again. The kids don't know it, but the next hour and 40 minutes set the tone for their next adventure.
The third installment of Stranger Things shares significant DNA with Day of the Dead. For one, there is the uncannily similar music. The Dead Suite,” played in the opening scene of Day of the Dead, sure resembles a simplified and slowed-down version of the Stranger Things theme. Those staccato notes in a minor key are staircases to the same conclusion: We’re not headed anywhere good.
While there's still hope that the characters in Stranger Things can save Hawkins, Day of the Dead's characters have already arrived at a bad place; the movie is set in a world that has already fallen to the undead. In this future, zombies outnumber humans 400,000 to one. The remaining human population lives in heavily armored underground bunkers, where scientists and the military join forces to stop the undead.
Like Day of the Dead, much of the action in Stranger Things takes place in subterranean locales. At one point Robin (Maya Hawke) who is trapped in a Russian tunnel beneath the Star Court mall, has to laugh. Who knew, all this time, that there was an entire world beneath her feet? From Hawkins Labs' nefarious experimentations to Russians opening up dimensions in a mall basement, Stranger Things’ has a penchant for secret organizations that unleash hell.
But beyond music, zombies, and bunkers, where Stranger Things and Day of the Dead share the most common ground is in their theme music. Romero described Day of the Dead as a “tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse even in this small little pie slice of society.”
Romero's sentiment should sound familiar for Stranger Things fans — in the third season of the series, three disparate groups of people run around Indiana and gathering crucial information about Russia and Mind Flayers that they’re unable to communicate to each other. Could all of these problems be solved by cell phones?
Finally, it’s no coincidence that Stranger Things is set in the summer of 1985, a year after the last season took place. Without a doubt, 1985 was the summer of the zombie movie.
Within a month of Day of the Dead, The Return of the Living Dead hit theaters — yep, another zombie flick. But where Day of the Dead was a dark, serious movie about the difficulties of life at the edge of the apocalypse, The Return of the Living Dead was a goofy, darkly comic movie about a bunch of brain-eating zombies let loose on a small American town.
Though it's not mentioned, The Return of the Living Dead and its theme of a suburban zombie invasion is also likely an influence on Stranger Things 3. The Mind Flayer turns a contingent of Hawkins’ population into zombies. On the outside, victims seem normal — but in reality, they're husks of their former selves. Once the Mind Flayer captures them, their bodies can be melted down to be incorporated into a larger monster of red, seething flesh. Yum.
Ultimately, Stranger Things and these twin zombie movies from 1985 are all inspired by a sense of fear from the same existential threat posed by zombies. One could argue that zombies are humans from the Upside Town. They retain their human shape, but they've lost their essence. Worst of all, zombies are creepy subversion of a dream of immortality. We all want to live forever — and zombies can’t be killed. But what kind of life is that?