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FANGO Flashback: “LAND OF THE DEAD”

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In a world where terms such as “zombie apocalypse” and “Z-Day” rest comfortably within the mainstream vernacular, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a time when the shambling, biting corpses that we know and love/loathe weren’t a common presence in the horror landscape. Though the earliest depictions of zombies in cinema can be traced back to 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE, many place the birth of the modern zombie in the 1968 black-and-white classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and consider the film’s director, George A. Romero, the godfather of the zombie subgenre.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could dispute this claim. With his original trilogy of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, and DAY OF THE DEAD, Romero managed to create classics for the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s that both defined and expanded upon zombie lore, while also serving as not-so-subtle vehicles for social critiques on everything from the Civil Rights Movement and Cold War paranoia to unchecked consumerism and military aggression.

Sure, there were other directors who left their marks on brain eaters; Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (a/k/a ZOMBI 2) and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD come to mind (with the former giving us a now famous zombie vs. shark fight scene), and Dan O’Bannon gave the masses a funnier, more colorful version of ghouls in the punk rock-tinged RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, but Romero’s status as the zombie king remains largely unscathed to this day.

In the early 2000’s, zombies were just beginning to come into vogue again, with Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER– and don’t give me that “they’re not zombies, they’re infected!” crap, I don’t care what Boyle says, I knows me a zombie when I sees it– and Zack Snyder’s quality 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD reinvigorating the genre with a newer, nastier, faster breed of the living dead, tapping into our collective post-9/11 fears of terrorism and chemical warfare in the process.

Apparently not content to simply let the new school of filmmakers redefine his favorite monsters, Romero added another chapter in his DEAD saga with 2005’s LAND OF THE DEAD. This writer was lucky enough to see it a local theater, where a friend’s parent was cool enough to escort us to the box office and assure the wary employees that we’d been given the green light to witness this gorefest. Not many flicks one enjoys at age thirteen hold up years later, but Romero’s fourth foray into his world of neck bites and head shots currently stands as one of his last great films, and now that it’s ten years old, it is definitely due to be defined as a classic from here on out. Feel free to send out the memo to the rest of the horror press.

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LAND OF THE DEAD follows a cast of characters living within a safe haven of sorts that’s been created within the remains of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Walled off by both a river and an electric fence, the survivors dwelling in it live in a two-tier class system, with the general population living in squalor and poverty, while the rich live in a guarded tower dubbed Fiddler’s Green, overseen by the entitled and conniving Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, channeling Donald Rumsfeld). One would assume that surviving the apocalypse would serve as unifying force for the remainder of humanity, but Romero’s critique of the rising gap between the rich and the poor proposes that old habits are even harder to kill than the walking dead.

Our unlikely hero in this bleak world is Riley Denbo (Simon Baker), one of Kaufman’s employees, the designer and operator of an armored assault vehicle called Dead Reckoning. Riley, along with his disfigured sharpshooter friend Charlie (Robert Joy) use the metal mammoth to protect themselves and crews of other scavengers who go out into unprotected territory to fetch food and supplies for those living behind the fence.

When Kaufman’s personal hitman Cholo (John Leguizamo) declares that he wants to retire and take his money to buy a place in Fiddler’s Green, Kaufman turns him down and attempts to have him disposed of. But a quick witted/fisted Cholo turns the tables on his treacherous employer; he confiscates Dead Reckoning and drives it out beyond the fence, threatening to turn its guns and missiles onto Fiddler’s Green if he is not given the money he’s owed by midnight. As they make their exit, a horde of zombies, led by their de-facto leader, the imposing Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), march into Pittsburgh and feed on the unprepared humans.

Riley, Charlie, and Slack (Asia Argento, speaking softly but carrying a big assault rifle) must venture out and get Dead Reckoning back from Cholo, if only to save the many innocents who are now unprotected from the onslaught of zombies. This proves to be harder in practice than on paper, because Big Daddy and his ilk are slowly but surely growing smarter, learning to use tools and strategic attacks to ravage the city down to its core, leading to a brutal assault on Fiddler’s Green. Even the fireworks (or as the characters refer to them, “sky flowers”) that Dead Reckoning shoots into the air to distract the brain eaters fail to work after a while.

At the time of the film’s release, audiences had come to believe that slow, shuffling zombies couldn’t be scary anymore. LAND OF THE DEAD is Romero’s passionate rebuttal. In his films, the dead only walk, but a combination of perseverance and evolution allows them to remain a menacing force against humans, whose greed and arrogance seems to always hover over them, no matter how antithetical it is to their goals of survival.

At a budget of fifteen million (ultimately yielding a box office gross of forty-six million), LAND OF THE DEAD is Romero’s biggest zombie film to date, and it shows. The epic scale of the scenery and set-pieces feels as though it’s what Romero initially intended to lens for DAY OF THE DEAD before the film’s budget was slashed. The makeup and gore effects, provided here by Greg Nicotero instead of Tom Savini (who does manage to make a cameo as a zombified version of his biker character from DAWN OF THE DEAD) are just as gloriously grotesque as anything a viewer would come to expect from a Romero production. And when the zombie army stands at the edge of a concrete precipice, ready to dive into the river and emerge in one of the creepiest sequences of modern horror, a bit of subtle CGI work manages to make the horde look ten times as big as it really is. Truly, it seems that humanity may be doomed.

To avoid spoiling too many of the terrifying twists and turns the film takes, I’ll end my critique here for any fright fans who have inexplicably still not viewed this truly great work from a master of horror, and simply urge you to see it as (in)humanly possible.

Romero would go on to direct two more zombie films, the underwhelming found-footage framed DIARY OF THE DEAD in 2007, and the follow-up SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD in 2009, the latter of which this writer cannot comment on because he admittedly hasn’t seen it yet, but no elements of DIARY lead me to believe that any magic might have been recaptured in SURVIVAL. That being said, die-hard fans should absolutely check out Romero’s superb ongoing Marvel Comics series EMPIRE OF THE DEAD, written by the man himself. Its premise is admittedly little more than LAND OF THE DEAD located in NYC (with a nice helping of vampires tossed in for good fun), but it manages to contain the same kind of memorable characters and grim yet fun plotting that made Romero a haunted household name.

When there’s no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth. When there’s no more room on Earth, mankind better find some new real estate quick.

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About the author
Christopher La Vigna
Christopher La Vigna is a writer, filmmaker, and the newest batch of blood to be welcomed into the haunted halls of FANGORIA. He’s a graduate of Hunter College*, and can be found lurking around any movie theater or comic shop near his person. You can argue about movies with him on Twitter: @Chris_LaVigna
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