For many of us who grew up during the 1970s and the ’80s, the original George A. Romero zombie trilogy — NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, and DAY OF THE DEAD — was where it was at if you were a horror fan. Rumors of George doing a fourth movie in the series circulated for many years, with no sign that it would ever come to fruition. It finally did in 2003, with LAND OF THE DEAD — a movie that some horror fans embraced, but others disregarded.
The world in which the movie came into being was a world where zombies weren’t a part of popular culture yet (THE WALKING DEAD was still years away), and when zombies were still frightening as a concept — one which hadn’t been bled dry by an industry desperate to capitalize on it, cramming it into every conceivable media platform. Arguably, Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER in 2002 and Zack Snyder’s 2005 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD marked the point where this proverbial zombie snowball began rolling downhill.
Outside of the film industry, the real world was going through some major problems of its own: 9/11 was a very recent memory, and it too was infecting all mediums of entertainment — movies that took place in New York City were digitally removing the World Trade Center, simply out of respect. (Even the teaser trailer for the first SPIDER-MAN movie directed by Sam Raimi, which featured a scene of Spider-Man trapping a helicopter full of bank robbers in a web spun between the Twin Towers, was pulled and never seen again.) Politics, particularly those involving the Bush administration, were also playing into this landscape. Within all of this upheaval, LAND OF THE DEAD was finally greenlit by Universal Pictures.
It’s a distinctly different film in not just the second loose zombie trilogy, but in Romero’s entire zombie series. LAND is the only film both produced and distributed with studio backing; name actors were brought in, including Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, and Asia Argento. It’s also one of the only films in the series that, after it was shot, was trimmed down to achieve an R rating. The DEAD films before it had gone out unrated, which allowed Romero carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Times had changed, though, and just to get the movie made, he had to make some compromises.
Many folks were excited for the movie when it first hit theaters. I saw it back-to-back with BATMAN BEGINS and enjoyed them both, but I was later dismayed to learn that not all horror fans enjoyed LAND OF THE DEAD. Even when it came to home video in its “Unrated Director’s Cut” form, it still wasn’t as well-received as it perhaps should have been. Much of the criticism laid against it involved its overt themes and CGI additions, more so than its actual content.
Some would argue that the movie’s first misstep is its social commentary — or, more to the point, the lack of subtlety in getting it across. In previous Romero ventures, we were told bluntly why zombies do things like they did when they were alive, which now seems to get unintentional laughs. LAND OF THE DEAD appears to be, on the surface anyway, just as blunt about it — perhaps if not more so. The actions taken by the zombies seem more far-fetched, even though we’ve seen Bub in DAY OF THE DEAD display similar kinds of actions, emotions, and reactions against his so-called aggressors. In LAND, there’s an entire horde of zombies who are all of this same mindset, rather than one zombie who was experimented on in a laboratory. It’s a little hard to swallow — but at the same time, the movie couldn’t exist without this conceit.
LAND OF THE DEAD was also under scrutiny for its political leanings: Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman says things that you would expect politicians of the day to utter. Authority figures in the DEAD movies have always been questionable people, but in this instance, it’s blatantly and unnecessarily spelled out in the dialogue. For instance, when Cholo (Leguizamo) steals the armored vehicle Dead Reckoning and makes his demands, Kaufman blurts out “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” That really is too on the nose, especially when you’re going for subtext. It feels somewhat like a studio note, but on the other hand, it’s already been established that George can be forthright when it comes to his themes. Either way, it’s an idea with too fine a point on it, making it more ineffective than not.
There’s also no question that a lot of the CGI is just plain not good. It‘s well-executed on its own terms, but the problem is that it‘s obvious. In a film with plenty of authentic blood being splattered, the digital facsimile thereof almost always stands out. The most egregious effect in that regard is the zombie whose head is dangling behind his back, popping up to bite someone on the arm. It’s a great idea, but not well-executed, and probably would have been more convincing if it were partially practical. Obvious effects tend to be the worst kinds of effects, depending on the tone and style that a movie is going for; in this case, I doubt Romero was going for something so explicitly noticeable.
While these aspects of the movie do drag it down a bit, there’s still plenty left over to enjoy — chiefly, the practical effects and character dynamics. The zombie stuffing its hand into a corpse’s mouth and ripping out the tongue, pulling the skin off of somebody’s head, and that infamous belly-button ring being ripped out — all of it is amazing stuff. Then there’s the zombie makeup itself — particularly one of the lead female zombies with part of one cheek missing, exposing the teeth.
The lead actors in LAND OF THE DEAD are also fairly well-defined and their relationships have strong arcs. They’re not perfect, and come off as a little clichéd, but it’s a positive aspect nonetheless. It’s just too bad we don’t get to spend more time with them. Conversely, we’re also stuck with characters that we’re clearly meant to dislike, as they do horrible things and get their comeuppance for it. It’s also a little simplistic, but it works as a dramatic device to stay invested in the story.
The cinematography of the movie is also well-executed — the opening shot pans across a churchyard in a dead world, filled with lumbering zombies. We even pass a skeletal undead puppet in the foreground before coming to a stop at a gazebo filled with zombies attempting to play instruments. It definitely sets the tone and plays into what we know about Romero’s ghouls from the previous movies — that their instincts drive them to do things they did in their previous lives. This includes shambling around shopping malls and saluting military officials.
Lead by “Big Daddy,” the zombies manage to cross a river, making their way to the wealthy enclave Fiddler’s Green, overcoming adversity from humans along the way. It’s the whole drive of the movie, and something that Romero was doing in previous movies — having a new society literally devour the old one. One can’t fault George for his consistency.
Overall, LAND OF THE DEAD has flaws, but none of them make the movie unwatchable. One has to remember that it was made with the intention of having a major release — the kind of which this series never seen before or since. Some may view it as watered-down, but it’s actually more of a writer/director coming to terms creatively within the budget and constraints he was given.
While the studio system may have slightly neutered what could have been a stronger final product, that’s not the filmmaking world that people like George A. Romero live in. He is often forced to make more zombie movies, simply because he’s unable to get anything else produced. It’s unfortunate too because we all know that he can write and direct other kinds of movies — like CREEPSHOW, MARTIN and KNIGHTRIDERS. It’s one of the reasons why LAND OF THE DEAD is so important… and it should be more appreciated than it is.
If you haven’t seen it in a while, pop it in and give it a spin. It’s worth a second look.