We’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead, which was released in the U.S. on June 24, 2005. While it’s perhaps not as highly regarded as his true classics Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, or Day of the Dead (which wasn’t itself all that highly regarded in its day), I think Land withstands the test of time quite nicely.
I revisited the movie a couple weeks ago in preparation for its anniversary, because I wanted to pay some sort of tribute to the film which marked the highly anticipated return of Romero into the zombie genre. Fans eagerly awaited the film, which was once expected to be called “Twilight of the Dead,” especially after plans of a Romero-directed Resident Evil film fell apart (which many of us are still sad about).
Is Land of the Dead perfect? Not quite, but it’s still a highly entertaining film, and one I like to continue to revisit from time to time. The only real knock against it in my opinion is the noticeable use of CGI in some scenes, but there is enough greatness in the film to look past that relatively easily. The fact is that these particular instances were just as noticeable when the film was released, and I wouldn’t say that time has made them any worse. If anything, I’ve only grown to appreciate all the practical effects (of which there are many) all the more. Plus, it’s just a fun, easy movie to consume. There really aren’t any parts that drag, which in all honesty can hardly be said for even the films of the original dead trilogy, as much as I love them. To be clear, I’m not saying Land is better is a better film than any of those three. It’s just paced really well.
The biggest difference in terms of pace is that in Night, Dawn, and Day, everybody is holed up through most of the film. In Land, our main characters are always moving and out on the road. Land’s approach makes it feel like things are always happening. It even follows the zombies’ own trek.
When I first saw Land of the Dead, I happened to live pretty much next door to a movie theater, so I spent a lot of time there. It was nice to be able to walk over and see Land of the Dead several times while it was playing in a fashion that was hardly more difficult than walking into my living room. I pretty much fell in love with the movie from the moment that old school universal logo appeared on the screen.
The opening scene in which the camera pans from an “Eats” sign over to walking zombies and the zombie band on the bandstand playing the tuba and tambourine had me hooked right from the get go. After watching running zombie flicks like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake (both of which I enjoyed a great deal), it was clear that the Romero-style zombie was back. Dead and “all messed up”. It was an absolute treat to witness on the big screen, as I had never seen one of Romero’s classics in this format. I was four years old when Day of the Dead came out.
Fun fact: Romero’s voice can be heard as one of the puppets in the children’s show in the film. He says, “Take that, you smelly zombie.”
Like the films of the Dead Trilogy before it, Land of the Dead had more than just zombies and gore going for it, though there were certainly plenty of those. It had substance. It had something to say, and it was mostly related to the Bush administration and living in post-911 America. In fact, Dennis Hopper even based his Kaufman character on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Hopper is amazing in this role, by the way (when wasn’t he great?).
Hopper is of course only one member of a very solid cast, which also includes fantastic performances from Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, and the great Robert Joy, not to mention Big Daddy himself Eugene Clark. And don’t forget the cameos by Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg.
Fun fact: Land of the Dead reunited Super Mario Bros.’ Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo.”
More than anything, there are just a lot of great moments in Land of the Dead. I love the Carnival of Souls homage. I like when Simon Baker’s character Riley comments, “Isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?” after another character mocks the dead for doing just that. I like when the guy who gets bitten in the liquor store blows his own brains out as Riley is trying to keep Leguizamo’s Cholo from shooting him. I like when Kaufman says, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
I love pretty much every Robert Joy scene, including how he licks his thumb to wet the front sight of his gun – his trademark move. I like how they use fireworks or “sky flowers” to distract the zombies (which the characters referred to as “walkers” years before The Walking Dead was a TV series…they also refer to them as “stenches”). I like the shot where Cholo shoots a zombie through a hole in Dead Reckoning (the awesome battle truck) and you see it fall on the monitor. I love when Cholo decides to decline being shot after being bitten because he “always wanted to see how the other half lives.” There are a lot of cool little things like these that add up to a very enjoyable film.
I like how the zombies have evolved to the point of using weapons, cooperating, and showing emotion at the sight of seeing their own kind decimated. There are some memorable zombies in the film, including Big Daddy, the woman with part of her face torn off, and the butcher zombie (pictured at the top), all of which come immediately to mind.
The whole Fiddler’s Green scenario, which sees the rich holed up in a big futuristic building while the poor are left to the dangers of the outside, is a little too believable, which makes it effective. I like that there’s a place in which zombies are made to fight one another (a scenario that would also make its way into The Walking Dead years later).
Fun fact: According to IMDb: “”Fiddler’s Green’ is a song about the place where cavalrymen go when they die located “Halfway down the trail to hell” and, in the end, advocates suicide by pistol when death is certain and the hostiles are closing in.”
If nothing else, Land of the Dead stands as one of the best zombie films of the 2000s to date. It’s a shame that the first thing many think about related to this movie are the shoddy CG effects, and it is unfortunate that those were left in there. They can indeed be distracting to the level of being cartoony, but the fact that the movie succeeds in pretty much every other way, and includes plenty of solid practical effects from Greg Nicotero and co. as well means the good far outweighs the bad. I wish the same could be said for Romero’s later Dead films, but that’s a story for another day. Let’s just take some time to give him his due for giving us four really good Dead films (and hold out hope for Empire of the Dead).
Land of the Dead performed decently at the box office and got pretty good reviews, yet I can’t help but feel like it’s a bit underrated.
Note: If you revisit the movie, make sure you go for the director’s cut.