Fright Fest: Land of the Dead (2005)
In 2005, my interest in the undead had officially been reclassified as ‘Mildly Addicted’, due in no small part to the Romero trinity of Night, Dawn and Day. By now I had branched out, and was working my way through any zombie film I could get my distended claws into. Then the news broke that Romero was making a new zombie film, Land of the Dead. To say I was a little excited would be an understatement. I remember watching it at the time and whilst I enjoyed it, it was not a patch on the originals, or most of the films I had been watching during that period.
So, looking at it objectively now and giving it another (overdue) viewing, has my opinion changed? Well…get comfortable, and I’ll begin.
With hindsight, taking into account the last three ‘of the Dead’ films that Romero made, and the Empire of the Dead comic series, Land feels like it was the creative pinnacle of what the man was trying to aim for. The apocalypse has well and truly taken root, and we are introduced to survivors living at a place called Fiddler’s Green. Sounds very jolly, huh? Well, not exactly. The way Dawn pivoted on rampant capitalism and consumerism, Land focuses very much on the societal divide between the haves and the have nots. Evidenced perfectly though John Leguizamo’s character, Cholo. Part of a crew that scavenges places for supplies, he believes that by greasing the palms of uber-boss Kaufman, played by nose-picking Dennis Hopper, he can secure himself an executive suite within the towering marvel at the heart of this settlement.
Land is basically a film about two conflicts. One is between Cholo and Kaufman. When Cholo has the audacity to suggest that he’s earned his lucrative new digs, the latter stiffs him over and tries to have Cholo killed. The second conflict is between Big Daddy and the surviving humans.
When you look back at the zombies that have been given names in any Romero films, a few stand out, but most are referred to by how they die, Helicopter Zombie, or what they’re wearing, Plaid Shirt Zombie. We’re introduced to Big Daddy first off as he stumbles around a garage forecourt, a hark back to the ‘they’re drawn here, by some sense of a previous life’ motif from Dawn. At first glance, he’s nothing out of the ordinary. Until he starts trying to direct his fellow shamblers towards the humans in their midst. Not just that, but he has a spark of intelligence, trying to stop his dead mates being distracted by the ‘sky flowers’ (fireworks), which the scavengers use to mask their presence as they raid places for supplies.
Zombies being more than just dead automatons, is something that Romero would go into further, in the Empire of the Dead comics, and the walled city it is set in, is very similar to Fiddler’s Green. Land is all about surviving, whether it’s the people eking out an existence on the streets of the fenced off habitation, or Big Daddy leading his horde to a place they won’t get blasted in the head. It’s a peculiar notion, as there is no way that either side could co-exist with the other, but Romero spends as much time showing us the zombies learning new tricks, as anything else. It’s not done in the best of ways, a bit clunky, but when I watch zombie films nowadays, I look for something that it does, that I haven’t seen before, and for that, it has to be commended.
Of course, a review of this film would not be complete without mentioning the transportation of choice in the zombie apocalypse…Dead Reckoning. This mammoth feat of engineering, with its multiple gun ports, rocket launchers etc, is a mechanical wet dream, though it seems to hold an uneven grip over Kaufman.
After Cholo escapes being offed, he decides that the best thing to do, is resort to the old adage, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If one cannot brown nose ones way into a superior apartment, inside of a tower block complete with a shopping mall and all mod-cons, one should destroy it with loads of missiles.” Now, I don’t know about you, but who hasn’t thought that after a rough day at the office?
In one of the oddest roles, the actor who would go on to play the Sergeant in both Diary and Survival of the Dead, pops up as a soldier called Brubaker, who tells Cholo he isn’t going anywhere. Then, Big Daddy and his assorted chums rock up and all hell breaks loose. In the ensuing fight, Cholo nicks the big badass vehicle and Brukbaker ends up dead. It’s symptomatic of the entire film, that it is made up of these little bursts of gore or violence, but the sum of the parts do not equal a very level or particularly interesting film. Land of the Dead has two scenes which I think echo this sentiment, and remind me why it misses the lofty heights of its predecessors.
The first is when Big Daddy, standing on the dock, looking out at the tower he very much wants to get to, realises that the easiest way between two points, is in a straight line. Given that they don’t require oxygen, he pitches into the briny and disappears. His shambling followers seem uncertain at first, but lo…a few minutes later, Big Daddy pops his head up through the water on the other side of the river. Then another…and another…it’s pretty cool, and definitely something that ticks another ‘original’ box.
However…it looks so…false. If that had happened in Dawn of the Dead, or made during that time period, it would just feel more imposing and dramatic, when I watch that now, it just feels way too fake. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled with effects, but after Big Daddy first sticks his bonce up, BOOM, not fussed, it loses all of its impact.
The second is when Ripley, the lead character, though he’s so devoid of personality to almost be a part of the scenery, catches up with Cholo and Dead Reckoning. It should really be a moment of high tension, a stand-off, a clash of two titans, each wanting to use the cool vehicle for their own ends. But it isn’t. It’s a damp squib. If it was a noise, it would be this…
Ripley basically disarms the rockets aimed at Fiddler’s Green with a remote control, and Cholo is left holding his proverbial dick in his hand. After he gets injured, and the tables (and guns) turned, they’re out on their ear, and Ripley is back in control again. It just lacks any gravitas, any OOMPH. It should be this big huge clash, and it just underwhelms. It is a microcosm of the entire film. You get a lot of cool little moments, but they never coalesce into something which gives you the WOW factor.
There are so many, the zombie with the messed up neck that takes out Matador with a handy head flip bite. COOL. The aftermath of Big Daddy’s attack on the docks, and the zombified soldiers, reminiscent of the basement scene in Dawn. COOL. The massacre when the zeds have the humans penned in against the electric fence. COOL. But they are just filler moments in an average film. Land even has an updated mall scene of sorts, and that too, is just passable. There’s no tension, no emotion, nothing.
Whenever I do one of these, I read it back and think, “Jeez, I am super harsh on these films,” and I guess I am. Thing is, it seems that for every good thing Land does, it does something which crosses it off, it never really ends up in positive territory.
For me, Land is a decent film (honest), and if it wasn’t made by Romero, I’d probably rank it higher in my all-time top list. The problem is that it suffers the same problem as Star Wars, for me at least. I always compare anything that he made after those first three films, with them, and there’s just no way that they could top them. Yes, the effects, particularly in Dawn, are a bit shonky, the zombies look odd, it’s all a bit rudimentary, but that is part of its intrinsic charm.
What you get with Land is an homogenised film, whilst the effects, particularly the zombies, Greg Nicotero did a good job, are excellent, they’re a bit too artificial. Everything about the film just feels like it was made by someone else. I’ll put that down to the twenty year gap, but also down to the fact that it just doesn’t fit very well
I liken Land of the Dead to getting a new album by one of your favourite bands, after they’ve signed to a half-decent label, are selling out bigger venues and are getting more publicity. Yes, it’s still good, but the key component that made them great, is gone. That grittiness, that element that they were doing it for the love, not for the money, is no more. And whilst you still nod your head along to it, it just doesn’t feel the same anymore. It’s why, whenever I want to put on a Romero film, or three, it’ll always be the three films that started it all off. The ones that hooked me, and never let me go.
[editors note] I have to admit, I probably love this film more than the movie deserves. There’s just something about Land of the Dead that really speaks to the climate and fears in early 2000’s America, let alone the world. Dennis Hopper’s character was specifically crafted to fit that “we don’t negotiate with terrorist” persona. He’s the manifested anger and resentment many felt towards both Bush and Cheney at the time. And on a story progression side of things, I enjoyed seeing this “new world” in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. How survivors had banded together but unfortunately people never change and class systems inevitably emerge. Metaphors also abound in this new zombie-venture. My favorite was the use of “sky flowers” as a means of distracting the undead so that the looters could go about looting. Going back to Romero’s original metaphor, how the undead were a sort of mockery towards Nixon’s “great silent majority,” and here we find this highly believable “distraction.” Who hasn’t felt that a lot of stuff that gets filtered through the news is nothing more than colorful distractions? Or at the time, those color alerts, terrorist threat level, were nothing more than “sky flowers.” And this begs the deeper question, what exactly were we being distracted from?
How did he do that? We had smacked him over the head with the shovel, dragged his body into the middle of the woods at night, obviously, dug a deep hole, slung his body in and filled the grave with the dirt. So, explain to me, how the hell is Duncan P. Bradshaw standing over us on the 58 bus into town? We read his books. His honeyed, twisted words. We laughed. We cried. We dry retched. Yet it wasn’t enough. He started to appear just out of sight. You’d turn your head, and he’d be gone. But yesterday, he was there, in the bakery. He was real enough alright. I don’t know why you hit him with the shovel, but this much is true. He’s going to sing us a song right now, and we’d better bloody well like it and applaud, or he’s going to scoop our brains out with a dessert spoon and eat it in front of these other passengers like he’s having a sorbet. The fiend.
Have a look at his website, and his books http://duncanpbradshaw.co.uk/
Or, better still, Like his Facebook page, he’ll spare you then, definitely, https://www.facebook.com/duncanpbradshaw/
Or…if you like your books all electronic, check out his Amazon page… https://www.amazon.co.uk/Duncan-P.-Bradshaw/e/B00OH6EVGC/
Now Available on Amazon…
Chump: A Collection of Zombie Stories