Zombie-themed entertainment is big business in 2020. New indie and mainstream Zombie films are released, seemingly every month. The Walking Dead is in its 10th season on AMC. Shows like I, Zombie, Black Summer, Daybreak, Z Nation permeate our televisions and streaming services. There are graphic novels, video games, books, foreign films like Train To Busan. The list goes on and on.
Back in 2005, however, Zombies were anything but mainstream. Thanks to the massive success of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and the Zom-Com Shaun of the Dead in 2004, all that was about to change. At least that’s what the Hollywood studios were hoping.
That hope is where our story begins. Following the success of Dawn and Shaun, Universal Pictures gave the legendary George A. Romero the biggest budget and the biggest name cast he’d ever worked with on a Zombie film. Would he strike box office gold? Would the dead walk again?
Read on for our 15 year retrospective review of George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead and find out!
Land Of The Dead Synopsis
The living dead have taken over the world, and the last humans live in a walled city to protect themselves as they come to grips with the situation.
George A. Romero wrote and directed the film. It stars Simon Baker (The Mentalist), John Leguizamo (Spawn), Dennis Hopper (Speed), Asia Argento, and Robert Joy.
The film opened on June 18, 2005 at CineVegas, then released to more than 2200 theaters in the U.S. and Canada on June 24, 2005. It opened in 4th place behind Batman Begins, Bewitched, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith with a $10.2 million haul. The film went on to make $46.8 million against a $15 – $20 million budget.
Here’s a look at the official poster art!
A Legend Returns
George A. Romero is widely regarded as the Godfather of the Zombie genre. His landmark film, Night of the Living Dead pretty much started it all back in 1968. Dawn of the Dead, another absolute classic, followed in 1978. Day of the Dead completed Romero’s “Dead Trilogy” in 1985. All three films are considered cornerstones of the genre. In 1990, Romero produced the Night of the Living Dead remake with Tom Savini in the Director’s chair. The only problem? Day of the Dead under-performed at the box office and Night of the Living Dead (1990) outright bombed. Zombies were pretty much dead (no pun intended) in pop culture, and the genre sadly faded to obscurity for much of the 1990’s.
Throughout this period, Romero himself saw his own star fall. After working on Tales From The Darkside (TV) and Creepshow 2, the Godfather’s Hollywood career came to a screeching halt. Romero spent much of this 15 year period working on treatments and scripts and looking for funding. Fast forward to 2005: twenty years since Romero last directed a Zombie film and 15 years since he last produced one. The time was, at last, right for a comeback.
Fresh Social Commentary
Romero’s films aren’t just monster stories; they are rife with social commentary. Night of the Living Dead showed us man was infinitely more a threat to man than the flesh eating ghouls. Dawn of the Dead thumbed its nose at America’s rampant consumerism. Day of the Dead showed the fruitlessness of militarism and the barbaric cold war mentality. Land of the Dead similarly had plenty to say about the era in which it was made.
The story focuses on a cityscape refuge from the undead. It’s surrounded on 3 sides by water and the 4th side is a fortified gauntlet the dead are unable to penetrate. At its heart, this is a story of the haves and the have nots. Rich businessmen, led by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), control Fiddler’s Green, a luxurious high rise home for the wealthy, full of shopping, fine dining, and all the best things from pre-Zombie apocalypse life. Outside the paradise of Fiddler’s Green live the poor who want in. They survive on the streets, barely, living off scraps from the rich. Sound familiar?
A group of mercenaries, led by Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) use weapons, tactics, and a heavily armed assault vehicle called Dead Reckoning to supply the refuge. Their tactics include firing bursts of fireworks into the sky to distract the Zombie hordes as cover for their supply runs. The catch? The Zombies are starting to catch on.
At the start of the film, the Zombies aren’t much of a threat. The city is a fortress. The heroes have plenty of guns, and what is essentially a tank, in Dead Reckoning. Society is as normal as we’ve seen it in Romero’s dead universe. That all changes when a Zombie known as “Big Daddy” starts getting wise to the mercenaries’ tactics. He gets wise to the fireworks distraction and attempts to tip off the other undead to their trickery. Eventually he succeeds, and leads a massive horde toward the city.
When I first saw Land of the Dead back in 2005, I was not a fan of this approach. The idea of “smart Zombies” or “learning Zombies” seemed pretty dumb to me. I’ve come to realize, however, that this is simply Romero capitalizing on canon he set up in his first three Dead films. Night of the Living Dead featured a Zombie using a rock as a club. The scientists in Dawn of the Dead mentioned the Zombies learning to use basic tactics and tools. Day of the Dead gave us “Bub,” a Zombie who showed the potential to manipulate objects, to feel for his captors, and perhaps be domesticated. Ultimately, Bub showed he was capable of anger, and ultimately revenge. “Big Daddy” is the next logical step in this evolution.
Shit Meet Fan
Our hero, Riley, wants out of the city. He wants to take his savings, buy a car, and hit the road for greener pastures. Unfortunately for Riley, he is Kaufman’s meal ticket. Kaufman’s not going to let his best mercenary leave. This sets up the human conflict of the story. This conflict is magnified when Big Daddy and his horde realize that water is nothing to fear when you’re dead. The city’s best protection is now worthless, and the dead are once again a threat.
The final showdown is pretty grand. The humans throw down with the Zombies and with each other. What you have is a massive social uprising, not unlike what we’re seeing now on our own televisions. The poor have had enough. There’s rioting in the streets. The Zombies are hungry and they’re flooding the city. Now it’s the oppressors at the top of the food chain who are going to have to pay.
Land of the Dead – Final Thoughts
Land of the Dead is an enjoyable Zombie film that’s only gotten better with age. It features a solid cast, some decent gore effects (with a few not so good effects), and a solid creep factor that isn’t predicated purely on jump scares. Dennis Hopper makes a suitably vile villain and John Leguizamo really shines as an anti-hero. There’s even a really fun cameo that Romero fans will enjoy. I won’t spoil that for you here if you haven’t seen it, but trust me: you’ll love it.
The film didn’t do gangbusters, unfortunately, but it did ultimately put Romero back on the Zombie map. The film’s relative success allowed him to scare up funding for Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. I’d call that a win for Z fans everywhere!
Land of the Dead isn’t streaming anywhere at the time of this writing, but it has been making the rounds on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. For you physical media freaks, Shout! Factory has a pretty killer Collector’s Edition Blu-ray you can grab that is packed with special features, including a Romero commentary track (read our coverage of that here). I plan to pick this one up myself.
What are your thoughts on Land of the Dead? Any fans out there in PopHorror land? Tell us in the comments!