Zombies, Man, They Freak Me Out-Land Of The Dead

“My zombies will never take over the world because I need the humans. The humans are the ones I dislike the most and they’re where the trouble really lies.”

George Romero

Content warnings: suicide mention, mental health

The 20 year gap between George A. Romero’s Day Of The Dead and Land Of The Dead was the longest gap between his Of The Dead zombie movies and a lot of crazy shit happened, to say the least. Possibly the biggest fuel for the crazy shit- the 24 hour news cycle. Following up on the development of CNN in 1980, MSNBC launched in 1996 with Fox News following up later that year. The World Wide Web debuted in 1991, making it possible to share news, ideas, and theories faster than ever before. The dumpster fire that is Facebook didn’t appear until 2004.

Political issues, social causes, racial and sexist divides, riots, economic turmoil…everything that had been going on in the United States now had the spotlight on news channels attempting to fill 24-hours of air time. 

On February 26, 1993, a bomb was detonated in the parking garage below the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, killing 6 people and injuring upwards of 1,000 people. American citizens began forming their harmful views of anyone who might be from “the Middle East” who could be part of “that al-Qaeda terrorist group”. So, two years later, on April 19, 1995, when a bomb was detonated in a truck outside of a government building in Oklahoma City, some people received a “shock” as they saw a scrawny, pencil neck, white American man named Timothy McVeigh come across their TV screen as the man that had committed the heinous act. 

The public saw the government, specifically the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and FBI, massively fuck up during a 51-day stand-off/seige of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of 81 people, including 28 children, and their “leader” David Koresh. In 1993, President Clinton signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” which prohibited openly LGBTQ+ people from serving in the military, an act still causing a harmful ripple in all military branches. Between 1994 and 1995, people watched in awe as the story of O.J. Simpson and the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman unfolded. People sat with popcorn and pizza to watch the infamous Bronco car chase and “the trial of the century” that occupied news stations for nine months. In the summer of 1995, a heat wave hit Chicago and it resulted in the deaths of 739 people, many of whom lived in poverty or were elderly. 

The attacks on September 11, 2001, made the one of the biggest marks in American history. Terrorists hijacked four planes, crashing two into the two World Trade Center buildings in New York City, crashing one into the Pentagon in Virginia, and a fourth crashing in a field in Pennsylvania before reaching its potential target. Over the four crashes, nearly 3,000 people were killed and an estimated 25,000, people were injured. Starting at 8:46 in the morning, millions of people had a front row seat to watch chaos and death live on television. 

News of what was happening was almost unavoidable. Citizens of all ages were exposed to sights that were beyond comprehension to some. Anger, fear, stress, and a lot of confusion were felt across the country. A case study in the Boston-area with mothers and children, ages 7-15 years old at the time of 9/11, found that 5.4% of children and 1.2% of parents were given a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis from watching the events of 9/11 on TV. Another 18.7% of children and 10.7% of parents showed signs of PTSD but not enough for a formal diagnosis. 

Anti-Muslim hate was firing on all cylanders for some (assholes) now. People were being verbally and physically assaulted almost instantly following the attacks of 9/11 from fearful and uneducated people fearing that they could be the next terrorist. In 2011, a study by the American Psychology Association, found that 82% of Muslim Americans felt unsafe after 9/11. Numbers for PTSD, anxiety, and depression skyrocketed among Muslim Americans. 

I bring this up this way because I had just started the 3rd grade when 9/11 happened. I heard about it on the radio in the car on the way to my grandma’s house, where I continued to watch it on TV. Odds are that if you’re reading this, you have some solid memories around that day. Or, maybe you were too young to remember it yourself and learned about it in history class and by stories of people you know.

After the attacks of 9/11, the United States launched itself into war with Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2001, an estimated 6,828 American personnel have lost their lives during these military campaigns, or double the amount of lives lost during 9/11. Between 2001 and 2014, an estimated 78,000-88,000 soldiers in the Middle East have lost their lives and an estimated 174,000-200,000 civilians have been casualties of war efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

In the few years following 9/11, Americans were fearing something was around any and every corner. Only one week after those terrorist attacks, envelops containing anthrax were sent through the U.S. postal system to media outlets and government buildings, killing 5 and injuring 17 others, ranging in age from 7-months to 94 years old. A few suspects were questioned but no one has ever been convicted for the crimes. In 2002, D.C. was held at hostage for nearly a month as the Beltway Snipers shot and killed ten people and injured another three people seemingly at random while driving around in a Chevy Caprice. 

Political punk rock and rap that had rally cries from N.W.A’s  “Fuck Tha Police” in the 80s and Bikini Kills’ “Rebel Girl” in the 90s had come back with a vengeance and with common targets. NOFX released War On Errorism in 2003, with album art of a cartoonish-George Bush painted with clown make-up in front of an American flag. When Green Day released American Idiot in 2004, I was part of the sea of teens/young-adults with cheap, smudged eyeliner singing along to lyrics like, “I’m not a part of a redneck agenda. Now everybody do the propaganda and sing along to the age of paranoia.” Then American Idiot went on to win Best Rock Album at the 2005 Grammy’s. 

Let us not forget country musicians, specifically Toby Keith, that also spent time on the Billboard charts with their uber patriotic songs boasting support for soldiers being sent overseas. In a punk rock move, Natalie Maines of country-trio the The Chicks called Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)” “ignorant” and at a 2002 concert in England told the audience, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas” (referring to George W. Bush). It was a move that drew hate and criticisms from country music fans and that damaged their career for a long time. In 2017, Maines continued her outspoken ways in a series of Twitter posts condemning President Trump and his corrupt and hateful ways.

Punk-fucking-rock. 

The early 2000s was seeing a modernist surge in zombie movies. The video game-turned-movie franchise Resident Evil began in 2002, releasing seven movies over the next forteen years. Edgar Wright’s horror-comedy Shaun Of The Dead was released in 2004 in England and quickly gained popularity, for being a relatively small release. 

In 2004, Zack Snyder released his version of George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead as a face-paced, blood-soaked, action-packed remake. The film featured cameos from some of the cast of the original movie, but Romero himself had no involvement in Snyder’s movie.

Romero had other ideas forming.

George A. Romero’s Land Of The Dead was built from the ideas that Romero was forced to scrap due to budgetary reasons 20 years earlier in Day Of The Dead. A more modern budget ($16 million) and more modern technologies (CGI) would allow for fancy yet enforced high-rises to shelter the elite and more “developed” zombies. Initial title ideas were Twilight Of The Dead and Dead Reckoning, in reference to the film’s Mad Max-esque train-like tank.

The story of Land Of The Dead takes place seemingly during a “lull” of the zombie-apocalypse, where the rich and powerful are living comfortably in high-rises, known as Fiddler’s Green, while the lower class live on the streets, all surrounded by electric fences and armed guards to keep them safe. Teams are sent out to gather supplies in an attempt to keep everything functioning, mainly to keep those in power comfortable but to also try and help their friends living at their level on the streets. 

Land Of The Dead reunites Super Mario Bros. stars John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper (RIP) where, once again, Leguizamo’s character, Cholo, plays menace to Hopper’s tyrannical leader, Kaufman. Cholo shows the aggression and loyalty of a gaurd dog to Kaufman in an attempt to get himself out of the slums and get a spot in Fiddler’s Green. After being denied, Cholo steals their D.I.Y. armored tank, Dead Reckoning, and threatens to blow up Fiddler’s Green, and the surrounding areas, if Kaufman doesn’t pay his monetary ransom. Tasked with retrieving Dead Reckoning are Riley, played by Simon Baker pre-Mentalist TV fame; sharp-shooter Charlie, played by Robert Joy; and impisoned sex-worker Slack, played by Asia Argento, daughter of famed Italian director Dario Argento, who was the co-producer and co-composer of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Romero recalls knowing Asia “since she was knee high to a grasshopper”. 

Picking up where the “Bub” zombie left off in Day, we have the “Big Daddy” zombie, played by Eugen Clark. First seen at Big Daddy’s garage and gas station, Big Daddy appears still ready to work and serve customers at the station. He is observed making snarling and barking sounds at other zombies, in an attempt at some form of communicating. Big Daddy observes the other zombies being mezmerized by the “sky flowers” (fireworks) that Riley, Cholo, and company shoot off as distractions so they can safely make their way through the hoards, and Big Daddy is having none of it. He then takes on the role of leader of the pack, moving towards the masses back towards the city, and showing others how to use tools. Notably, he shows the butcher zombie (played by Boyd Banks, who appears as Tucker in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead) how to use his meat cleaver to cut through walls and use it as a weapon. We see even more character zombies (or “stenches” or “walkers”, as they’re called in this) including a softball player, a brass band, another clown zombie, and a zombified-Tom Savini with a leather jacket, wielding a machete, as his character of Blades from the original Dawn. 

Also making appearances as zombies are the director and star of Shaun Of The Dead, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. The pair appear as the chained up zombies at the photobooth. Wright and Pegg were fans of Romero’s zombie movies and Romero was a fan of Shaun so there was a mutual respect and fun to be had in their cameos. Romero’s daughter also makes a cameo as the girl at the guard station by the electric fence who shoots at the zombie who gets caught in the fence. 

Romero has stated that the stories of his zombie movies are not connected in any way, but that doesn’t mean there’s no similarities between them. During the opening credits, there were issues with getting right to use footage from Night, Dawn, and Day, due to them all having different property owners, so they shot “new” footage, such as the old radio in black and white (like in Night). In Land, to get in and out of the city, the crews use an abandoned subway tunnel to go underneath the river (like a medieval moat), taking us back underground in passing, reminiscent of Day. During the climatic zombie attack on Fiddler’s Green, a zombie gets trapped in a giant folding umbrella and stumbles around before falling over a table, taking us back to the slapstick of zombies wandering the escalators and ice rink in Dawn. As the hoard of zombies 

The main conflict of the movie has almost nothing to do with zombies but rather Cholo’s ambitions to get a cozy spot in Fiddler’s Green, no matter the cost. During the opening scene, while Riley and his team are emphasizing looking for food and medicine to take back to the city, Cholo finds a (well-intact) liquor and cigar store. He intends to bring Kaufman a special treat, and kiss his ass a bit more, and doesn’t appear to care much that a member of his team gets bitten by a zombie in the process and commits suicide right in front of everyone. Riley tries to reason with Cholo, reminding him, ”They wont let you in there, they wont let me in there, and we’re their own kind.” Kaufman turns down Cholo’s request to get a spot in Fiddler’s Green, telling him, “Space is limited.” To which Cholo corrects him by stating, “You mean restricted.”

Back in the city, Riley walks through the slums to his friend, Mulligan, who is giving a speech, almost as a sermon in the streets, slamming Kaufman, ”He didn’t build that place, he took it over, and left us in the slum.” We later hear Kaufman trying to show his good side by telling us, ”I put up the fences and made it safe. I hired the soldiers.”

After the zombies make it across the river and begin attacking the good, kind folk (yes, heavy sarcasm) of Fiddler’s Green, Kaufman looks down in anger, gritting his teeth, “You bastards! You have no right!”

A lot of this stuff sounds familiar…

A lot of this stuff sounds really fucking familiar, doesn’t it? 

Kaufman actually says, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” when speaking to a colleague about Cholo’s demands. About this, Romero says, 

“I always thought that was a little too on the nose but i think that it’s gone a long way to making sure that people understand that there’s a little politics in this”

George Romero

The audience does receive the satisfaction of seeing Kaufman die a fiery death at the hands of Big Daddy and a zombiefied-Cholo. 

Not all horror movies are political nor are all zombie movies. But Romero has said it himself that his zombie movies act as a snapshot of the time periods that they were made. Politically, socially, economically, or whatever, his zombie movies don’t let viewers forget about certain issues.

And we still have a couple of his zombie movies to dive into on here!

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