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Failing to receive the lasting recognition it so deserves, Romero’s “Land of the Dead” has only gotten better and more relevant with time.

Land of the Dead

On September 11th, 2001, the world changed forever.

The great untouchable giant that was the United States of America awoke that luminous morning to find itself under attack by an assailant that launched a suicide bombing mission designed not only to kill thousands but simultaneously initiate an epidemic of fear that would shake the foundations of the free world. And they did it all with four airplanes and their flesh-and-blood bodies, hurtling roaring steel and swishing gasoline into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the hills of Pennsylvania.

That day, chaos reigned supreme. It was everywhere, spreading like a sickness as two skyscrapers plunged from that great blue sky, a toxic storm cloud following the twisted metal that crinkled like a fist around our nation’s heart.

People all over the world watched in horror as it was introduced to a new kind of enemy, one that could be lurking inconspicuously in any given place at any given time. A terrifying concept, especially when the dawning realization hit that these terrorists were willing to sacrifice themselves in order to carry out their mission, with more waiting to fill those vacant ranks.

Of course, America declared that the attackers would be brought to justice and terror would be eradicated from the world with a vaccine of bombs and bullets.

President George W. Bush rallied a nation that was angry, confused, and dazed by the black eye dished out by an enemy we were just barely starting to understand. Looking back, that initial swell of patriotism that coupled with the thirst for retribution was something I think most folks felt. There was no greater pride in the country, and any regime foolish enough to tangle with the mighty force of the United States would face a decimating reckoning.

Little did the citizens of the United States – and the world, for that matter – know what would follow.

An unending war would commence, spreading from Afghanistan into Iraq, where supposed “weapons of mass destruction” lurked in the parched deserts under the iron fist of Saddam Hussein. Even worse, more terror attacks occurred around the globe. President Bush insisted we were on the path to victory, even as doubt began to form over the scabs left from 9/11.

The United States found itself on a suicide mission, assuring its citizens – and the world – that everything was under control. That we would win this fight.

In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the horror genre found one of its sleeping giant subgenres prodded back to life.

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Much like the shambling cannibalistic corpses at the heart of the genre, the zombie film staggered out of the grave eager to take a chomp out of our new-found fears.

The first out of the graveyard was British director Danny Boyle, who effectively reconstructed what it was like waking up to a catastrophe with 2002’s lo-fi 28 Days Later.

It was just the shot in the arm zombies needed to come roaring back at our jugulars. However, I recognize and understand that the debate rages over the rampaging maniacs at the heart of Boyle’s classic are actually “infected.”

In America, screenwriter James Gunn and director Zack Snyder followed Boyle’s lead with the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Vigorous, colorful, and offering a refreshed interpretation (and one hell of an opening, might I add) of Romero’s 1978 masterpiece, Gunn and Snyder further aroused the hunger for more of the undead.

The same year Dawn of the Dead 2004 attacked our institutions and reflected upon that fateful Tuesday, director Edgar Wright punched up both zombie and Romero fever with Shaun of the Dead, an adoring valentine (and subtle 9/11 deconstruction) to the master.

As zombie mania was reaching a fever pitch, Romero’s own body of work was enjoying a renaissance of sorts on physical media.

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Dawn of the Dead 1978 had just seen a fancy DVD release from Anchor Bay, followed closely by 1985’s Day of the Dead (with wicked cool packaging on both, might I add). The extras on the DVDs found Romero dropping the bomb that he had an idea for a fourth installment in his Dead trilogy that kicked off in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead.

With zombies finding their wobbly footing, it would make sense for another sleeping giant to awaken.

Enter 2005, when the summer movie season found itself jam-packed with blockbuster after blockbuster. George Lucas ended his soulless Star Wars prequel run with Revenge of the Sith, Steven Spielberg rattled us with a brittle War of the Worlds remake, the Caped Crusader launched his own war on terror with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Tim Burton used Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to suggest karma could be a real bitch with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Also present were 40-Year-Old Virgins and some Wedding Crashers to give America something to giggle about.

Smack dab in the center of all these big-studio event movies was the famously independent George A. Romero, the legendary horror giant finally getting his due with the epic, Universal Studios-backed Land of the Dead — a return fit for a king.

Land of the Dead picks up well into the zombie apocalypse, with the city of Pittsburg (the place Romero called home and filmed around for many years) now a walled-off fortress from the roaming undead. In the center of the city sits Fiddler’s Green, a twinkling skyscraper reserved strictly for the elite.

Fiddler’s Green is overseen by Kaufmann (played by Dennis Hopper), a wealthy, cigar-chomping businessman who has carved out a place where the privileged can live like the world never stopped turning. At his command is an army of trigger-happy mercenaries led by Riley Denbo (played by Simon Baker) and Cholo DeMora (played by John Leguizamo), who descend upon the surrounding areas to pillage for supplies with the help of their super-weapon, “Dead Reckoning,” a heavily-fortified war machine outfitted with an array of hefty artillery.

Meanwhile, the undead have begun showing increased signs of intelligence, with many of them trying to mimic their former lives.

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After one particular zombie, Big Daddy (played by Eugene Clark), takes notice of the savagery the mercenaries use while combing for supplies – and spoils for the residents of Fiddler’s Green – he begins to rally his fellow ghouls to follow Kaufmann’s troops back to Pittsburgh and launch a devastating assault on the city.

As the zombie army makes its way toward the Steel City, Riley and Cholo both announce they plan on retiring from working for Kaufmann.

Riley, who is the creator of “Dead Reckoning,” plans to slip quietly away to Canada with his sharpshooter sidekick, Charlie (played by Robert Joy), while Cholo believes that he can buy his way into Fiddler’s Green, which Kaufmann is quick to turn down. Enraged with Kaufmann’s rejection, Cholo steals “Dead Reckoning” and holds the city for ransom. With very few options, Kaufmann turns to Riley and Charlie, who, along a resourceful prostitute, Slack (played by Asia Argento), and a team of commandos, set out to track down Cholo before he can shell the city.

Upon its release, Land of the Dead was warmly welcomed by most critics and die-hard horror fans with open arms.

It was a thrill to see Romero finally working with the tools to be able to craft the ultimate zombie masterpiece. Hell, that is what the posters and advertising promised! Who couldn’t be excited about it?

During its theatrical run, Land of the Dead, which was made on a budget of around $19 million, gobbled up over $40 million, which certainly isn’t a number to shrug a diseased shoulder at. For a theatrical release, Land was insanely violent; the level of carnage in a mainstream release like that truly shocked me when I first saw it on opening night (I can still remember the chums I saw it with!).

And let me tell ya, I was beaming from ear-to-ear that good old George hadn’t softened since Day of the Dead took theaters in ’85.

It was an honest-to-goodness slaughterhouse that never once sacrificed any of the shrewd wit Romero had made a name with.

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With the reaction largely positive to Land and interest in zombies still high, Romero was able to helm two more zombie films, 2008’s Diary of the Dead and 2010’s Survival of the Dead, the latter being the horror legend’s final cinematic venture.

He also whipped up Empire of the Dead, a cool little Marvel comic book that expanded the scope of his Dead series even further with the incorporation of vampires, which was most likely a nod to his beloved 1977 thriller Martin.

He also had begun chipping away at a sprawling novel, The Living Dead, a towering epic that explored the zombie apocalypse from the very beginning. Of course, The Living Dead wouldn’t hit bookstore shelves until after his death in 2017, but it was a wonderful final gift to his fans that played like a summer blockbuster in the palm of your hands.

Eighteen years on, looking back on Land of the Dead is sort of peculiar.

It arrived just as zombies were at their most popular; a good chunk of his fans enjoyed it, critics gushed, and fellow horror directors sang its praise. And then, it sort of shambled into the background of the zombie hoard.

It was a welcome expansion after Day of the Dead, even if it felt like some of the blue-collar ingenuity was replaced with Hollywood panache. There was a big budget gloss brushed onto Land, something that his fiercely independent previous offerings were without. Obviously, that isn’t a dig at the Night, Dawn, or Day, all of which were constructed with the help of friends who filled roles both in front and behind the camera.

They were stunning testaments to what could be achieved when you rallied a group of crafty regional artists together in the sacred name of art. They bucked the system, and they were all the better for it!

From an aesthetic standpoint, Land overwhelmingly felt like a studio film to the point where you can almost feel the suits breathing down Romero’s ponytail.

And while there is electric fence-to-electric fence pizzazz crammed into its nimble hour-and-forty-minute runtime, Land wasn’t bashful to wear its message on its tattered sleeves.

In fact, Land felt the most overt of Romero’s zombie movies up to that point.