George Romero is the godfather of the modern zombie movie. There has never been a dispute about that. Even from beyond the grave his final vision of an undead apocalypse, Twilight of the Dead, is in production. Looking back at the early 21st century revival of both Romero and the zombie we have to dig up Land of the Dead. This 2005 return to the genre is both full of triumph and disappointment. But the question is, after 16 years, how well does this piece of the zombie renaissance hold up?

Romero had a very clear vision for the evolution of the living dead as well as the devolution of the living. That vision is never clearer than in Land of the Dead. Fiddler’s Green, formerly Pittsburgh, is an outpost of “civilization” with a deeply divided class system at play. A supply raid on an abandoned town and an uprising of sorts being led by a disgruntled former employee of Kaufman, the man in charge of Fiddler’s Green, draws unwanted attention from a group of zombies who have learned to think, communicate, and crudely strategize. What happens next should be pretty obvious, but if you’re not following along, the climax of the film centers on a struggle between the living and the living dead. This was Romero’s first return to the sub-genre that he reinvented and his first expansion on the original Living Dead series in twenty years. While the overall storytelling fell well in line with what fans had already seen it marked a few notable changes as well.

First of all, Land of the Dead was the first Romero zombie movie to feature digital effects. We’ll circle back around to that one in a minute. The film had a much larger budget than previous zombie pictures the director had made and took elements of several other stories and ideas that Romero had been working with in one form or another for years. Parts of this movie were excerpts and revamps of stories connected to the original draft of Day of the Dead while others were from an ultimately unproduced television adaptation of Resident Evil. Roll that one around in your head for a minute. Studios weren’t sure that they wanted a horror television series, especially a zombie video game adaptation but they had George A. Romero brainstorming the damned thing! This is still years away from phenomenal success of The Walking Dead and one can only imagine what might have been.

Now, let’s get to what absolutely sucks about this and every other zombie movie Romero made after LotD: CGI. When I watched this movie on the big screen in 2005 and again later that year on VHS –yes, VHS– the digital effects, mostly blood and a few notable scenes weren’t really as prominent. But high definition and the evolution of technology are not kind, especially to film, and seeing things that were obviously done in post become so blatantly obvious after so long cheapens what were otherwise fun scenes. There were also a number of attempted jump scares in the movie which, again, felt cheap in 2005 when it was the big thing to do in horror movies and feels just as cheap in 2021. The saving grace, however, is that the film relied more on practical effects than digital effects and those effects were expertly done by Greg Nicotero and company.

There are also some fantastic Easter Eggs and nods to the original trilogy including Bub the zombie, collar and all, near the start of the movie and Tom Savini reprising his role from Dawn of the Dead as the “machete” zombie. And the digital wasn’t all bad. One scene in particular was pure B movie bliss as a zombie is rammed in the head with an American flag on a pole. The initial impact is a combination of makeup and CGI and a quick cut out shows us the zombie’s body crashing to the ground, brains exploding out on the pavement. It’s very clearly a gelatin filled mannequin, and would no doubt look at home in a Troma feature, but damn if it isn’t a cool shot.

Land of the Dead holds up about as well as the original Day of the Dead. It isn’t Romero’s best but it’s damned ambitious and a lot of fun. As far as post-apocalyptic zombie movies are concerned, it’s one of the better ones to come from the early 2000’s. You can see where a lot of films and TV shows that followed in the decade and a half since have taken cues from the character and world development that was done, especially The Walking Dead. I’m looking forward to finding out more about the rumored Twilight of the Dead and it’s a great excuse to rewatch George Romero’s entire body of work.

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