The New Dead Trilogy
“Land of the Dead” (2005)
“Zombies, man, they creep me out.” George A. Romero brought back the dead in a big way with his most ambitious zombie endeavor. It’s very cool that this film was released by Universal Studios because it links Romero’s zombies with all of the classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Creature, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy. What is ironic about this, is the original “Night of the Living Dead” was one of those landmark horror films, along with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” that made the classic monsters somewhat passé in the 1960s. “Land of the Dead” was released in the summer of 2005 and had to compete at the box office with summer blockbusters like “Batman Begins” and Stephen Spielberg’s remake of “War of the Worlds,” starring Tom Cruise. Also, unlike previous installments, name actors were in the cast.
The setting is a city based on Romero’s native Pittsburgh. The privileged get to reside in a posh skyscraper, Fiddler’s Green, while all the commoners are stuffed in shanty towns and live off the scraps of the elite. Teams are dispatched to search for essential supplies in neighboring communities, which are deserted except for all the zombies. An armored truck, Dead Reckoning, which was also the working title of the film, is the chariot that protects these scavengers. Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) is leader of the unit. He could be described as humorless and is quite troubled by the sophisticated interactions between zombies he observed. Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), his second in command, was more impulsive and egotistical. Both characters have their own agendas. Riley wants to abandon the city and live off the land while Cholo hopes to earn his way into Fiddler’s Green by serving as a lackey to Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who is the self anointed monarch of the Green. Both Riley and Cholo are deluding themselves and only delaying the inevitable.
Romero’s prior dead films each featured a strong African-American lead. Duane Jones, Ken Foree, and Terry Alexander. In this film, it was Eugene Clark as Big Daddy, a gas station attendant zombie who has matured enough to be fearful of the humans and show genuine concern for his fellow zombies, picking up where Bub had left off in “Day of the Dead.” Initially, he is the only zombie not to be entranced by the fireworks (or sky-flowers) fired as a distraction while the scavengers do their dirty work. Zombies in this film are referred to a few times as “walkers,” but mostly they were called “stenchers.” Big Daddy rallies his zombie compatriots and leads them on a gory path of destruction towards Fiddler’s Green. Along the way, he even teaches a few how to use weapons.
Riley is not allowed to leave the city, presumably under the orders of Kaufman, and is arrested along with Slack (Asia Argento), the eye-catching daughter of Dario Argento, producer of “Dawn of the Dead.” Meanwhile, Cholo is not permitted into the Green and goes renegade, hijacking Dead Reckoning and holding the Green for ransom. Kaufman does not negotiate with terrorists (a blatant jab at the George W. Bush administration) and strikes a deal with Riley to retrieve the truck and eliminate Cholo. Riley’s plan is to commandeer the truck, but not return to the city. Instead, he will head north with Slack and Charlie (Robert Joy), a marksman and a burn victim, who could easily be mistaken for a zombie at a glance.
Big Daddy and his tribe cross the river and converge on Fiddler’s Green. Obviously, the living dead are not coordinated enough to actually swim, so they sunk to the bottom and walked. Romero says on the DVD audio commentary that he didn’t include a shot of the zombies underwater because “Pirates of the Caribbean” had beat him to the punch with a similar shot. Riley recovers Dead Reckoning, but Cholo refuses to return to the Green until he is bitten by a zombie. Kaufman decides to bail with all of his money just as Big Daddy’s zombie wrecking crew breaches the Green. Cholo returns, in the final stages of becoming a zombie, and confronts Kaufman in a parking lot, where they both get blown to hell by Big Daddy. Riley finally arrives with Dead Reckoning, but many people have already been killed, so it seems like another “Night of the Living Dead” downer ending, but some residents are revealed to have survived and will rebuild what will hopefully be a better living arrangement than what they had endured under Kaufman’s tyranny. Riley allows Big Daddy and the other evolved zombies to depart unscathed. Dead Reckoning rides off into the sunrise, firing the last of the sky-flowers, which are now redundant.
Cameos to keep an eye out for… Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the star and director of “Shaun of the Dead” as the photo booth zombies. Tom Savini, reprising his role from “Dawn of the Dead,” still armed with his machete, but now as a zombie in one of many rampage scenes. Alan van Sprang, who plays Brubaker, a solider, would make a cameo in “Diary of the Dead,” then play the lead in “Survival of the Dead.” This film would be the last in the original continuity as George Romero rebooted the series with “Diary of the Dead.”
“Diary of the Dead” (2007)
“Are we worth saving? You tell me?” George A. Romero goes back to the beginning of his zombie epidemic, which gets documented by student filmmakers (Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, and Shawn Roberts), who were in the process of shooting a horror movie of their own. Roberts had already played a different, smaller part in “Land of the Dead.” What makes this unique from all other “found footage” films is that these students were able to edit their footage before uploading it to the internet, so there is a narration and a soundtrack, something that was missing from “The Blair Witch Project,” “(REC),” and “Cloverfield.” Those films were meant to be the raw, unedited footage. The title of their documentary is “The Death of Death,” not “Diary of the Dead,” the actual title of the film.
These students are making a mummy movie. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I hold mummies in low regard as the lamest of monsters. They are sure to berate the actor portraying the mummy for running because dead people could not possible move that fast. A dig at Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” even though Boyle has always protested that those in his film infected with “rage” were not actually zombies, and Zack Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” which definitely had some ludicrously speedy zombies. I find most of the other film student dialogue to be a bit hokey. They just seem too self aware and poked fun at other horror movie conventions, which was something already done in Wes Craven’s “Scream” eleven years earlier. One similarity to “The Blair Witch Project” is that their director absolutely refuses to put the camera down no matter how much it maddens the entire group.
After the shit hits the fan, they arrive at a hospital that seems to have been deserted too quickly. This is suppose to be “Night of the Living Dead,” the start of the epidemic, but this hospital seems to already be in “Dawn of the Dead” territory, the time after society has already broken down. Greg Nicotero makes a cameo here as a surgeon zombie, then a nurse zombie gets her eyeballs melted by a defibrillator. Cool. Again, the director was chastised for filming the carnage, a commentary on us becoming a society of voyeurs, but this message had already been stressed in earlier found footage flicks. What I found fascinating was their professor (Scott Wentworth) explaining how effortless it was for a person to pull the trigger when in wartime.
Next, they meet a hearing impaired Amish farmer named Samuel (R.D. Reid). This guy was only around for a few minutes, but he might have stolen the show. I was bummed that he was killed so quickly. They then hold up temporarily with militants and watch a zombie get its cranium dissolved by acid. Yet another inventive way to waste a zombie. Boyd Banks cameos as a gunsmith. Banks had played a trucker in Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake and the butcher zombie in “Land of the Dead.” Their professor politely refuses a pistol and opts for a bow and arrow. Old school. Alan van Sprang also pops up as a jerk of a National Guardsman who raids their Winnebago of most supplies, leaving the students with only their weapons.
They finally arrive at the mansion which belongs to the parents of the cast member who had played the mummy. These students are nowhere near as savvy as Ben in “Night of the Living Dead” because they make no efforts to secure this residence. The mummy is keeping his family and staff, who are now all zombies, in an indoor swimming pool. He has also been bitten, turns, and a scene from their movie (“Untitled Mummy Project”) within their documentary (“The Death of Death”) within the actual movie (“Diary of the Dead”) was reenacted. Zombies eventually overrun this residence and the few survivors retreat to a panic room. The last video uploaded from the internet for their documentary features two rednecks using zombies for target practice. Just like in “Night of the Living Dead,” the film ends on rednecks who enjoy the zombie apocalypse far too much.
Cameos you can keep an ear out for… Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, Guillermo Del Toro, and Simon Pegg all provided voiceovers as the news castors heard during montages. It’s hard to identify them, but I’m pretty sure I recognized Wes Craven and Simon Pegg. Shawn Roberts went on to appear in the “Resident Evil” films as the traitorous Albert Wesker, a character I went trick-or-treating as in junior high.
“Survival of the Dead” (2009)
“You’re dangerous, kid, but not as dangerous as me.” Alan van Sprang, who had played supporting roles in the two prior George A. Romero living dead films, was upgraded to the lead, sergeant to the troop of AWOL National Guardsmen who appeared briefly in “Diary of the Dead,” holding up the film students. Following “Sarge” are Chuck (Joris Jarsky), Francisco (Stefano DiMatteo), and Tomboy (Athena Karkanis). Tomboy was a lesbian, the first openly gay character in a Romero zombie flick. So, it’s the end of the world and the last hot chick does not like dudes. What a kick in the ass that must be for the gentlemen. Romero states on the DVD introduction that there is more humor in this film than in its predecessors, but it never went so far to be labeled as tongue-in-cheek.
On Plum Island, there are two feuding families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, who are the modern Hatfields and McCoys. They bicker about everything, including how to manage the zombie apocalypse. Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), patriarch of his clan, is pragmatic and has no aversion to shooting zombies in the head at the first chance he gets. His rival, Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), actually believes that the living dead can be conditioned to feed on something other than human flesh. After all, those ghouls in “Night of the Living Dead” devoured insects. Muldoon wants to train them to be obedient like Dr. Logan successfully did with Bub in “Day of the Dead.” O’Flynn is exiled from Plum Island after Muldoon ceases control. Meanwhile, Sarge and the other AWOL National Guardsmen loot an armored vehicle and allow Boy (Devon Bostick) to join their merry band. They see an advert on the internet for Plum Island, produced by O’Flynn himself, and figure that Plum might be an ideal place to settle down with their newfound fortune.
O’Flynn and the Guardsmen travel to the island via ferry. While swimming to the ferry, Francisco is pawed at by zombies in the water and he actually bites one of them. Man bites zombie. Seems like a really brazen move, but by swallowing zombie blood, he is infected. Once on board the ferry, my favorite moment in the movie, Sarge uses a flare gun to ignite a zombie, then he lights his cigar with its burning carcass before kicking it overboard. I suppose you cannot be infected by smoking zombie cinders? They arrive at the island and Chuck is killed by one of Muldoon’s men. It is also revealed that O’Flynn has twin daughters, Jane and Janet (both played by Kathleen Munroe). Jane has become a zombie, but still rides her faithful horse. Okay, I begrudgingly accept that in Romero’s zombie movies of the new millennium, the dead can maneuver in water, but horseback riding? That’s quite a leap. Francisco confesses to Tomboy that he was infected, so she must reluctantly execute him, then she is take captive by Muldoon’s men.
Janet, O’Flynn’s still living daughter, is so naive and does not condone her father actions because she’s always believed that the vendetta between the families is pointless. Sarge, Boy, O’Flynn and his men, leave to rescue Tomboy and have a final showdown with the Muldoon clan, but they are all taken prisoner. Muldoon is keeping a bunch of zombies in his corral and hopes to get Jane to feed on her horse, proving that the zombies can be tamed. Janet arrives, believing that there is still humanity left in her sister and no harm could come to their horse. Janet is so damn naive that she takes her sister’s hand, only to get bitten. A shootout ensues and all the zombies are freed to become part of the melee. Eventually, Jane does take a bite out of her horse, but before Janet can tell anyone that Muldoon may have been right, she gets shot in the head by her own father.
Both O’Flynn and Muldoon die as result of gunshot wounds suffered in the fight. Other zombies, assumedly taking a cue from Jane, chow down on the horse. It’s actually more heartbreaking to see animals die in films than people. Sarge, Boy, and Tomboy depart Plum Island with the money they acquired earlier while O’Flynn and Muldoon are left to continue their rivalry as zombies. Frankly, neither the O’Flynns nor the Muldoons were a day at the beach. They were too stubborn and set in their ways to make surviving this calamity worthwhile. A theme dating back to “Day of the Dead” and continuing to this day with “The Walking Dead,” which is that the survivors of a catastrophe can be more of a headache than the actual catastrophe, which in this instance were zombies.
If one wants to take the fan fiction route and presume that Alan van Sprang’s character, Sarge, from “Diary of the Dead” and “Survival of the Dead” is Brubaker from “Land of the Dead,” then these three films are a trilogy onto themselves, but most likely, “Land” is a sequel to the original trilogy while “Diary” and “Survival” are the reboot franchise.
What does the future hold? Will the dead walk again? Only time will tell. As of 2012, George Romero stated in interviews that he hopes to continue making zombie films, but investors have been hard to come by. I suppose that’s because “Survival” was the least successful entry in the series. Whether the series has been laid to rest or not, George A. Romero can be proud of reinventing the concept behind zombies and crafting what we now consider to be the modern zombie. The “Resident Evil” video games turned movie franchise and the popular comic books turned hit TV show “The Walking Dead” would not exist without this innovative and inspiring filmmaker.
Posted on September 14, 2013, in George Romero, Horror, Living Dead and tagged Alan van Sprang, Asia Argento, Dennis Hopper, George Romero, Greg Nicotero, John Leguizamo, Shawn Roberts, Simon Baker, Simon Pegg, Tom Savini, Zombies. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.