4. Land of the Dead (2005)
The best of Romero’s modern Z-movies also gives the director his biggest budget yet. Backed by an estimated $15 million (more than the budget of the other five films combined), Romero had the chance to return to the sub-genre he helped to create, and to do so he created his biggest zombie hoard yet. After the small, singular settings of Night, Dawn and Day, he opens up the playground of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city now clinging on to some form of society while the outside world is ravaged by the undead.
This time, Romero’s satire comes in the form of Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman, a tyrant who has posted himself as the compound’s leader at the top of a literal tower while the underclasses struggle below. Simon Baker and John Leguizamo are the grunts tasked with scavenging the surrounding areas for supplies and luxury items – a hefty task considering the number of walkers on the streets, but fortunately for them they’re not going out empty handed. Piloting a vehicular fortress lovingly named ‘Dead Reckoning’ – exactly the kind of transport you would want in a zombie apocalypse – it seems nothing can bring them down.
Nothing, except Big Daddy.
A spiritual successor to Day of the Dead’s Bub (more on him in a moment), Big Daddy is a former mechanic-turned-corpse who shows a little more intelligence than your average zombie. Inspiring a kind of ‘zombie revolution’, Big Daddy leads an ever-growing hoard of the undead all the way to the once safe compound, shambling through suburban streets, countryside and, in the best shot of the film, across the surrounding rivers. The humans being what they are, Big Daddy is the character you’ll most likely be cheering on by the end.
While Land of the Dead may be Romero’s most fun zombie picture, it also misses some of the quiet contemplation that elevates his earlier work. Still, after a career working with minimal budgets, you can’t begrudge the director for going as big and overblown as he could dream.
3. Day of the Dead (1985)
Day of the Dead sees Romero’s distrust of government and militia groups bubble up in suitably pessimistic fashion. More than that, Day carries on Night’s themes of mankind’s own worst enemy being itself, setting the standard coda for most of zombie media: the greatest darkness comes not from the physical monsters prowling the streets, but from within the human soul.
Day’s band of survivors are comprised of two factions. There’s Sarah and her level-headed group of scientists and pilots, who are in favour of trying to rehabilitate the undead and bring them “back to life” (or at least as close as possible), and there’s the powder keg Captain Rhodes, an unhinged fascist who commands his gang of soldiers with an iron fist gripped firmly on his rifle. Sparks inevitably fly between each of these people as they try to survive in an underground research bunker in the Everglades.
Upon its initial release, Day was seen as the far inferior baby brother of Dawn, failing to capture the slow-burn tension of that previous film and instead presenting audiences with an over-the-top horror/action picture. As with many horror films, modern re-evaluation has allowed the film to be seen more for what it actually is. While Night and Dawn may always be the more iconic of Romero’s original trilogy, Day of the Dead raises its own interesting questions by picking the brains of the ghouls the director helped to create. Is death the end or could zombies be trained into a complacent state? When bitten, could fast amputation save the victim’s life? Can the audience side with a zombie?
The answer to that last question is a resounding “yes” thanks to Sherman Howard’s Bub. Bub is one of the poor souls being experimented on by the eccentric Dr. Logan, but rather than being a surgical target Bub has received more of a re-education of sorts. He is generally quite docile and demonstrates faint cognitive understanding of how to use certain objects, most notably a pistol, a fact that leaves Rhodes more infuriated than ever. Their final showdown may just be the most satisfying moment in any of Romero’s films.
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