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Toward the end of filmmaker Roy Frumkes’ DVD audio commentary for his George Romero documentary DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD, Frumkes hits his listeners with a “slight admonition”: “Where were you when George Romero made KNIGHTRIDERS?  Think about it, and the obligation you have to artists whose work you care about.”  He’s referring to Romero’s 1981 film KNIGHTRIDERS, a box office flop that followed in the wake of the enormously successful DAWN OF THE DEAD.  Had more people bothered to turn out for KNIGHTRIDERS, Frumkes is suggesting, then Romero might have had an easier time making movies in the eighties and nineties…but as it is, they didn’t and he didn’t.

     In answer to the question “Where were you when George Romero made KNIGHTRIDERS?” I would have been about eight years old at the time and so could have cared less about it or DAWN.  The chances are you were a child then yourself.  But now we have a new Romero movie out, LAND OF THE DEAD, a damn good movie that continues the director’s living dead cycle in energetic and imaginative fashion, yet it’s suffering a fate similar fate to that of KNIGHTRIDERS, having opened with a disappointing $10.3 million followed by a precipitous 74 percent drop in its second week of release.  Despite its modest-by-Hollywood-standards $18 million budget, LOTD’S box office gross renders it a financial disappointment. 

     It follows the French-made gore fest HIGH TENSION, which opened on June 17 and, while far from a masterpiece, is a memorably tight, gritty film that delivers the goods for horror fans and furthermore boasted a splashy ad campaign courtesy of Lion’s Gate Films, who really went all out promoting it…and yet its release was even more calamitous than LAND OF THE DEAD’S, raking in just over $1 million in its opening weekend before promptly dropping off the radar.  This is despite the fact that it, like LOTD, would appear to promise horror fans precisely what they’ve been craving, at least if what I’ve been hearing through internet message boards, email correspondence and convention chatter is correct: a non-PG rated (HIGH TENSION was awarded an NC-17 and LOTD an extremely hard R) exercise in balls-out horror. 

     So I ask you: why in God’s name did so few bother to see these films?

     Well, in my view the reason for HIGH TENSION’S B.O. performance is simple: it was released throughout Europe back in ’03, meaning that by the time it made its US theatrical bow most horror buffs (me included) had already seen it in import DVD form.  HIGH TENSION’S failure will doubtless have far-reaching implications for fans of hard core horror (expect to see less of it), but its release was poorly timed.  LAND OF THE DEAD’s financial shortcomings, however, aren’t nearly as clear cut.

     As I said, LAND OF THE DEAD is first and foremost a damn good film, with copious action, scares, laughs and a scope that far outdoes those of Romero’s previous films…and, for that matter, most all genre movies period.  More importantly, it accomplishes something none of the other recent zombie flicks (RESIDENT EVIL and its sequel, 28 DAYS LATER, the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and even SHAUN OF THE DEAD) have: it takes the subgenre in an entirely new and invigorating direction with its evolving zombies in the midst of a land starkly divided into haves and have-nots.  No, the film isn’t without flaws: much of it has a rushed, hasty feel, due no doubt to the fact that it was shot and edited in less than a year’s time, and further compressed by Universal’s unfortunate decision to push the release date forward from November to June, a colossal miscalculation in every respect.  Nevertheless, LOTD is a blast, pure and simple…and keep in mind this is from one who’s never been shy in detailing Romero’s shortcomings (see my middling review of BRUISER).  This time, however, he’s come up with a winner, a fact I’m definitely not shy pointing out!

     So I ask again: why did nobody bother to see LAND OF THE DEAD?  Did it not look good?  Okay, I’ll admit Universal’s publicity campaign could have been a mite better overall, particularly the trailer, which, as I myself have written, made it look “like a low-budget redo of last year’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake.”  Then again, that really shouldn’t have mattered considering the near-universal acclaim LOTD has received from critics (heavyweights like Roger Ebert, Kevin Thomas and pretty much the entire staff of Ain’t-it-Cool-News have praised it profusely), not to mention the vast attention Romero’s work exerts in horror circles.  LOTD made the cover of last month’s FANGORIA and was heavily hyped at the recent FANGO Weekend of Horrors in So Cal, while Anchor Bay’s massive 4-DVD set of the original DAWN was a big seller last year.  Clearly there’s no lack of interest in Romero or his films…and yet LOTD’s piddly box office returns speak for themselves.

     There’s another angle here we’ll have to consider, namely the box office slump Hollywood now finds itself mired in, apparently the worst since 1985.  It seems that few people are going to the movies these days, and no surprise, as theater ticket prices are skyrocketing, more folks seem to prefer DVDs (Romero fans may well be waiting to catch LAND OF THE DEAD in unrated DVD form, but that remains to be seen) and, perhaps most importantly, the quality of movies these days definitely ain’t what it used to be.  Viewed in this light, it’s possible that, in the company of no-brainers like BEWITCHED, REBOUND and HERBIE FULLY LOADED, LOTD never had a chance with viewers who’d rather stay home and shun the whole lot of ‘em.

     There’s no question that Hollywood, with its steady output of crap, sequels to crap and remakes of crap, is well deserving of a financial kick in ass.  Certainly NOBODY I know is mourning the fact that the box office is in the toilet—matter of fact, most of my friends, even those who make their living off the movie industry, are positively gleeful about the slump, and I’ll confess I’m not exactly broken up myself. 

     The fact remains, however, that LAND OF THE DEAD and HIGH TENSION, two legitimately good movies, were for whatever reason patronized by a scant few.  Among those few were I, who made it a point to catch HIGH TENSION on a big screen even though I’d already seen it, and also paid to see LOTD twice; for that matter, I might even go again before its run is through.  I may not have been old enough to support George Romero’s KNIGHTRIDERS, but am of age now and doing what I can to ensure that LOTD isn’t completely ignored.  How about you? 

     Are YOU among the apparent multitude who bitch and moan about the sorry state of modern horror movies yet didn’t bother turning out for LAND OF THE DEAD or HIGH TENSION?  If so, then you’ve effectively rendered your arguments moot.  Getting up off your ass and actively supporting quality filmmaking is the best way to make your feelings known regarding the type of movies you want to see, and of ensuring the continued output of artists like George Romero--actions, after all, speak much louder than words, and your actions in this case have served to confirm the age-old truism that every generation gets the entertainment it deserves. 

     In closing, I can’t help but flash back on a passage from Kim Masters’ 1997 tome KEYS TO THE KINGDOM, about Michael Eisner’s early years running Disney.  According to Masters, Eisner and his subordinates’ manner of dealing with theme park and movie patrons was predicated on the belief that they’re all total idiots.  An unduly cynical attitude to be sure, but right now, looking at LAND OF THE DEAD’S box office returns, I find I’m starting to believe it. 



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