February 21, 2014


Starring Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark, John Leguizamo. Directed by George A. Romero. (2005, 93 min).

In the late 70s and early 80s, KGON was arguably the most popular radio station in Portland among most teenagers, and the only one which played real rock, both new (Rush, Cheap Trick, Van Halen, AC/DC) and classic (Hendrix, Sabbath, Purple). It sometimes declared its hatred of disco by starting a Bee Gees tune, then smashing the record and replacing it with The Who’s “We Won't Get Fooled Again.” The station's anti-establishment, long-live-rock credentials were held in high-esteem by nearly every kid with an FM radio in their car or a boom-box on their shoulder. This was an era when one was often defined by his or her musical tastes, and walking my high school halls wearing a KGON T-shirt automatically upped your cool quotient.

KGON’s disc jockeys were almost as cool as our rock gods…Marty Party, Glynn Shannon, Iris Harrison sounded like they partied as hard each day as we did on weekends. Iris’ sultry voice was intoxicating to any impressionable teen boy, while Marty and Glynn had us convinced they played lengthy tracks like Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to allow them time to fire up a fat one in the station’s storage closet.

Personal circumstances had me leaving Portland for almost twenty years. During that time, a lot changed…MTV took over, rap music reared its ugly head, and pop tarts & boy bands became all the rage. Sadly, a majority of the music artists we used to crank-up in the car while cruising 82nd Avenue either broke up, died or faded away, ending up performing at state fairs and casinos. Rock wasn’t quite dead, but the prognosis wasn’t promising. When I moved back, much of Portland had changed, too. With the exception of my folks, most of the people from my old neighborhood had moved, and many of my favorite haunts (the Galleria, Crystalship Records, my beloved Southgate theater) were long gone. Clackamas High, where I graduated, had since-become a middle school and the Foster Road Drive-In (where I had my first date) was now an industrial park.

I’m not necessarily opposed to change, but it is sort-of sad when formative parts of your childhood get crushed in the gears of time. As I get older, I’ve learned to appreciate the few things which manage to survive unchanged.

Shortly after I returned to Portland (with a family this time…talk about change!), on the way home from work one day, the CD player in my car decided it was tired of Metallica and stopped working, which pissed me off because I had developed a keen distaste for radio over the years. To me, it had become homogenized crap...pop, rap & country with the occasional ‘funny’ DJ trying in vain to be the next Howard Stern. On a whim, I threw the dial to 92.3, where KGON ruled the roost back in the day. I figured it was probably long gone, or changed its format to something more modern. Instead, Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town” roared from my speakers. Other songs from my youth followed…”Iron Man,” “Lunatic Fringe,” “Back in Black,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Not only was it KGON, it was the same old KGON, with the same Glynn Shannon, piping-in every third song or so. Upon other commutes around town, I discovered Iris was still there, too, though Marty Party apparently partied hard enough that he had to finally retire. To this day, I seriously doubt they’ve played a single song recorded after 1990. KGON found their niche in the 70s and stuck with it through thick and thin, inevitably becoming ‘classic rock radio.’ I’m pretty certain the only thing they’ve done to keep up with the times is make the switch from LPs to CDs.

I find comfort in that, the same comfort I felt after nestling into my theater seat in 2004 to watch Land of the Dead, the oft-rumored, long-awaited fourth film in George A. Romero’s apocalyptic zombie saga.

Romero is, of course, the godfather of the zombie genre. He didn’t invent it, but Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are the genre's unholy trinity, because everything we currently know and love about the zombies can traced back to these three films. They were made decades apart, and while Romero directed numerous other films in between, no one really cared about them. Whether he likes it or not, when we hear Romero’s name, we immediately think of hordes of drooling, shambling corpses.

Ironically, Romero hasn’t really reaped the benefits of his creativity. Even though Night of the Living Dead is an all time classic, he and his production team neglected to copyright the film, which is why you see it in DVD budget bins bundled with other movies that became public domain. He didn’t make the same mistake with Dawn of the Dead (widely considered his crowning achievement), which was pretty successful. When he got around to making Day of the Dead, he was forced to compromise his original epic (and expensive) vision in order to retain complete creative control. It’s considered a classic today, but back then, Day of the Dead was a critically & commercially disappointing conclusion to what we assumed would remain a trilogy (by the way, his original script for Day is still floating around on the internet, and if you ever get the chance, check it out…it’s amazing).

Romero kinda disappeared for awhile, occasionally making forgettable flicks like Monkey Shines and The Dark Half to pay the bills. Meanwhile, the monster he created back in ‘68 began to bloom. Zombies exploded in popularity in both movies and video games. All of them (from the Resident Evil franchise to 28 Days Later to the remake of Dawn of the Dead) took Romero’s initial conventions and sped them up, resulting in once-shambling zombies able to run the 100-yard dash in nine seconds. Whether or not this trend was the result of a creative desire to add something new to zombie lore or appease the video game crowd is debatable. Admittedly, the remake of Dawn of the Dead is actually really good, even if old-school zombie fans found some of its 'upgrades' to be somewhat sacrilegious, prompting the question, “What does George think of all this?”

Dead Reckoning...the ultimate road rage vehicle.
After years of rumors and false starts, we actually got that answer when he unleashed Land of the Dead. As usual, he had a lot to say…about culture, about our government, and most definitely about how fast zombies are able to move. The imitators who followed in his wake may have upped the ante in special effects and bloodletting, but one thing they could never duplicate was Romero’s use of zombies as a platform to satirize societal ills. His movies were never simple gut-munchers…they were allegories on racism, politics, consumerism, economics or anything else culturally relevant to the decade in which they were released. Similarly, Land of the Dead, his first zombie movie in 19 years, had a lot to say about our post 9/11 country (it isn't complimentary).

More importantly, Romero went old school. Sure, he had major studio backing this time, a big budget (for a zombie flick, anyway) and a cast of known actors. And yeah, he was forced to reign things in a bit to earn an R rating, using some clumsy CGI for zombie headshots (which Tom Savini used to pull-off more convincingly with just a blood-filled condom). But other than that, he presents his zombie hordes as he always had - slow, lumbering creatures whose sheer numbers are far scarier than a single angry ghoul sprinting in your direction - and despite its R rating, Land of the Dead is still loaded with plenty of Romero’s trademark gore gags.

Sitting alone in a theater watching this in 2004, I felt the same way I did when discovering KGON was alive and well, exactly the same as when I last left it. These were the zombies I grew up with, and Land of the Dead was the same type of cynical, nasty, mean-spirited and uncompromising zombie movie which made me love Romero’s original trilogy to begin with.

Among all that gore, I found further comfort realizing some things never change.

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