The Scariest Scene In Land Of The Dead Showcases George Romero At His Finest

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: Matt explains why "Land Of The Dead" is responsible for one of his favorite group-scare memories, and Ariel weighs in on the unexpected pick.)

George A. Romero's original "Dead" trilogy rightfully reigns as the pinnacle of zombie cinema. His later trio, "Land Of The Dead," "Diary Of The Dead," and "Survival Of The Dead," on the other hand? Less publicized, but I'll confess I hold "Land Of The Dead" near and dear since, if memory serves me, the star-studded entry celebrates my introduction to Romero. Yes, the one starring Simon Baker that features Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright as commercialized photo opportunity deadheads in a groovy doomsday dystopia. I'm a horror fan and a byproduct of my time, and my interest in the genre had just started to bubble around the film's 2005 release.

I'm cheating a tad this week because while "Land Of The Dead" doesn't particularly terrify me, it's responsible for one of my all-time favorite movie night memories from childhood. I was deemed the de-facto horror recommender by my girlfriend's friends, and "Land Of The Dead' marks a particular triumph. There's a clever hoot-n-holler sequence in this film that caused such a disruption that I remember someone's parents checking on the lot of us.

Preparedness and expectations go a long way when scaring your audience, and Romero executes this attack with a smirk. Fun and frightful can go hand-in-hand, on display in this tribute to all those classmates who acted tough but damn near jumped off a couch when [redacted] kills [redacted].

The Setup

"Land Of The Dead" is Romero's fourth entry in his "Dead" saga, focusing on a feudal-like outpost that safely exists in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) rules as a classist plutocrat from the luxury high-rise Fiddler's Green, while the impoverished masses live in slums outside. Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) operates and leads missions aboard "Dead Reckoning," an armored personnel vehicle funded by Kaufman that can pass through zombie-infested territories. After a harrowing teammate loss, Denbo decides it's time to leave Fiddler's Green behind, along with Kaufman's authoritarian rule, but he's embroiled in drama and debt after saving prostitute Slack (Asia Argento) from being "Stench" chow. Oh, the complications of having a moral compass.

The Story So Far

Denbo's resignation follows after the death of a rookie scavenger on his last Dead Reckoning outing — he's done looting and pillaging on Kaufman's orders. His second in command, Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), is less disillusioned and attempts to leverage his position with Kaufman for an apartment in Fiddler's Green. Cholo's denied and reminded of his expendable status, which causes the hot-headed mission operative to go rogue. Denbo's more erratic number two hijacks Dead Reckoning and threatens to fire missiles at Fiddler's Green should his demands once again be denied.

In retaliation, Kaufman tasks Denbo — now without his escape vehicle — alongside Slack and accomplice Charlie (Robert Joy) with tracking Cholo. Kaufman's smart enough to know Denbo isn't in a position to decline, and who better to disable Dead Reckoning than its creator? The two supply runners and their newfound companion are assigned special forces bodyguards for the mission: Manolete (Sasha Roiz), Motown (Krista Bridges), and Pillsbury (Pedro Miguel Arce). There's no reality where Kaufman risks his hide within a mile of undead leftovers beyond the two flanking rivers and third electrified barricade that keeps Fiddler's Green in human control.

As Denbo and his comrades approach the transportation bay area, they realize that Stenches have ravaged the car park while Cholo fled with Dead Reckoning. Their guard goes on alert since military ranks who were supposed to prevent such happenings are now discarded limbs thrown around flaming wreckage. If there's any chance of catching Cholo and disarming his launchers, they'll still need something with wheels and a full tank of gas. Unfortunately, their best option doesn't have a roof, and there are still excess walkers shuffling around. Worse off, Stenches exhibit intelligence and retain memories from their pre-death states along with a collaborative drive and communication skills.

The Scene

Denbo orders everyone but Manolete to secure the "Woody," a top-removed station wagon with roll cages and mounted machine guns that needs to be hotwired. Motown begins touching wires as the rest keep watch while Denbo and Manolete eliminate some feeding zombies hidden away in ammo depots. Charlie zings a bullet past Slack's ear that headshots a lurking zombie two steps away from dinner. Slack returns the favor by firing a few rounds that catch Charlie's ear but still stop a hungry corpse bride in her tracks. In no time, they'll be fighting off more Stenches than they can handle.

Motown ignites the engine with a spark, as Denbo and Manolete return with additional rounds. Everyone piles into Woody, ready to embark on their quest to foil Cholo, and leave their home base. As Manolete gets himself situated in the back seat, while Pillsbury and others are still in last-second preparation mode, two hands grab Manolete's right arm from outside the vehicle. He glances with a shocked expression at the decapitated undead priest grasping his shoulder and bicep.

"Oh, God."

There appears to be no imminent danger because the religious figure's head — and its teeth — is presumed cleanly severed. Then, as the camera focuses at an upward angle on the rotting padre, a hidden noggin attached to a few fibrous neck tendons hurls over the Stench's shoulders and bites through Manolete's uniform and into muscle. An illusion of relief is headbutted away as the creature whips its hair back and forth in a feeding frenzy. Finally, Charlie shoots through chest meat and into the once-again dangling brain sack of Manolete's maker, though definitely too late.

It's one of Romero's most incredible switch-up tricks, in my opinion. Zombies with no mobility past walking speeds aren't as intimidating when compared to runners. Still, Father Peek-A-Boo brings an unexpected element of fear beyond hordes spotted at long distances. Manolete's predicament goes from "close call" to "you're next" within the blink of an eye, which adds a jarring effect to the carnage. I can laugh at this funhouse trick now but still vividly recall the yelps and shrill squeals of novice horror watchers succumbing to Romero's chompy curveball.

The Impact (Ariel's Take)

If memory serves me, "Land of the Dead" is the schlockiest of all the "Dead" films, at least up to that point. Watching Denbo struggle to climb Dead Reckoning and sneak inside through the roof hatch is downright hilarious, face slapping against the glass and everything. It's positively Buster Keaton-esque. And while this scene is definitely surprising (particularly for folks not used to horror), it's also kind of hilarious.

Almost as hilarious as Matt christening the undead chomper Father Peek-A-Boo. Almost. But Matt definitely takes the cake today in terms of knee-slappers.

And while it is silly — the entire movie is, let's be honest — you just know Romero had an absolute blast coming up with some of these kills. I imagine him sitting there, giggling to himself about what he was going to put his cast through. Memories of Rhodes screaming "Choke on 'em!" as he was torn in half and devoured by hungry hungry zombies jump to mind because it was an awesome kill. What also jumps to mind is the horrific story of how shooting that scene went horribly wrong, something Romero did not relish! Neither did Joseph Pilato, for that matter.

I'm also reminded of other exceptional set pieces in "Day of the Dead" like Dr. Tongue, Sarah's (Lori Cardille) nightmare wall and Miguel's (Anthony Dileo Jr.) intestines falling out, or the absolutely incredible showstopper that was the headless zombie. Romero and SFX legend Tom Savini (who cameos as Machete Zombie in "Land") loved having fun with their kills and ghoulish gags. "If he liked an effect," Savini once said of Romero, "he would wink at me and make this cricket sound. We had our own language."

Romero's work with Greg Nicotero and KNB EFX Group on "Land" was no different. This scene with Father Peek-A-Boo is a perfect example of the kind of insanity Romero loved to bring to life with almost child-like glee. So rather than scaring me that much, this scene actually makes me a little misty-eyed. Miss you, George.