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Land of the Dead

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Land of Dead (2005)

Here's a review of Romero's Land of the Dead that I wrote last year after attending an advance screening.

It was with some minor trepidation that I entered the theater for an advance screening of George A. Romero’s fourth installment to his now classic series of zombie films, and the legendary director’s long awaited and much anticipated return to the big screen. My own anticipation, amplified by my sincerest hope that the film would be good, and of the caliber of Romero’s best work during the prime years of his career, was the main cause for my trepidation. Well, that and the movie’s trailer.

To be honest, after first seeing the trailer for Land of the Dead a few months ago I was rather underwhelmed, feeling that the best parts of the preview were the clips taken from Romero’s previous films and inserted into the trailer rather than the flashes of new footage. Now I’ve seen plenty of good trailers for bad movies and good movies with bad trailers, so I’m usually leery of making any snap judgments based on these rapidly edited collisions of seat-rattling sound and celluloid. Despite the fact that the trailer did little to boost my confidence in the film or assuage my trepidation, I’m genuinely glad to report that shortly after the lights went down in the theater, and the indelible black and white Universal logo of yesteryear flickered across the screen, as odd as it may sound, a great deal of boosting and assuaging began to take place.

Land of the Dead is set in a period defined simply, and somewhat bluntly, as Today. As the title of the film might suggest, the world of today is a grim, gray, desolate place, populated by humans who might be described in similar terms, and overrun by hordes of flesh-munching zombies. The humans are split into a basic hierarchy of the haves and the have-nots. The haves live in a high-rise dubbed Fiddler’s Green, the inside of which is a kind of mall-nirvana (which I’ve dubbed mallvana) overseen by the the dictator-like Kaufman - played by an unusually low-key Dennis Hopper. From inside his plushly furnished penthouse Kaufman plays puppeteer to the population living forty-stories beneath him (the literal and figurative lower-classes) with all manner of vice and distraction - including a kind of zombie blood sport in which one can bet on ravenous zombies as they combat over various fleshy foods whether it be cats, dogs or Asia Argento (as a prostitute named Slack).

Eager to escape this lifeless existence and take his chances by moving north to Canada is the character Riley ( Simon Baker) and his scar-faced comrade-in-arms Charlie (Robert Joy). Riley’s foil is Cholo (John Leguizamo) an enterprising and aspiring social climber who has his lower-class eyes and heart set on an upscale pad inside the Fiddler’s Green high-rise. When his dreams are dashed by Kaufman, Cholo attempts to escape from the societal cage by illegally commandeering a heavily armed and armored zombie combat vehicle humorously called Dead Reckoning. Cholo threatens to turn Dead Reckoning loose on the “living” unless his demands are met. Riley is sent out to track down Cholo and bring back the combat vehicle before Cholo makes good on his threats. Along for the ride are Riley’s sharp shooting chum Charlie, Slack, and some uninvited but heavily armed guests.

And then there are the zombies. While the living are splintering into groups and fighting against each other, their undead enemies are assembling into one large gutchomping legion led by a zombie named Big Daddy( Eugene Clark) . Under his tutelage, the zombies look to be learning a few new tricks, or are remembering a few old ones, and are quickly evolving as they slowly shuffle their tattered forms towards the boundaries of the city and its unsuspecting populace.

I hoped that Land of the Dead would be a good film, but it turns out that Romero has created what is quite honestly a fantastic and exhilarating, blood-drenched piece of horror cinema. It is without a doubt a George Romero movie and it is a real joy to see the great director in such fine form. Universal has given the neglected horror auteur his first modest budget in years and he has done wonders with it, creating the kind of intelligent and entertaining horror film that he is known and admired for by fans and critics alike.

While there are a number of “psychological horror films” and directors who specialize in such, George Romero could be described as a master of the sociological horror film, and for anyone interested, Land of the Dead is teeming with social critique. There are occasions in Land of the Dead when Romero has a tendency to be a little too on the nose, and drives the point home maybe once too often and too hard, but to a great extent the social commentary only enriches the film. Also, for anyone who finds Trotskyist, Marxist ideologies a snooze, fear not, the movie is crawling with enough zombies and blood-spattered action scenes to balance and complement the social commentary.

The film looks great. The cinematography and overall visual feel of the movie is appropriately dark and gloomy and at times remarkably atmospheric. The zombie makeup is wonderful, and it is apparent that Romero and makeup effects supervisor Gregory Nicotero, and costume designer Alex Kavanagh, went to great lengths to make sure each zombie had a distinct look. The special effects are, well, effective and except for a couple of instances the CGI that is used looks pretty good and blends with the rest of the film.

Oh, and the gore. Well I’m glad to say that Romero douses the audience in brimming buckets of it; viscera vomits profusely from bodies and zombies greedily gorge on slimy red intestines and dripping hunks of flesh. At times the bloodletting in Land of the Dead seemed like a gorified union between the comedic carnage of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and the face-ripping, tendon-tearing bloodlust of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.

The script itself has no fat on it, coming in at a very lean 88 minutes. Initially I was slightly concerned that this seemed a little short, but I left the screening feeling that the running time felt just about right. Romero manages to pepper scenes and the story with subtle touches, and throughout most of the film the writing is of a high caliber. That being said, I would have liked a little more character development in a couple of instances and once or twice we lose characters for longer than we should. I also felt that the film would have benefitted from dwelling in the city and its stratified makeup a little bit longer, but Romero does do a good job of giving you an overview of, and overall feel for the city in a remarkably short time.

The dialogue is quite good and is often suitably humorous, and the acting, which sometimes seems a little weak in Romero’s films, is actually pretty damn good as well. The only real quibble I had in this area was that Big Daddy’s inarticulate rage did begin to wear on me after a while. Finally, some viewers may want a little more conclusion to their endings, but I thought the ending for Land of the Dead worked. It’s also apparent that Romero has given himself a road to travel down if (fingers crossed) he should make another zombie film.

Like most people, I like to cheer for the underdog, and with a career that appeared to be lurching away like a rotting zombie towards the sunset, it was my hope that Romero’s return to what originally brought his career to life, zombies, might also be the very thing that could bring the great director’s career back from the dead . With Land of the Dead I believe that it has.

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