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Land of the Dead (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 24 June 2005
And the dead keep on a’comin’. George Romero, who started all this cannibalistic walking dead stuff with “Night of the Living Dead” back in 1968, continued it with “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), but fell short with “Day of the Dead” (1985), is back at it with “Land of the Dead.” It’s a tough, straightforward action movie, very gruesome, occasionally funny, and paced precisely right. The story is simple, the characters are clear and the menaces are very clear. It’s good, gruesome summer fun.

It’s hard to say if it’s a sequel or not, because of various legal entanglements, but it doesn’t matter: behind the stark black and white credits, we hear radio announcers explaining that the dead are returning to life and killing—and eating—the living. Things have gotten so bad that regular living people have barricaded themselves in cities, with expeditions sent out from time to time for supplies.

Some who staff these expeditions, like Cholo (John Leguizamo), blast away at the shuffling zombies largely for the sport of it. Riley (Simon Baker), leader of the group at hand, just wants to get back to the city—and he wants to stop going out on these increasingly dangerous missions.

The city is controlled by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who’s taken over a towering building known as Fiddler’s Green. For those wealthy and prominent enough to afford to live there, life goes on much as it had before the dead began walking. In “Dawn of the Dead” (remade last year), Romero had a little fun with the idea of consumerism; here he’s focusing more on the gulf between the upper and lower classes. In this city, which resembles Pittsburgh (but is mostly CGI), there really are only two classes, the upper class dominated by Kaufman, and the hard-scrabble people on the streets below. The upper crust dine at fine restaurants; the lower class entertain themselves as they can—as by tossing a living person into a cage with two ravenous zombies, and taking bets on which one will kill first.

Cholo is very eager to enter the Fiddler’s Green class, but makes the mistake of revealing this to Kaufman. Cholo is a tough, arrogant jerk—and Leguizamo is terrific—but he’s smarter than Kaufman. He’s already made plans to steal Dead Reckoning, a huge, Winnebago-like armored vehicle that Riley designed and has been piloting. Riley rescues Slack (Asia Argento) from being zombie fodder, and the tough girl teams up with him. (She’s the daughter of Dario Argento, maker of good Italian horror movies.)
Meanwhile, out there in what used to be the real world, the walking dead are beginning to show glimmerings of understanding and cooperation. (This idea was introduced in “Day of the Dead.”) A few make slow-witted attempts to play musical instruments; another pushes a lawnmower over pavement. One zombie, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who used to run a service station, is a shade brighter than the others. Most of the walking dead are distracted by “sky flowers” (fireworks) fired from Dead Reckoning, but Big Daddy has begun to look beyond—and he sees the glittering tower of Fiddler’s Green….

The story of “Land of the Dead” is very simple and uncluttered, almost more of a situation than a plot. Kaufman wants things to stay as they are, the dead are trying to get into the city, Cholo is trying to get into society, and Riley is trying to get the hell out of there. Conflict.

The movie opens with the 1930s Universal logo, a plane flying around the Earth, linking it to the studio’s classic horror movies of the 1930s. The straightforward “Land of the Dead” is far more gruesome than the old classics (it really earns that R rating—the DVD will be unrated), but Romero’s heart is in the right place. Though the movie has elements of satire (Kaufman says, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” but it’s satire yoked tightly to the basic story, not the reason for the movie. The reason for the movie is to stir up audiences, make them laugh, gross them out, scare them, and leave them wanting more, more, more. It accomplishes its goal.   

The makeup effects by KNB (Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and their extensive team) are excellent; chunks of flesh are bitten away, skin is stretched, entrails are spilled. But as with the satire, the effects are not the reason for the movie, which is here to kick ass and take names—and wink just little at the ways the situation in the movie mirrors the situation in real life. “It’s like a bad dream,” one character says, and it is exactly that.

These shambling corpses—no fleet-footed “28 Days Later” zombies for Romero—are the stuff of nightmares, in some cases literally. The slightly higher budget enables Romero to realize scenes he probably has been hoping to do for years. One zombie head emerges slowly from dark water (the movie takes place almost entirely at night), then another, then more—and finally a small army of zombies slowly marches toward the shore. In the city, there are high angles looking straight down at streets populated by only the walking dead. (Who disperse themselves with unexpected regularity.) The variety of zombies is very impressive; there are legless zombies, flip-top zombies, Santa Claus zombies, clown zombies, cheerleader zombies—this is both funny and disturbing. “Zombies!” says one character. “They creep me out!”

They do more than that. The walking dead are often referred to as Walkers, but also as Stenches—the first time Romero has suggested that his walking dead might smell just as bad as they look. Fortunately, this isn’t woven into the story. Romero’s humor has usually been fairly blunt and rude, and remains so here (there’s byplay between a hand and a hand grenade that’s funny and horrifying), but he does toss in a few jokes for the fans (original zombiemeister Tom Savini turns up briefly), and even has time for weird and extraneous observations. A Samoan character says there are 50,000 stolen cars in Samoa—which is ALL the cars in Samoa.

Movies like this don’t really depend on the acting, but Simon Baker is a convincing, pragmatic hero. Asia Argento, looked punked up, is a tough, mean and attractive. Robert Joy as Charlie, Riley’s right-hand man, is slightly retarded but tends to see things very clearly, and he’s a good shot. Once the very embodiment of counterculture, here Dennis Hopper plays the representative of rigid authority, a sybarite who coolly kills to retain his power. But the biggest treat in the movie is John Leguizamo, completely believable as an in-it-for-himself social climber who’s still admirable for his courage.

For years, Romero has said he wanted to do just one more zombie movie. He modeled his original film to a degree on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, though there the world was full of vampires, not the walking dead. The novel concluded with the idea that the vampires could create a society of their own. “Land of the Dead” doesn’t reach that point, or even come within shouting distance, but these walking dead are shambling along a bit more purposefully than in Romero’s earlier movies. Maybe they’ll get there yet.

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