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Editorial - Thursday, August 4, 2005
"Happy Hour of the Dead - A Look at George Romero's Long-Awaited Land of the Dead"

O, what a beautiful day! I saw Romero's Land of the Dead a few weeks ago, and it's taken me a while to really reflect on how I felt about it. I've heard a lot of criticism about Land, and I've analyzed those critiques. I've soul-searched, and I've gone back and re-watched the original Dead trilogy in order to regain proper perspective on this cinematic and social phenomenon. Let me just say that, despite some obvious flaws, Land of the Dead not only lives up to the legacy so effectively established by Romero, but it also marks big George's triumphant return to form, and to his cinematic roots.

We all know the history surrounding George Romero's original "Dead" trilogy, comprised of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, so to wax poetic about those films in this context would be a bit redundant. I mean, if you weren't totally familiar with those films, you wouldn't be reading this article, now would you? Suffice it to say...for the benefit of those either too young to appreciate the significance of that trilogy or whom have been living under a particularly dark and heavy rock for the last, oh, nearly 40 years now, those films were and remain incredibly important to the history of not only the zombie genre, but to that of horror films in general. 'Nuff said. Well, moving on then...

In Land of the Dead, the fourth film (!) in the "Dead Trilogy", Romero presents us with a world completely overrun by shambling undead. In fact, there only remain scant and isolated pockets of humanity...holed up in wilderness camps or in vast metropolitan strongholds. One such stronghold, Fiddler's Green (lorded over by Dennis Hopper's "Kaufman", a shady, corrupt businessman if ever there was one), is a former mixed-use office building/block of flats, where the uber-wealthy or uber-powerful hold sway, and try to get a taste of their former pre-zombie-epidemic lives. There are amenities galore, and creature comforts are de rigueur, though all of this comes with a steep fiscal and moral price tag. Problem is, the "Green" is surrounded by a "locked-down" city...a mere shade of its former bustling grandeur (like the zombies themselves)...where all of the less-than-privileged are forced to make their homes. It's an environment quite reminiscent of "Bartertown" from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, only it's urban and contains far fewer leather outfits and punk coiffs. The poor, unfortunate souls inhabiting the city around the "Green" live in kind of an ancestral squalor, where new generations are born into and are doomed to die in the same conditions their fathers faced. Some of the city residents, however, are resourceful types. They make their "living" going on heavily armed, organized and highly dangerous supply runs to surrounding towns, where they retrieve all the necessities for, ostensibly, all the city residents, but which in actuality go mostly to the upper-class residents of Fiddler's Green proper. One such group has in its loose ranks a pair of fellows, Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo). While these two are "on the same team", they are (by necessity of the story) diametrically opposed, and are therefore playing very different games. Riley is the pensive, considerate one, who does his job well, but sees the corruption inherent in the system, and wants to either make a change for the betterment of what's left of humanity, or else leave the city altogether in favor of fleeing to the wilds of Canada, where he perceives that there will be fewer zombies, and more to the point, fewer people. Cholo on the other hand is the "loose cannon"; he seems to genuinely like his job, and his goals are more concrete...more direct. He wants to get into the "Green", no matter what the cost might be to his fellow man or to his own soul. He also acts as Kaufman's personal bodyguard and supplier of niceties such as fine cigars, liquor, wine, and what have you. Cholo's ultimate goal in life seems to be to beat the odds and get accepted into the "Green", despite the fact that there is a huge "waiting list" and he is (gasp) a minority. So, we have these disparate men, fighting the same battle for different goals, who provide the basis of the social context. Riley and Cholo go on their nightly excursions into zombie-infested areas for supplies, and sometimes it goes without a hitch. Other times, of course, it doesn't...and a member or members of their respective teams get ripped apart by shuffling corpses. Aiding these mercenaries is a vehicle called "Dead Reckoning", sort of a cross between a tank, a mobile base, and a giant, tricked-out Humvee. "Dead Reckoning" was designed by Riley, was financed by Kaufman (who therefore claims ownership over it), and is coveted by all who lay eyes on her, as the ass-kicking piece of machinery is capable of delivering crippling blows to not only hordes of zombies, but also to civilian populations. So, we have the timely elements of socio-economic warfare, class struggle, an "arms race" of sorts, and an overconfident, snobbish, corrupt "leader" (Kaufman). When Riley ventures into the city to confront a man who owes him a car, he finds time to rescue a spunky, resourceful, and hot-as-hell former mercenary chick named "Slack" (Asia Argento) from a sort of zombie blood-sport. She quickly joins Riley's ranks because, well, he's the "hero", and that's the way it goes. Eventually, when Cholo is snubbed yet again for entry into the "Green" by Kaufman, and summarily dismissed, he goes all kinds of wacky and decides to steal "Dead Reckoning" and, along with a handful of his racially diverse compatriots, attempt to take the "Green" hostage, as it were, by pointing an entire rack of "Reckoning's" roof-mounted anti-establishment missiles directly at the palatial tower. Riley isn't having any of it, of course, and he and his rag-tag group of "followers"...plus a few SWAT types assigned by Kaufman to "watch over" the mission, plan their attempt to stop the nutty Cholo from blowing the living fuck out of the entire city. Of course, Riley has designs on taking back the vehicle he created so he can finally escape to Canada, and Slack, well...she's along for the ride because she looks great in a miniskirt and fishnets, so what the hell! Everyone has their own agenda, and the rest of the film concerns each of these agendas colliding in the most chaotic, messy way possible.

So, I'm sure you're wondering, "where are all the fuckin' zombies, man?" Well, this is a Romero zombie movie, so there's zombies aplenty...don't you worry about that. Aside from the garden-variety zombie attacks in the opening movement of Land of the Dead, the zombies definitely take a back seat to the human monsters, which is pretty much a trademark of Romero's zombie flicks. The people...or at least certain groups of people...are more of a direct threat to each other than any number of zombies could ever be. There is one twist in Romero's logic this time out, however, and it's a development that he started to explore in Day of the Dead with his "zombie with a heart of gold" character, Bub (Howard Sherman). This time, certain zombies are making great strides in their ability to reason, to use tools/weapons, and to show "emotion"...including intense jealousy, resentment, and ultimately, rage. One zombie, called "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark) because of a patch on his mechanic's jacket, shows all of these very human traits in remarkable ways. After an early attack on "his turf" by the marauding supply gathering team who mow down countless zombies with their big ol' guns, Big Daddy angrily looks to the horizon and sees the soft, welcoming glow of Fiddler's Green, and notices that the fleeing mercenaries are heading in that direction. You can see something click behind those dead, withered eyes...Big Daddy knows what's going on, and he's not going to stand for it. He corrals his own undead army, picks up a discarded (but fully loaded) submachine gun, and heads toward the city...the object of his obsession and target of his brewing hatred. Clark does a remarkable job conveying "zombie-emotions", and every discovery he makes and everything he re-learns really feels like a big deal, like a toddler who's recently discovered his own belly-button. So, add a few thousand truly pissed-off, weapon-wielding, frighteningly resourceful zombies to this already unstable situation, and you've got a recipe for total carnage (well, at least "hard-R-rated" carnage). So there.

Now, I said that Land of the Dead had some problems. I guess I might as well go ahead and discuss those problems...
Problem number one: the casting. The original "Dead" trilogy had the...dare I say...benefit of being filled with predominately unknown actors and actresses. This worked to the benefit of those films because the viewer could look at any given character and say, "Hey! There's a regular guy-or-gal being menaced by a horde of zombies! However shall they escape the advancing undead?!?" Land of the Dead, by "virtue" of its much more famous cast members, elicits a response more akin to, "Hey! There's Dennis Hopper being menaced by a horde..." you get the idea. It's not that the actors are bad in any way, and it's not really that big of an issue, but still...one of the reasons why the original films are so timeless is because, frankly, no one had seen these faces before, and not too many people have seen those faces since (with rare but notable exceptions), thus adding to the anonymous authenticity George was going for. I just don't feel as concerned for Asia Argento's safety as I did for Gaylen "Frannie" Ross in Dawn, for example.
Problem number two: the Dawn of the Dead remake, and the recent resurgence of high-profile zombie movies. In 2004, the big-budget, reworked Dawn of the Dead update came out, and was a fairly large financial success the world over. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, likewise, was a fair box-office and critical success. And Shaun of the Dead. And on, and on. Some of those movies were ok, some of them were far better than others, but the point is that a huge zombie revival has occurred in the last several years, and each of those films took the basic ideas, structures, and principles of Romero's "Dead" trilogy and brought them into a truly modern era. Therefore, through no fault of it's own, Land of the Dead came into existence with much of its thunder taken away by pretenders to the throne, causing much of the emotional and social impact so readily apparent in Romero's earlier films to simply fly under the radar of filmgoers...even die-hard genre fans. Had Land been made and released six or seven years ago as was originally intended, this wouldn't be a problem. It's difficult to not only take Land on its own terms, but to compare it to its own older siblings instead of its bastard cousins.
Problem number three: social commentary. I know that many zealous Romero devotees will cry "foul" here, but this time, George Romero has overreached a teensy bit with his social critique/commentary. Whereas before, in Dawn for example, the dialogue was merely laced with comments that could be construed as having a much deeper social significance, Romero has really taken that idea to new levels in Land. Damn near every scene, every piece of dialogue, every character, and every other element of the film has some sort of "Notice me, goddammit! I'm socially significant" sign in great big neon letters on it, just in case we're too caught up in the horror movie we thought we were watching to notice. Don't get me wrong, Romero pulls it off, but in certain places, it comes across as being too preachy and nearly as manipulative as Steven "Let's throw a cute kid in there to tug at their heart strings" Spielberg at his most manipulative. Whatever, it doesn't truly detract from the full enjoyment of Land of the Dead, but it can be a bit distracting at times. To call this film, at least in some way, an "anti-Bush" statement would be to state the glaringly obvious. That's really all the problems I can think of at the moment, so let's move on...

Finally, there's the gore...and there is plenty to be had here, courtesy of KNB's exemplary effects work. The practical and mechanical makeup effects are some of the best that Nicotero and his cronies have pumped out...ever...and will not disappoint the gorehounds in the audience who absolutely expect stand-out splatter set-pieces from a Romero zombie film. Sure, Tom Savini's genre-defining effects work is sorely missed, as Savini has a signature style that makes his work instantly identifiable and therefore an intrinsic part of the last two "Dead" films, but all is not lost! He is in here, but only as an actor, in an effective cameo as what may or may not be the zombie form of his character "Blades" in Dawn. I gotta say, for the record, that Savini makes a cool looking zombie, with his already sharp features further accentuated by the zombie makeup...he's one of the coolest and scariest zombies in the film. Too bad he's only onscreen for a few seconds. Now, we're all aware that some of the effects in Land of the Dead were accomplished...or at the very least augmented through the use of CGI. Anyone who reads this site knows how I feel about the use of CGI in "horror movies" in general, but you'll be pleased to know that it is used tastefully and sparingly enough here as to be pretty much seamless and invisible. There are mercifully few "big CGI moments" that would only serve to distract the viewer, so that's cool for me. Most of the time, CGI is used in conjunction with practical effects to achieve or complete an effect that would otherwise be impossible to pull off. I'm no curmudgeon when it comes to CGI...I'll be the first to admit that when they work, they work. And, in Land, they work quite well.

A brief bit of special recognition must also go to Riley's right-hand-man Charlie. Character actor Robert Joy fills the role with a huge amount of sympathy, a touch of "Lenny" from Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men", and more than a little ass-kicking, sharp-shooting awesomeness. He's the one character in the film that will have fans and general audiences alike clapping and standing in the aisles, cheering him on. He's a great character, and he's one of the best things about the movie. It just goes to show that Romero is, when all is said and done, an "actor's director"...his characters are clearly defined and well-written, and he imbues them with all the humanity (or otherwise) that they could possibly need to have. In the final analysis, that's why Land of the Dead works so well...because we become interested in the people...

...even the ones played by Dennis Hopper.

Oh, so you're waiting for me to pass final judgment on Land of the Dead, aren't you? You're waiting to hear how well it fits in with the milieu that George Romero created, right? Well, I'm not going to do it. I'm going to let you come to those decisions on your own. That's how George would want it. Oh, I liked the movie, and I had a great deal of fun watching it, but that's all I'm gonna say.

Now go see it yourself...
- Matthew Dean Hill

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