Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead

Posted by CinemaPsycho on July 5, 2005

Directed and written by George A. Romero/starring Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy/Universal Pictures – Atmosphere Entertainment

“We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything” – Helen Cooper, Night of the Living Dead

Let me start off by acknowledging the obvious – how fucking cool it is to be able to be able to write about a new George Romero Dead film. I say with complete sincerity that it’s truly amazing to be reviewing a film which has taken 20 years to arrive and which stood a good chance of never being made for most of that time. Its very existence can be taken as the closest thing you’ll find in Hollywood to a miracle, and whatever one ultimately thinks of the result, it damn well deserves to be seen just because it’s there.

Land of the Dead is of course the fourth in Romero’s series of zombie flicks. I’m not going to go into the history of these films, because I assume anyone who’s reading this would know them chapter and verse (and if you don’t, it’s time to catch up). The political and sociological subtexts of the Dead films have been well documented (even if the likes of Richard Roeper don’t seem familiar with them), so there’s no need to go into that here. Each of the films is completely different from the others, and each is fascinating in their own way. These aren’t typical horror films – they’re about something, and the beauty of it is that many of the people who watch them don’t even know it.

Beyond all that, what initially drew me to the Dead films is their sense of stark, ongoing terror. These films aren’t “scary” in the traditional “monster jumps out from the shadows” type of horror; instead, they’re documents of an alternate-universe apocalypse, the slow decay of civilization, one reanimated corpse at a time. Unlike most such films, no scientist comes up with a “cure” at the end of the movie. No hero saves the day at the last minute and destroys all of the creatures. Instead, the situation just gets worse and worse, lasting beyond the end of each movie and into the next, and so on. It’s a nightmare that never ends – the shit hits the fan and never gets cleaned up. Now that’s true horror.

Land finds the situation having reached a gradual saturation point. There are now more zombies than there are living humans, and they’ve almost completely overtaken most of the cities, except for a few small outposts. One such place is Fiddler’s Green in what we assume is Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh (though it was shot in Toronto for budget reasons). Fiddler’s Green is a fancy high-rise apartment building for the remaining wealthy, completely protected from the zombie hordes, and run by corrupt businessman Kaufman (Hopper). Kaufman employs a paramilitary team led by stoic Riley (Baker) and hyper Cholo (Leguizamo) to venture into the zombie-ridden cities in an armored vehicle called Dead Reckoning to obtain food and supplies to keep his little paradise running.

When Kaufman denies Cholo admittance into Fiddler’s Green, Cholo decides to hijack Dead Reckoning and hold it for ransom, intending to do some serious damage if he doesn’t get paid. Riley, who’s sick and tired of the whole thing and just wants out, agrees to get Dead Reckoning back for Kaufman, but only if it’s his last job. He wants to take off to Canada, where rumor has it there are no zombies left.

The amazing thing about Land is how much it feels like a 2005 film – it has the pacing and rhythms of a Jerry Bruckheimer production. While some fans haven’t taken kindly to this, I think it shows that Romero, given studio backing and a decent budget (though only one-quarter of most major genre films) can play with the big boys. Nothing about the film feels “dated” – anyone who thinks of Romero as an outmoded, out-of-touch filmmaker will have to seriously reconsider their position after seeing this. George has often said that he tries to make each Dead film in the style of the time in which it was made, and he’s more than succeeded here. You get the feeling that parts of it are intended as action-movie parody, and if so it’s certainly more accurate than Team America ever was.

Yet this is still very much a Romero movie, as evidenced by the political and social commentary throughout. I’m not going to go into detail about these elements (as I feel they are best discovered and interpreted by the viewer), but I will say there’s plenty of subtext about class struggle here, which has always been a pet theme of Romero’s but has never been explored to this extent before. There are also some veiled references to the current political situation, but to dismiss Land as merely a vitriolic diatribe against the Bush administration would be doing it a disservice. I’ve always felt that Romero simply holds up a mirror to society and says, “this is what’s going on” and leaves the audience to decide for themselves whether his interpretation is correct. Still, I think it takes real guts to make a movie like this in the current climate, and I think we need more filmmakers who are willing to express their personal beliefs through their work. Romero is one of the few who can pull off something like this, and you get the feeling that he really doesn’t care if anyone’s upset by it. It’s like he’s saying, “hey, this is how I see things, this is what the movie’s about, and if you don’t like it, tough shit”. What really makes it subversive is that he delivers these messages in the kind of film that will be dismissed by some as “mindless entertainment”. That’s pretty cool. We need more of that, and we need guys like Romero now more than ever.

Of course, some audience members will be there only for the gore, and Land doesn’t disappoint on that level either. For an R-rated studio production, there’s a surprising amount of nasty, gruesome stuff here, and nobody does it more creatively than George and company. I’m not particularly a gorehound, I don’t mind it when it’s done well and there’s a reason for it, but I don’t necessarily need it either. But when you’re dealing with flesh-eating zombies that tear off limbs and rip bodies apart, it’s kinda dishonest not to show that stuff, isn’t it? Unlike most Hollywood movies, violence isn’t easy or simple in Romero films – people don’t just die quickly and painlessly. They get killed, and it’s bloody and gory and nasty and fucked up. That’s what death really is. And in Romero’s world, there’s actually a fate worse than that. That’s some disturbing shit.

Is Land of the Dead a “classic” or a “masterpiece”? I don’t know. It takes time for a movie to obtain that kind of status. We’ll have to see how it holds up in 10 or 20 years. What we do know is that each of the Dead films have been misunderstood and underappreciated by many upon their first release, and this one is no different. I think if you’re expecting another Night, Dawn or even Day, you’re naturally going to be disappointed, because this isn’t that film. Land is a different movie for a different time, and it has to stand on its own. Again, each of the films is different from its predecessors, and that’s absolutely the way it should be.

But I do think it’s an excellent piece of work on its own terms. It shows Romero on a level of technical proficiency that he’s really never worked at before – he’s still no Spielberg or Kubrick, but few people are. He did some fantastic work with his cast – Simon Baker has never made the kind of impression he does here (I completely forgot how ineffectual he was in The Ring 2 while watching this). Dennis Hopper does his best work in ages (not that that’s saying much, given his litany of straight-to-video stuff over the past few years), toning his usual raving-madman shtick down a bit while still giving an effective villainous performance. Robert Joy is a total scene-stealer as Riley’s “slow” buddy Charlie, and even Leguizamo, who can be annoying in some films, comes off well. Asia Argento’s prostitute character Slack may not be entirely necessary – but she’s so fucking cool in it (not to mention hot), who cares? Just the fact that Dario Argento’s daughter is in a George Romero movie is so badass that I don’t even care that she’s mostly just along for the ride.

Is this a perfect film? Probably not. But frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a fuck. Land is such a blast of old-school mentality combined with newfangled skills that it’s a treat regardless of any little nitpicks people might have. I’ve heard people say it’s derivative of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and I’ll admit that thought crossed my mind while watching it. But given that Escape is one of my personal all-time favorite films, the similarities really didn’t bother me. Apocalypse is apocalypse, what are you gonna do? Land is definitely a throwback in many ways, and that’s a good thing. It’s a throwback to a time when genre films meant something more than cheap thrills, when horror films were made with care and skill and had actual ideas behind them. This is how it’s supposed to be done – that’s the point, ladies and gentlemen. Not whether it’s as good as the previous films, not whether it’s better than the recent zombie movies (though for my money they’re worlds apart), not how much money it cost or makes. The point is that it’s damn good, and totally Romero. What more do you people need?

Is it a perfect film? It’s perfect for me, and it’ll be perfect for many other people, and that’s all that matters.

And Mr. Roeper – the zombies are a metaphor. M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R. Look it up.

**** 7/5/05

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