If you’re not a Romero fan, you may be bemused by this movie. If all you know
of the Dead movies is the remake of Dawn
of the Dead, you will be either disappointed or relieved,
depending on whether you thought it was a nice bit of Hollywood horror or a
plot-skimpy scarefest. And if you aren’t okay with a horror movie having a “message,”
then you best move on down the line.
Not that messages are a bad thing. All the sci-fi and horror movies used to
have them (in a much more context-sensitive way than having sex=bloody death).
But take a look a little further back in film history — say at The
Omega Man, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, and even Death Race 2000 —
and you’ll find films where the philosophical implications of the horror are
just as important as the action. Strangely, Romero has become more concerned
with social commentary, rather than angling towards box-office success through
mimicry. In his first, Night of the Living Dead, the aspect of race,
especially of sexual relations between the races, was sublimated to the overall
story of survival. But Dawn,
Day, and Land of the Dead each brought to the foreground whatever
bit of social conscience Romero is attempting to bring back into public discourse.
And what a public discourse there was. The line for the movie was longer than
that I experienced for Episode III. Granted, I saw the first showing
of Land of the Dead at midnight and witnessed Episode III at noon.
Still, I was surprised at the turnout. People conferred before the movie, commented
during, and hung around to chat afterwards. One opinion: “That movie bleeping
sucked! That was the stupidest movie ever!” Most people looked on in befuddlement,
wondering at the bravery of demeaning the zombie hordes, especially as it was
Needless to say, we never heard from him again.
Land of the Dead follows Riley (Simon Baker), an expert retriever
of goods (food, medicine, etc.) from zombie-infested towns, as he tries to remove
himself from the dog-eat-zombie-dog world of one of the last human strongholds.
This stronghold is the brainchild of capitalist opportunist Kaufman (a restrained
Dennis Hopper) and it is he who decides how everything goes in the stronghold.
For example, whether you get to be a soldier or a streetwalker. Other characters
wrapped up in Riley’s life are: Slack (Asia Argento), a streetwalker; Charlie
(Robert Joy), Riley’s crack-shot protector; and Cholo (John Leguizamo), another
expert retriever who steals Riley’s ride, the Dead Reckoning, in order
to extort Kaufman.
All of Romero’s zombie films have included a strong black man as a main character.
Land of the Dead introduces a zombie gas station attendant named Big
Daddy (Eugene Clark). Knowing this tendency of Romero is a quick clue to where
his true loyalties lie in the movie — not that he is pro-zombie since,
after all, there’s the hero Riley, but that the zombies and the way they are
treated is a point he wants the audience to focus on. The zombies are an obvious
symbol, taking the position of the poor in one perspective and weak, exploited
nations in another. At several points the dialogue of Kaufman echoes that of
the Bush administration; the looting of small towns is clearly equated with,
Underneath the political and social commentary, the movie is dripping with
style, from the black-and-white Universal logo and introductory footage that
nicely summarizes the history of the films to the Mad Max-ian post-zombie
environment. It’s obvious that Romero was given a decent bank account for the
movie (thank the Dawn of the Dead remake) and the result shows what he
could have done with Day of the Dead if the funding had come through.
Not that the movie flaunts it, but Romero’s vision appears clean and fully-fleshed.
You know, until the zombies get to it.
Romero always keeps his sequels interesting through changing the focus of
the horror, even though the world is the same. (As are the plot points intrinsic
to a Dead movie; see below.) Night involves one night’s
survival in an abandoned house; Dawn is a sequence of months spent in
a mall as a small group deals with the end of civilization; Day follows
a mixed group of soldiers and scientists as they try to understand the zombie
condition; Land details one of humanity’s last holdouts, which has
managed to survive for three years by cannibalizing the corpses of surrounding
Innate Plot Points
in a Romero Zombie Film
(NOT REALLY SPOILERS)
1. Introduction of zombified world.
2. Introduction of main characters (usually with
no clear cut villains) in a protected environment under siege.
3. Pressure on the protected environment.
4. Zombies break through, often as a result of
a stupid action.
6. Heroes (at least one) survive.
Romero movies have included elements that were silly, sometimes
grotesquely, sometimes cringingly. Land
includes only one element that
really stands out for me, that of the zombie army and its hyper-intelligent (for
a zombie) organizer. The scream that the zombie gives out as he watches his fellow
zombies get shot by joy-riding humans is surpassed in silliness only by Darth
". Granted, Romero established
in his previous films that zombies have some sort of memory of their past lives,
that they can be taught, and that they can form emotional attachments. The scenes
with Bub the Zombie in Day of the Dead
were amazingly creepy because of
the mad Dr. Logan’s relationship to him. But in Land
Romero rests an
entire subplot on the zombies, and the attempt to evoke sympathy for them often
falls flat. The zombies work best when shown as an unstoppable force — a
scene of countless zombies rising from the river is haunting.
The special effects are the only thing that redeems the opening scenes of
zombified small-town life that, otherwise, seems a revived Disney ride. The
scenes are necessary to compare with the life of the rich in the protected,
isolated city, but the opening strikes me as too much, too soon, as opposed
to the zombies-in-the-mall scenes in Dawn that come after the horror
is sufficiently established. The out-of-placeness is epitomized by a poor newbie
soldier when he says he “thought this was gonna be a battle — it’s a f---ing
massacre.” My first reaction was, Come on. They’re zombies! A similar
reaction follows Riley’s decision to stop shooting and be merciful to the zombies
in the town.
As usual, the special effects are "blood drooling out your imaginary
throat wound" good and, as far as I can tell, done without digital wizardry.
Instead, Romero employs an effects artist who was once the apprentice of Tom
Savini. (For the uninitiated: Tom Savini is the special effects expert Romero
partnered with in Day and Dawn. On a side note, the DVD extras
for Day of the Dead have some cool hands-on documentary-style footage
and explanations of how Savini gets his effects done — and what torture
they are to go through.) The prosthetics look real, and the gore these movies
engender is even more realistic than before, though less graphic since the camera
does not linger as much on the zombies eating the flesh of the dead and dying.
But come on, admit it: Who doesn’t like seeing a mangled-but-mobile corpse eating
the flesh off a femur like it was a chicken leg?
Well you’re not supposed to like it, so there!