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Land of the Dead
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   George Romero (director)
Genre:   Horror
Released:   June 24, 2005
Review Date:   July 05, 2005
Audience Rating:   Rated R
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

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 dark outside.

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, say, Iraq.

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 small towns.

Innate Plot Points
in a Romero Zombie Film

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.

5. Gorefest.

6. Heroes (at least one) survive.

Since Dawn, 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 Vader’s "Noooo!". 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?

Oh yeah?

Well you’re not supposed to like it, so there!

RevSF Assistant Film Editor Andrew Kozma is leading a revolution of toasters. Death to the yeasty oppressors!

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