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Land Of The Dead
Originally titled Dead Reckoning (for reasons that make perfect sense once you see the film), legendary American horror film director George A. Romero's highly anticipated fourth foray into the world of the walking dead is Land Of The Dead. Though Romero jump started the genre in 1968 with Night Of The Living Dead and followed it up with Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead it had been two decades since his last zombie opus, and it took the blockbuster success of the Dawn Of The Dead remake and other recent zombies films like 28 Days Later to get his fourth entry out of the gates. Ironic? A little bit. But Romero likes irony, that much is obvious.
The world has been overrun by the living dead. There are pockets of 'civilization' scattered around American, mostly in the big cities, but the rest of the country is a wasteland. A man named Riley (Simon Baker of Red Planet and The Ring 2) leads a group of lower class citizens whose job it is to score the wasteland area outside of Pittsburgh to bring in much needed food and supplies from what's left of the grocery stores, farming areas and shopping centers, and try not to get killed by the 'stenches' (their nickname for the zombies) in the process. To help in this mission, a rich man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper of Blue Velvet and Easy Rider) has financed the building of a super tank named Dead Reckoning – it's pretty much an indestructible eighteen wheeler turned into the ultimate zombie killing machine.
When Kaufman spurns Cholo (John Leguizamo, recently seen in the Assault On Precinct 13 remake), the man who was to replace Riley as the leader of the scavenger group, Cholo hijacks Dead Reckoning and threatens to blow up the building that the rich and elite members of society have holed themselves up in, the very same building which Kaufman refuses Cholo access to. Kaufman, who doesn't 'negotiate with terrorists' ropes Riley and his friends, a dimwit named Charlie (Robert Joy who worked with Romero back in 1993 on The Dark Half) who happens to be really good with a rifle, and a fiery ex-hooker named Slack (Asia Argento, foxy tattooed daughter of Dario Argento who produced Dawn Of The Dead), to get Dead Reckoning back before Cholo destroys everything he's worked to build up. To ensure things go smoothly, Kaufman has three of his hired soldiers accompany them on their mission to steal back the super tank.
What neither Riley, Cholo, or Kaufman realize is that there's a threat outside the protective walls of their armed compound above and beyond the usual zombie antics. The dead are starting to learn, they're starting to follow directions, and they're starting to learn how to work together. And what do they dead want? They want to return to their old life, to the life they knew before it all hit the fan, and that life took place inside the city and that's exactly where they're going to go.
Sounds like a pretty decent premise for a zombie movie, doesn't it? Especially a Romero zombie movie, as the ideas behind all of what happens are ripe for satire and black comedy, two elements which made his first three 'dead films' so successful and so much better than the scores of imitators that followed. When the end credits hit the screen, the premise still sounds good and the ideas still sound good and the story still sounds good, but I couldn't help but feel that there were a couple of problems with the execution that, when the dust settles, put this one on the bottom rung of the Romero/Dead Film ladder. It's not that the film is bad, quite the opposite in fact, it's pretty good, but there are some issues…
Character development has always been a key ingredient in a successful horror film. If you don't care about the leads, it's hard to generate any sympathy for them and as such, when the tension mounts, it isn't as effective or as scary. This was the biggest flaw in Zach Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead remake and the key reason that the original film is the better of the two, and ironically enough, it's the biggest flaw in Land Of The Dead. It's not that the rag tag group of heroes that Riley assembles are unlikable, they're not. They're nice enough people, you just don't feel much for them because you know so little about them. Riley's past is hinted at briefly. Charlie? We know Riley pulled him out of a fire and that's about it. Slack? We know Kaufman doesn't like her and that she may or may not have feelings for Riley judging by the way she looks at him. We know Cholo is pretty pissed off at Kaufman after working for him for so long and getting the shaft when it all came down. And sadly, that's about the extent of it. There's enough there to move the story along and enough there to string the plot on, but there's not enough there to involve you with these people they way you became involved with them in Romero's three earlier zombie films and that's a damn shame because the idea behind Land Of The Dead is a very good one.
The other problem with the film? The CGI and the obvious edits to the gore scenes. You don't need gore to have a good horror film, that's been proven many times, but Land Of The Dead teases you with it. It's a well known fact that Romero conceded to do an R-rated cut of the film to play theatrically on the condition that an un-rated DVD could be replaced later and rumors abound about how much was cut for this release. While there are a few scenes in there that'll make the squeamish cringe, there's nothing there on the level of Rhodes death scene in Day Of The Dead or some of the grislier moments in Dawn Of The Dead and none of the death scenes have the power of the matricide scene in Night Of The Living Dead. Hopefully this can be rectified in the uncut DVD, as it does hurt the film when the fact that footage is missing is painfully obvious as the film plays out. To make matters worse, for every fantastic organic effect we have, we're hit with a crappy CGI one. Almost all of the head shots, an important factor in the action scenes of the film, are CGI and when you see what is obviously computer generated blood spray, it simultaneously reminds you how good the organic effects work is and how crappy the computer generated ones are.
It's not all bad news, though. Romero's wit is omnipresent throughout and while a lot of the comic relief from the three soldiers that Kaufman assigns to work with the team falls flat on its face, the more satirical aspects of the movie do work really nicely especially when you take into account the filmmaker's leftwing slant and contrast that to the real world parodies we see plaid out in front of us. The zombies once again are an obvious representation of the general public, and this time out Romero hits us with a bit of a class war between the right and the poor that isn't that far removed from the way certain political groups tend to pander to their big business friends or how the rich often times exploit the working class. While this may sound out of place for a zombie film the script works it all in nicely and while there is a certain heavy handedness to some of it (Kaufman's death scene is about as subtle as a brick to the head… money truly is the root of all evil in this film), it's at least handled in an intelligent enough fashion to make for an interesting contrast in amongst the walking corpses and the brain splatter.
Romero's strengths in the editing room (cuts to the bloodshed aside) are evidenced nicely throughout the film as it moves along at a very good pace and makes use of some expertly timed jump scares throughout the movie. The tone of the film is quite bleak, and there are a few stand out scenes scattered throughout the movie such as when an army of zombies emerge from the murky depths of the river or when the camera pans up from the street to give us a birds-eye view of the carnage below. The film is quite well made on a technical level and it's a shame that the film didn't quite hit its potential.
Performances are okay across the board. No one is particularly excellent – Hopper is Hopper, Asia Argento looks hot but brings nothing to her role, and Riley is just sufficient in the lead. The only real complaint about the actors is the 'big daddy' zombie who moans like a bad Scooby Doo ghost throughout the movie whenever he discovers something or gets upset about something. I realize that the zombies are learning as the movie progresses, but truth be told his moans were laughable. John Leguizamo is decent Cholo, bringing some sleaze and shiftiness to his role that makes it work better than it would have in someone else's hands.
When it all boils down to the nitty gritty, Romero's film is a reflection of the times, just like the other three zombie films he's made have been. We live in a society where people think for themselves less and less and take what's spoon fed to them as the gospel truth. We live in a society where a film's merit isn't judged on characterization but on action, flash, and effects. Romero has given us, the zombie masses, exactly what we asked for. The cheers of the people sitting around me in the theater confirmed this, as did their incessant talking when there wasn't enough action going on. The beautiful thing about that is he's done it in his own style. It's a "dumbed down" film but it's still a Romero film – as much a black comedy and social satires as a horror film – and it's still very much worth seeing. There's some irony in that. But Romero likes irony, that much is obvious.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.