Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Land of the Dead / *** (UR)

Riley: Simon Baker
Cholo: John Leguizamo
Slack: Asia Argento
Charlie: Robert Joy
Kaufman: Dennis Hopper
Big Daddy: Eugene Clark

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by George Romero. Running time: 97 min. Unrated director’s cut (contains pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use).

Three and a half decades ago George Romero turned horror on its head with a nearly Z level zombie flick effort that became a cult hit in Night of the Living Dead. Since then a bevy of remakes, look alikes and not really sequels although they claim to be have followed in his footsteps of zombie related gore fests, but only twice before has he revisited his zombie universe himself. Unlike the copycats, Romero likes his zombies to make some sort of social commentary. His original Night was a banner bearer for the civil rights movement, Dawn of the Dead (the original 1978 version, not the 2004 remake), the best of the series, was a scathing indictment of the American mindset of materialism, while Day of the Dead merely reiterated Dawn’s sentiment with twice as much gore. Finally, Romero returns to his abominable creation with Land of the Dead. The message has changed once again, but so have many other aspects.

The story picks up after the world has been overrun by zombies and the last surviving humans have re-established lives of routine and productivity in a walled city, where societal structure has already delineated a class system with the rich living in luxury high rises while the working class once again struggle through the squalor of the streets. Corruption has re-rooted itself into the way of life, but keeping the living dead outside the walls is the utmost concern.

We are introduced to two zombie hunters. Riley is the Boy Scout type who has designed and built a special living dead arsenal on wheels called Dead Reckoning. Cholo is an opportunist who uses his skills as a zombie killer to run favors for the upper class tower dwellers in hopes to secure his own spot in the lap of luxury. Simon Baker is given a better opportunity to play the action hero here than he was earlier this year in The Ring Two. John Leguizamo (Assault on Precinct 13) takes yet another opportunity here to chew scenery in his own skillful way. Another scene muncher, Dennis Hopper (Speed), is also along for the ride as the financial and power hungry self-appointed ruler of the walled city Kaufman, and Romero gives him all the choicest lines. “In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.” and, “Zombies, man. They creep me out.”

The real “scene chewers” however, are the zombies themselves. This will be quite an attraction to Dead fans to see that Romero has not gone squeamish in his old age, the gore percentage is up to his standards despite the more accomplished acting and higher production values. In fact, the dead themselves are one of the biggest changes and plot developments of the story. It appears that the dead have begun to evolve. They learn how to use weapons and actually look out for their own well being to a small degree. Everything in baby steps. One zombie, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark, TV’s Tek War),in particular takes an aggressively proactive role in the fate of his fellow zombies as he leads an attack on the city itself. I don’t think it is entirely an accident that this lead zombie is African American, a reference back to the original Night, where a black man was the only person with the capacity to deal with the zombie situation rationally.

With the civil rights movement almost 40 years old and materialism turned to such a global scale that it has become a moot point, Romero has turned to more topical material. This time he focuses on less universal issues and takes aim at the current White House administration and the War in Iraq. First, the power and social structure of the walled city shows the corruption inherent in a government run as a capitalistic venture. Thugs, like the gambling underlord Chihuahua (Phil Fondacaro, The Polar Express) are utilized to keep the working class distracted from active involvement in bettering their situation and Hopper’s Kaufman is more interested in protecting his own investments than with the security of the people he so graciously rules. The zombies are also starting to develop their own quazi-culture that the living humans are making no effort to understand. Instead the humans are forcing their will upon the zombies who attack back in more of a revolutionary manner than in past Dead films. The human state of being has become based on fear without asking many questions, much like the Bush administration’s “War on Terrorism.”

Unfortunately, Romero also falls victim to one of the illusions of the Bush administration, the illusion that action equals results. Romero takes the action-oriented introduction of Dawn and draws it through the entire feature of Land. As a result Land of the Dead plays much more like an action adventure flick than an issue-driven horror film. There is much more plot in this film than in previous films in the series, including the theft of Dead Reckoning. As Riley forms a team to track the war machine down, the focus is shifted away from Romero’s moral lessons.

Land of the Dead actually makes for a fairly involving action picture, so the drawbacks are not fatal. Romero has the skills as a storyteller and director to tell a compelling adventure, but Land lacks much of the resonating power of the first two Living Dead movies. Perhaps Romero is slowly becoming one of the living dead himself. Hopefully, he sticks around long enough to give us a resurrection.

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