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Land of the Dead

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/16/05 17:07:56

"Romero's franchise is still very much alive. So to speak."
5 stars (Awesome)

Of course you know that Romero defined the zombie movie with his essential horror films “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and “Day of the Dead.” Of course you know that his latest entry in this series, “Land of the Dead,” has been too long in the making, its arrival in theaters being the horror flick equivalent of the new “Star Wars” trilogy. And of course you know that “Land” comes to us at the height of a zombie renaissance of sorts, with the genre riding a tide of success (“28 Days Later,” the “Dawn” remake, “Shaun of the Dead”) as well as suffering a flood of failures (the “Resident Evil” movies, “House of the Dead”).

The trick to “Land of the Dead” is to drop expectations. Do not expect a rehash of Romero’s the-end-is-nigh despair; this filmmaker is not about to repeat himself. And do not expect a carbon copy of more modern zombie fare. That’s not Romero’s style either. And guess what? We’re all the better for it.

What we get in this outing is a story involving a luxury highrise in the heart of a nameless city (looks like Pittsburgh to me, though) that’s been blockaded off from the zombie swarm that’s taken over the country. The building is inhabited by the rich and powerful, led by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, in a pinch of brilliant casting); he opens his doors to anyone who can afford the rich life in a time where you’d think money didn’t mean much anymore. (Oh, but to some, it always will.) Around the building are slums set up to provide cheap housing for anyone unfortunate enough to be both alive and poor. For the lower classes, sex, gambling, and drugs offer distraction from the hell both inside and outside the city walls.

And here’s where Romero deviates from his older films. Both “Dawn” and “Day” were able to crank up the tension by drowning the stories in a sea of nihilism. The world is just about to end, the movies told us, and there is no escape, nothing you can do but wait for your turn to die. Unbearably bleak stuff, to be sure (it’s a sensation that’s so overwhelming that I repeatedly name these as the scariest movies ever made, all from their refusal to provide release), and neither film ever hints that safety is in the characters’ futures.

Yet here we are, in a shiny tower of safety, protected from the menace of the walking dead, protected from the menace of loneliness - even the most desperate slum residents at the very least have a society, which is better than rotting away in a mall or bunker somewhere.

So what’s Romero’s game here? Why, all of a sudden, does he offer a ray of hope in a series built on hopelessness? The answer lies in Romero’s beautiful tendency to make his movies more than mere horror flicks.

Just as his previous “Dead” films had so much to say about humanity, for better (no) or for worse (yes), “Land” offers up a new political perspective. As we watch the zombie hordes gather their wits (they’ve been getting smarter, a logical progression from plot points seen in “Day”) and begin their assault on the city and the highrise, Romero’s point becomes clear: ignore a problem, and pretty soon, the problem’s going to tear you apart. View it as a diatribe against whatever you wish to see. (Me, I’m going with the all-too-obvious anti-Bush rant, with its 9/11-tinged commentary backed by the tower’s obvious divide between haves and have-nots.)

Of course, as with the rest of the “Dead” series, you’re not required to look too deeply into the film in order to enjoy it. Romero makes “Land” his most enjoyable “Dead” feature, sheer entertainment-wise, as he’s placed a heavier hand on the action side of things. Working with a budget that can finally match his vision, the filmmaker builds an action extravaganza, a raucous ‘splosion-heavy affair that, at just over ninety minutes, zooms by at a steady clip. The weight of the plot features a stolen war machine of sorts, a threat to blow up the building, and an effort by our hero to save the day - hardly the stuff of hiding out in a farmhouse for the night.

There’s simply no downtime here, between all the action and the frights and the consistent movement. Everything’s in motion. Zombies are marching on the city. Heroes are racing the streets in decked-out station wagons. Guns are blazing. Something’s always going somewhere. The result is - dare I say it? - a thrill-ride. Not what I was expecting at all, but now that it’s over, who’s to complain?

Yet with all the speed this movie has, it’s nice to see that Romero has ignored the new rule of zombie filmmaking - make ’em faster! - and returned the undead to their sluggish sleepwalk pace. Yes, the super-fast creatures of “28 Days Later” and its companions are very frightening in their own way. But such speed doesn’t fit Romero’s themes, and so he breaks ranks and slows them down. What we get, then, are zombies that individually are little threat (unless they sneak up and grab you from behind, of course), but together, once they swarm, then you’re screwed. It’s their mere number that becomes scary - it’s not one or two zombies, but thousands. (Millions, perhaps billions, if you count those unseen in the film.)

Which helps Romero’s theme. At their rambling speed, the undead here become easy to ignore; you can tear past them on your motorcycle without worry. Laugh at them, even (one scene shows captured zombies used for entertainment). Call them “stenches” in slang mockery. Ignore the greater threat. Live your life of comfort and complacency. And that’s when the greater threat gangs up and eats your face. Oops.

Continuing a theme from “Day,” Romero even allows for some sympathy for the undead. Yes, they are mindless killers who will rip out your spleen in a flash, but there’s something about the way the living treats them that builds a sense of, well, melancholy, I suppose. Consider the zombie known here as “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark). Like the Bub character from the previous film, Big Daddy is becoming aware, and he’s not too thrilled with the idea of being neglected. Somehow, the audience manages to empathize with Big Daddy, his battle cry sounding like an outlet for all the primal angers of the undead.

So yeah, even in the apocalypse, with millions of flesh-hungry zombies out there, it’s still us pesky living humans that manage to bungle everything. Human nature is dark, unlikable, and unchangeable (watch as Kaufman hordes his bags of useless cash in the final scenes), and sure, some of us can be noble, but the majority of us? Nah.

That’s a lot of beef to pump into a horror flick. But then, Romero’s never made typical horror flicks. He prefers a movie with meaning, all the while maintaining its sense of entertainment. He’s a master of the multilayered story, and with “Land,” he doesn’t disappoint. Better still, he refuses to give into expectations, offering up a “Dead” sequel that’s entirely unlike any “Dead” film before it. Far from playing it safe, Romero sees this sequel as an opportunity to challenge the viewer. The result? A film that may not be even close to being the scariest zombie movie in a long while, but one that is, instead, the smartest.

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