Land of the Dead
Director : s George A. Romero
Screenplay : George A. Romero
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Simon Baker (Riley), John Leguizamo (Cholo), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), Eugene Clark (Big Daddy), Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy), Tony Nappo (Foxy), Jennifer Baxter (Number 9), Boyd Banks (Butcher)
George A. Romero's Land of the Dead is the fourth installment in a series of zombie films that started with 1968's landmark Night of the Living Dead, which encapsulated so perfectly the country's Vietnam-era fear that we were eating ourselves alive. Each film in the series since has been similarly stamped with the tenor of the times in which it was made -- the setting of 1978's Dawn of the Dead inside a shopping mall provided a cunning parody of '70s consumerism, and 1985's dark, nihilistic Day of the Dead played as a nightmarish vision of the Reagan era's obsession with military build-up.
Land of the Dead continues some of these same ideological concerns, but is unmistakably a product of the post-9/11 years and our escalating fears of terrorism. It is not without note that the one character in power in declares in a Bush-like mantra "We don't deal with terrorists," while another character threatens to unleash his own version of a jihad. The swarming zombies slowly taking over the world might as well stand in for all those faceless foreign enemies we are constantly being told to fear because they're right outside our gates, and it shouldn't come as much surprise that the film's true villain is a businessman who exploits the situation to his own gain, regardless of how many lives it costs. The zombies in this film are becoming more threatening because they're becoming smarter. They have begun to develop rudimentary communication and begin to figure out how to use blunt weapons, then tools, and finally firearms. Frighteningly enough, they're becoming, in a sense, more like us.
Like both Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead centers strongly on the human desire to rebuild what was lost, which is central to Romero's ideological concerns. After all, the overarching message of the entire series is how the same crushing power dynamics are replicated every time one society takes over another.
In Land of the Dead, this reaches its apotheosis in Fiddler's Green, a towering skyscraper into which all desirable people (read: primarily white but, most importantly, wealthy) have fled. It is lorded over by a cutthroat entrepreneur named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who realizes there is money to be made in the chaos and doesn't pause in taking advantage of it. Kaufman and his other cronies in business suits wield military and police power to keep Fiddler's Green protected from the zombie hoards, which are kept at bay by rivers on two sides and electrical fences on the other. The world under Kaufman's thumb is strictly segregated, with the wealthy living the good life inside Fiddler's Green while everyone else is confined to the dilapidated slums outside.
As with the other films in the series, Romero sides with representatives of the downtrodden -- those who are commanded, rather than command. The main character is Riley (Simon Baker), a decent man who has no choice but to work for Kaufman along with several others looting deserted small towns for supplies. This is accomplished with the help of an enormous armored and heavily armed truck called "Dead Reckoning" (which was the film's original title).
Riley's second-in-command is Cholo (John Leguizamo), an ambitious upstart who wants to accumulate enough wealth for himself that he can buy his way into Fiddler's Green and make a life for himself that we sense he has always been denied. Riley's true second, though, is Charlie (Robert Joy), who may have a low IQ, but is an excellent shot and is eternally devoted to Riley because Riley once saved his life.
Riley eventually finds another partner in Slack (Asia Argento), a feisty hooker who he saves from a particularly sadistic form of sideshow entertainment used by Kaufman to placate the slum dwellers lest they turn their aggression toward him. Riley's desire is to simply get away from everyone and everything -- to head up north where there are not only no zombies, but no people, period. Yet, he is convinced by Kaufman to track down Cholo after he hijacks Dead Reckoning and threatens to use its missiles against Fiddler's Green unless he is paid money he thinks he is owed.
Much of the plot of Land of the Dead was originally intended to be in Day of the Dead, but had to be dropped for budgetary reasons. Land of the Dead is clearly the highest-budgeted and most polished film in the series, as it is the first to have the backing of a major Hollywood studio (Universal, who also produced the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead) and also therefore the first to carry an R rating. Longtime gore aficionados shouldn't be too perturbed about the R rating and any implication that might have for reduced blood and guts. While not as lingeringly visceral as its predecessors, Land of the Dead has more than its share of goriness courtesy of make-up effects wizard Greg Nicotero, who trained under Romero's previous FX master Tom Savini (who makes a cameo as a zombie). When the zombies, led by a gas-station ghoul (Eugene Clark) who shows genuine distress when his fellow zombies are slaughtered, finally burst into Fiddler's Green and turn the world of the bluebloods upside down, it gives all new meaning to "eat the rich."
Romero has been largely out of the filmmaking game for the past decade, and Land of the Dead marks a strong return for the horror auteur. It is tempting to read his return to the zombie genre as a pathetic attempt to jump on the bandwagon and reclaim his former glory amidst all the recent films that are indebted to his original work (including Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later). Yet, Land of the Dead is more than good enough to stand on its own, and its only real weakness is that Romero moves through the narrative too fast, leaving little time for character development or reflection. Nevertheless, he maintains the cunning sense of black comedy that made Dawn so memorable (the film even starts with a sick joke by opening on a shot of a large restaurant sign reading "EATS"), and he also keeps a healthy fire lit under his leftist rage, but without letting the sociopolitical context run roughshod over the film's central aim of primal terror. In that sense, Land of the Dead is effectively frightening and at times disarming, all while adding to the series' continually developing allegory of the state of the union. In more ways than one it drives home the frightening suggestion that there is little difference between the human and the ghouls.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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