|Land of the Dead
2005 - R - 93 Mins.
|Director: George A. Romero
|Producer: Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann and Peter Grunwald
|Written By: George A. Romero
|Starring: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento and Robert Joy
|Review by: Bill King
|Official Site: www.landofthedeadmovie.net/
The fanboy in me wants to like it unconditionally, but the objective critic in me knows that 'Land of the Dead' is both the weakest of George A. Romero's zombie movies and a disappointment in general. To think that 2004's 'Dawn of the Dead' remake is actually better (although I can breathe a sigh of relief that 'Land of the Dead' is still infinitely better than the dimwitted 'Shaun of the Dead'). The movie is certainly not short on ideas, and the gore does push the envelope (more on that in a moment). No, what really hurts Romero's return to the genre he created boils down to execution. This is simply not a movie that's put together very well.
The gang's all here.
Judging by what's onscreen, it's clear that Romero had a decent amount of creative control. The heads at Universal were smart enough not to interfere with a proven director who's responsible for a genre that's experiencing a rebirth. What he does so effectively here is stir the pot with subtext, metaphors and social commentary, but then he pours out the concoction before it's ready to be served. At a scant 93 minutes, 'Land of the Dead' is too eager to get to the bloodbath, leaving its worldview curiously restrained.
One of the last surviving outposts for the outnumbered humans is Fiddler's Green, a skyscraper that used to be called the PPG Building in Pittsburgh (the movie was actually filmed in -- gasp! -- Toronto). It is now a massive luxurious complex where the wealthy live without fear of the zombie epidemic, which has converted the rest of the world into a wasteland. The rest of the city exists in darkness, and on the streets below, the downtrodden poor have to get by without the same privileges of the elite. One group gets fluorescent lighting, five-star suites and fine dining. The other group gets strip clubs, barter tables, ragged clothes and Spam sandwiches (not that there's anything wrong with Spam).
The founder and manager of Fiddler's Green is Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). He views himself as the proud overseer of a thriving community that will carry on much of what the human race lost. In order to keep the city functioning, he sends mercenaries, led by Riley (Simon Baker), outside of the barricade to gather food, medicine and weapons. Their mode of transportation is Dead Reckoning, an armored truck carrying a large arsenal. Riley is the kind of leader who wants to get everyone back alive, but his partner Cholo (John Leguizamo) is only concerned with moving into Fiddler's Green. He does special favors for Mr. Kaufman, in hopes of jumping ahead on a very long waiting list.
After risking a lot to move out of the streets, Cholo doesn't receive the award he's been waiting for. In retaliation, he steals Dead Reckoning and threatens to blow up Fiddler's Green unless he receives $5 million by midnight. Kaufman has to send Riley and a small team out into the wilderness to track down the loose cannon Cholo before he kills a lot of innocent people. Amongst all this turmoil, an evolved zombie called Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) learns how to communicate with his fellow undead, and organizes a counteroffensive against the humans. That would involve crossing the river to get to the city, which results in one of the film's eeriest scenes, that of an army of zombies emerging from the river.
Right away we can see what Romero is saying about the chasm between the rich and the poor. The inhabitants of Fiddler's Green are coping with the realities around them just fine. They know there are problems in the world, but they've become desensitized to the needs of those less fortunate. When Romero was toying with this idea in the late '90s, he wanted to draw parallels to the AIDS epidemic, and how people seem to be ignoring the problem and turning the other cheek. He wanted his fourth zombie film to follow those guidelines. People would be stepping over zombies, or ignoring them, because they're in a position to do so. The concept of Fiddler's Green is that vision coming to fruition.
When the zombies lay siege to the city, there are casualties on both sides of the human scale. Despite their differences in living conditions, they have a common vulnerability. Zombies don't discriminate, and neither do incurable diseases and stock market crashes. Underestimate the enemy, and anyone can lose, regardless of one's social status.
This all sounds like fascinating stuff, but to see all this played out is a different story. Romero devotes more time and energy to the plot, which establishes Cholo's threat and Riley's mission to stop him. When it comes down to it, it's all about blackmail, something we've seen in movies too many times to be rehashed here. The themes I just described are certainly present, but don't across as that important. His three previous Living Dead movies all had something to say about their respective decades, and did so in a powerful way.
Because this is an R-rated movie, Romero couldn't go all the way with the violence for a theatrical release. Some violence is seen via shadow projections (like when a guy gets his head pulled off), while other scenes are simply cut short. Other times, zombies push a guy offscreen to eat him. Though the level of gore is high (intestines, ripped flesh, graphic headshots), the camera takes on a defensive posture so that it doesn't show too much. This will all be rectified on a confirmed unrated DVD.
'Land of the Dead' ranks just a notch above mediocre. I still liked it, despite its flaws, but it could have been so much bigger and better. A running time of over two hours would have allowed Romero to develop his themes further. All this movie needed, really, was extra time to sort things out.