How do you document a historical event? How do you encapsulate the years of waiting, the expectations, the highs, the lows and everything in between? Where does one even begin?
Sure, it all sounds overly dramatic. But really I am nothing more than a fan of cinema, especially horror, who enjoys writing on the subject. Earlier this summer, sci-fi fans the world over came out in droves to see the completion of their modern epic when REVENGE OF THE SITH opened. Many of us, especially those who were disappointed by the prequels as a whole, looked on in wonder at their dedication. Some of us, myself included, had a few laughs at their expense. Now it is the rest of the world's turn to laugh at us. Because truly the George A. Romero zombie films are the horror fans' STAR WARS. Is there any other series in the genre that has progressed with such complexity, that has been analyzed so rigorously, that has had every rumor met with equal parts anticipation and apprehension? Sure, there are the slasher fans, and even before Romero popped up, people thrilled to the Hammer and Universal series. But more than any other, the DEAD films have given us a complex, realistic, horrifying and fascinating world of our very own. Just as STAR WARS inspired everyone to make their own modern space operas to placate the fanboys, the DEAD films inspired their own sub-genre, many of whose films have become in cult classics in their own right. But there is only one real saga.
Let me start out by using the full title, as it appears in all the posters, advertisements and on the screen - GEORGE A. ROMERO'S LAND OF THE DEAD. This is not waxing the ego. This is a message to everyone who was merely biding their time with the other zombie flicks. The master is back and school is in session once again.
The world is a wasteland and the humans have long since lost out to the ever increasing numbers of zombies. There are a few pockets of the living who still try to carve out a living for themselves. One such outpost is a virtual paradise called Fiddler's Green. It's an enclosed complex which offers fine dining, entertainment, a bank and every other luxury you can imagine. That is, if you are one of the desirables. The Green, which looks uncannily like the similarly enclosed Utopia of LOGAN'S RUN, caters to the rich, the powerful and from what I could see, the decidedly white. If you don't fit all three of these categories, you are merely an outsider looking in. The entire place is run by the Machiavellian Kaufman (the iconic Dennis Hopper), a sinister presence who embodies the corruption of business and politics and whom even Romero has called "a little Donnie Rumsfeld." He gives the powerful everything they want and keeps the riff-raff in the gutter where they belong. In his own twisted way, he believes he is doing a service for the world, but even more than the zombies, he is the ultimate evil here. While the zombies exist on instinct, Kaufman thrives on greed, lust and power.
Just like every fine city has its slums, so does the Green. In the dank, depressing outdoors are everyone from the dregs of society to those who just might not fit in with the New World Order. It's a maze of shacks and street vendors. The only one making any money are the crime lords (including Charles Band mainstay Phil Fondacaro). And even they are run by Kaufman. Vice infests the slums to make people forget about the undead lurking outside the city gates and undoubtedly to keep them from getting any fancy ideas about revolution. The scenario recalls my favorite Poe story, "The Masque of the Red Death." As the elite insulate themselves from the plague outside and indulge in their own decadence, the poor beg in vain and the foot of the palace. The situation has been used in other films, but rarely has been used so well.
Guarding the fences are a fully armed military force. The army also sends people out at night to sweep through the outskirts and take out any zombies lurking around. During these runs, they grab supplies and take out the excess dead before they grow too high in numbers and choke the entrances to the city. They travel in the Dead Reckoning, an armored vehicle that looks like a cross between a garbage truck and the nastiest Bradley you've ever seen. So the old title of the film DEAD RECKONING would still be horrible, but at least it has a context within the storyline.
Riley (Simon Baker - THE GUARDIAN, RING TWO) is the soldier who designed the Dead Reckoning, not that its giving him any comfort. Sick of the corruption around him, he is leaving the army and finding a new home somewhere up north with his battle-scarred and simple-minded friend, Charlie (character actor Robert Joy, also cast in the upcoming HILLS HAVE EYES remake). There is no one up there, and that's just the way he likes it - a world free of the human frailty that always knocks us down when we should rise up.
Cholo (John Leguizamo) is a soldier who is also looking to make a break. He has been doing favors for Kaufman that likely wouldn't improve his image. Disposing of his garbage and grabbing little gifts along the way where he can, he is openly kissing up to the Man. His hopes are that all his hard work will be repaid by a permanent place within the walls of Fiddler's Green. Riley tries to break it to him that he is the wrong type of person for the Green - he's too dirty, too streetwise and he's the wrong color. Cholo dismisses this until he is told the same by Kaufman himself and then dismissed as if he were never there, fodder to be exterminated by Kaufman's own Republican Guard. To this end, Cholo devises a plan to hold Fiddler's Green for ransom. Kaufman prevents Riley from leaving the city, telling him he will have to stop Cholo first.
Meanwhile, the zombies are getting closer to the gates. What's more is that enough time has passed where they are starting to learn and evolve. In the beginning of the film, they are already fumbling with tools. An undead gas station attendant whose work clothes read "Big Daddy" eventually seems to be leading the zombies, showing an organization that had not displayed before. When he snatches a machine gun from one of the soldiers, it is only a matter of time before he figures out what happens when you pull the trigger. The idea of the undead evolving is nothing new. It can be seen in the conclusion of DAWN OF THE DEAD and as a major plot point in DAY OF THE DEAD. Romero takes it one step further this time. Not only does Eugene Clark (ROBOCOP: PRIME DIRECTIVES) give what could be the first solid performance as a speechless zombie, dare I say it that the undead are getting more and more sympathetic.
And this is the greatest thing about LAND OF THE DEAD. In my excursion to the theatre, perhaps the greatest payoff was not even the film itself but much of the audience reaction. People older than I and younger and I filled the theatre. DEAD virgins and obsessive fans. But what did I hear more than anything? People were debating the film and talking about how amazing the characters were. What a rare and wonderful beauty, that people from all walks of life and different generations leave a horror film praising the characters!
And the praise is deserved. This is perhaps the tightest script Romero has worked with (after a twenty year wait, it damn well better be) and the actors that inhabit the characters are fantastic. As Riley, Simon Baker is not a square-jawed idealistic hero. He is just as flawed as the rest of the group. His need to isolate himself from the last remaining vestiges of civilization seem rooted as much in his own fear and disillusionment as anything else. Robert Joy has been in a ton of films, the type of actor you recognize as soon as he enters the screen even if his name often escapes you. Here, I honestly didn't recognize him and only part of that is because of the skilled makeup job. Charlie is simple, but he's noble. Riley does not support Charlie, they support each other.
I mentioned in my ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 review that John Leguizamo can be either brilliant or annoying, depending on how he's handled. Happily, his performance here may be the best, most complex and unexpectedly touching of his career so far. Much like another classic horror icon, the Phantom of the Opera, Cholo's actions may be misguided, but he has every right to feel used. It's a wonderful, multi-layered performance, the type that never seems to garner awards but most definitely should.
And no, I haven't forgotten that Asia Argento is in this film. She's a supporting character here, so don't expect her to steal the show like say Milla Jovovich in the RESIDENT EVIL movies. Also, Argento (XXX, THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, SCARLET DIVA is a strong enough actress that she too betrays a vulnerability that assures she is not just another tough as nails amazon warrior. Her character, Slack, is a prostitute whom Riley saves early in the film. She too has been betrayed by the system, a once loyal patriot, she intended to fight as a soldier herself. But Kaufman's administration made it clear to her that she would be much more valuable as a whore. Thus, she becomes a victim of the new order's frustrating conservatism and chauvinism.
And politics are front and center in LAND OF THE DEAD. Like I've said too many times to count, horror films can get away with tackling themes too controversial for the average filmmaker. The genre already exists on the very fringes of acceptance and the people who populate it, for better or worse, are not taken seriously enough to be a threat. Oh, but we are. We most definitely are.
Yes, the horror always made the DEAD films great, but what makes them so fascinating is how they reflect whatever is going on in America at the moment. There has always been a satirical edge to the DEAD films. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD seemed to parallel the intense and chaotic powder keg that was the mid-60s. DAWN OF THE DEAD was an indictment of the abundant logic-defying obsession with American consumerism. DAY OF THE DEAD was a reaction to the hawks in office, who didn't have the patience or intelligence for thinking things out. But never has the satirical and political message been blatant as it is in LAND OF THE DEAD.
The isolated community in LAND is a reflection of post-9/11 America. Where in the wake of an unparalleled tragedy, people have sealed themselves off from the rest of society. And the rich, having their livelihoods threatened, wallow in a transparently corrupt society, all in order to forget the problem and serve their own selfish needs. Any suspicious people are refused entry into paradise and are treated with equal parts fear and disgust. The pigs in charge fill their war chests with bounty from the outside, sending the rabble to do the dirty work. They train the outsiders and use them for all their worth. But when the outsiders demand payback, in comes the old company line, "We don't negotiate with terrorists." And although Kaufman promises a new world, it's a deadening mantra of "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." The community even still clings to the idea of money, even though any official economic system must have surely disintegrated by now. I mean, who is there to ring the opening bell on Wall Street anyway? But then we always did hold our quaint status symbols as our very identity.
The undead seem to take on the form of an angry mob more than a zombie horde this time out. They feed on humans still, but as they grow more and more organized, they stop wanting to simply feed on the humans. They want to remove them from the landscape like a cancerous growth. Although it helped advance the social context of the film, it's said that it was pure chance that an African American was the lead in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I wonder if it is merely chance this time out that the undead are led by an African-American. Not just any, but one who wears the blue collar clothes of the long-forgotten working man.
But what about the real meat of the film, which is to say the horror? Trust me, it's a winner. How much zombie goodness to Romero pack into this film? Just consider that at 93 minutes, it's the shortest of the DEAD films and yet few people seem to mind. You get your money's worth here and the zombie set-pieces are better than any of the well-meaning imitators have accomplished in recent years. One sequence, Romero's apparent opinion on fashionable body modification, is unforgettable. When it happens, you know you've seen a classic moment in the genre unfold before your eyes.
Romero is still a master of horror. He creates a film where the fans should be able to predict every plot point. Instead, LAND OF THE DEAD winds up being completely unpredictable. He respects the fans, but changes the game so much that anything can come out of anywhere and at any time. And sometimes they don't come out at all. Romero not only uses the time-honored art of mis-direction, he sometimes will give us sequences with nothing but mis-direction. Hence, we can't be sure of what, if anything is around each corner.
Tom Savini does not handle the makeup duties this time out. Instead, the job is handled by Greg Nicotero, formerly of KNB. Purists should not be worried, as Nicotero shows respect to the creatures Savini has molded for the last two films, and refines them to new levels of greatness. These are some impressive and expressionistic monstrosities.
This could well be the most anticipated horror film of my adult life. Long before it was released, people were working themselves into a frenzy, some saying it would be the best horror film of the last decade. That may be pushing it a bit, and surely if you set your expectations high enough, anything less than the genre's own CASABLANCA would come as a bit of a letdown. For myself, I was somewhere in between. I tried very hard to not get overly excited. But as the day approached, I just couldn't help it. I saw the film with my co-workers and they witnessed me in all my geeky glory. As showtime grew closer my grin grew wider and I was unable to sit still.
Was it worth the wait? I think so, although each will have to judge it based on their own expectations. I don't know whether the film is a life-changing event, but after a twenty year wait, I'm satisfied. I don't have any complaints, and I've been really racking my brain over it. This review is based only on my first viewing, and as we should all know by now, Romero's are films you watch over and over again, picking out different nuances with each sitting. LAND OF THE DEAD forges itself a nice little place in Romero's lexicon. It's his best film since DAWN OF THE DEAD. No, I'm not kidding. I can't believe it. He pulled it off. The brilliant madman actually pulled it off.
As I exited the theatre, I felt completely elated and satisfied. I turned to my friend saying, "And that's how it's done." And maybe even after all of this waxing poetic, that's all that needs to be said. After a long absence, the master teacher has returned. Romero has taught us to be scared once again, both of the fantasy world in the DEAD films and the real world they mirror all too closely.