Land of the Dead (2005)
by Steve Habrat
It only took twenty years and a lot of coaxing by fans to lure George Romero back to the genre that he created. Twenty long years for him to whip out his camera and take a snapshot of an era. With 2005’s Land of the Dead, he certainly takes an ugly picture. He also apparently does not like George W. Bush, which comes as no surprise really considering his creeping liberalism in his previous work. In comparison to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead is much more pulpy than it’s predecessors. Many were disgusted by the film, both by its violence and the fact that the film seems too silly for the Dead series. Romero claimed that Dawn of the Dead was his comic book film, but Land of the Dead seems to be the true embodiment of that claim. Armed with a budget this time around, Romero makes his grandest zombie oeuvre and boy does it look pretty. He also sprays the audience with his most ornate death sequences of his career. Even as the runt of the original Dead litter, I still have a soft spot for this film despite the negative views from many I have showed it to. I hoped for several years that Romero would return to the zombie genre and he kept threatening he would. I was delighted when I saw the gallant trailer for this movie. I wanted to burst into applause in the theater. The master was FINALLY back.
In the opening moments of Land, the geek in me was sold on the movie. It wasn’t even fifteen minutes in. The opening credits establish that this is a direct sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Shot in black in white, the sputtering footage set against radio broadcasts that come through on an old Zenith radio are macabre and will give any Dead fan the excited chills. Strung through the credits, Romero keeps showing us autopsy like footage of a zombie rotting away, establishing that it has probably been years since the events of Night. These credits stick with you just like the ones from Zach Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. They flaunt themselves as real news footage and boy is it an effective start to what is somewhat of a disappointing film. I have really tried to put my fanboy tendencies to the side for this review, mostly because I want to give an honest evaluation of the film. The original three Dead films are masterpieces in their own right, legendary in horror history. Land is well known, but I feel that many weren’t hip to what Romero brings to the table. You really have to know the man and understand that he isn’t just blood-and-guts spectacle. There is quite a bit more going on to this film, mainly the idea that the middle class was fading under the Bush administration and that capitalism was king. Romero came back to unleash his zombie hoards on the issue. All it took for the fan in me, however, was to see those credits.
Land of the Dead establishes a world where the last living humans are residing in a walled-off city. It bears a strange resemblance to Pittsburgh, Romero’s beloved birthplace. The city is controlled by Kaufman (Played by the late by always awesome Dennis Hopper), who runs a high-rise apartment complex for the wealthy called Fiddler’s Green. It features fine dinning, luxury apartments, high-end shopping, and impenetrable protection for the zombie army lurking just beyond the city. The rest of the survivors are reduced to the slummy streets, where gambling, prostitution, and organized crime reign. The wealthy inhabitants of Fiddler’s Green turn their backs on the decay, hoping it will all disappear. Kaufman sends out special teams of scavengers, whose jobs require that they bring back supplies for the city. They venture into the suburban areas where they murder and maim their way around. The scavengers are lead by soft-spoken Riley (Played by Simon Baker) and his two partners, conniving Cholo (Played by John Leguizamo) and disfigured Charlie (Played by Robert Joy). Cholo believes that Kaufman is going to let him move into one of the spiffy apartments he controls, but when he is set-up and humiliated by Kaufman, he steals the cities most valuable weapon, the tank-like Dead Reackoning, and threatens to bomb the city if he is not given what he wants. Kaufman enlists Riley and Charlie to find Cholo and take back the weapon. Riley and Charlie team up with a tough-as-nails prostitute Slack (Played by horror film icon Dario Argento’s daughter Asia Argento) and soon they discover that the zombie army outside is evolving in the deadliest possible way.
Land of the Dead begins with the vintage Universal Pictures logo, the one used before such films as the Bella Lugosi Dracula and Boris Karloff Frankenstein. Romero is blatantly telling us that this is an old-fashioned monster movie at its heart. I think it also explains Romero’s approach to the film, which does have a dated feel. The zombies are the most monster-like, abandoning the monsters-are-us mentality that was applied to Night, Dawn, and Day. It also goes with the idea that in the original monster pictures, the movies almost always made us sympathize with the monsters. Romero applies this idea every time the zombies lurch onto the screen. It’s a nifty device and it will no doubt appeal to the fans of classic horror. The acting in the film is also a bit extreme and silly. It should be expected, mostly because this was toted as the final installment to the original trilogy. In this regard, it works as a Romero zombie film.
The aspect of Land that I think upset many viewers were the guileless politics that were usually discreet in a Romero zombie film. This film takes direct aim and it never flinches. Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman is a direct allusion to George W. Bush and his administration. Kaufman is presented as a buffoon that is involved with things that are way over his head. He doesn’t “negotiate with terrorists” and he comes across as crass and careless. The lack of a “middle class” within the film is also prevalent, as the ones with money flourish while the ones with nothing live in squalor. He even makes hints at an administration looking for a fight, or slaughter for that matter. While Kaufman’s troops raid the suburbs, they go on a needless and pathetic killing spree in which hundreds of zombies are riddled with bullets. The zombies do not have the number to be dangerous and due to their decay, they have been slowed down even more than they already are. In one scene, a soldier unloads a machine gun clip on a zombie that has already been electrocuted. Eliminate the enemy that seeks to destroy us at all costs, says Romero. Once the zombies make their way into Fiddler’s Green, the tables are turned and the wealthy citizens are shredded with machetes, arms ripped in half, bellybutton rings torn out, and blown up to meaty bits. Overkill is king.
Despite your political stance, Land of the Dead can still be enjoyed even if you don’t agree with Romero’s left wing commentary. He can still make a meaner horror movie than the new class of directors who are now in the driver’s seat and he appears to be out to prove he’s still “got it”. But what is “it”? Bite is what “it” is and there are still some moments that will leave your spine tingling. The film does suffer from some CGI overreliance, which seems out of place with the previous three films. The death scenes are more elaborate and at times, the film can seem a bit too cheeky. When he actually goes for an executed gag versus computerized trick, the results are like night and day. There are still the trademark feeding scenes that will please die-hard fans like myself, which was something that was very important to me when I first plunked down the money to see it in theaters. Land ultimately feels incomplete, left hanging with a rushed tone. It’s not properly paced and this flaw is distracting. It seems like Romero ran out of money so he had to quickly wrap things us as fast as he could in order to produce a film on budget. He does build upon his evolved zombie premise nicely, a plotline I will not divulge here in case you haven’t seen the film. Furthermore, some of the characters here are a bore and are just dangling zombie chow. Land of the Dead is a good, scrappy horror film, but is just inches from greatness. It’s not an ultimate masterpiece like it was promised it would be, but it finishes things off messy enough, and when I say messy, I mean entrails strewn everywhere you look. At least Romero has the good sense to display them into something substantial rather than just for effect. Grade: B+