While it may not mesh with the post-modern "fast" zombie mentality, horror master George Romero delivers another stellar installment of his ongoing living dead series, according to Judge Bill Gibron.
Our review of Land Of The Dead (Blu-Ray), published September 29th, 2008, is also available.
In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word "trouble" loses much of its meaning.
Let's end the debate once and for all—a running zombie is not scarier than a walking zombie. Speed does not equal sinister, just as dawdling does not equal dull. Terror logic might dictate that in this post-millennial age where everything must be tuned to ADD levels of interest, our members of the cannibal corpse confab have to sprint like Jesse Owens, but physical hurriedness does not equal horror, just ability. True undead eerieness comes from the notion of hope, of being able to survive, of having the possible power to overwhelm and even destroy your flesh fiend. With that ray of optimism, that tiny spec of sanguinity, the most amazing macabre feeling arrives. Track star monsters make us instantly disconnect. Slow, ambling bodies get us believing in survival, and that's where something sinister starts to take hold.
Now imagine if those sluggish, rotting visages coming at you could actually think? That's right, what if the zombies that you thought were easily defeatable with tricks and tenacity were capable of limited reasoning? Would that make it scarier for you? Would you feel the coldness of their dead fingers running down the center of your spine? Or does it have the opposite effect? Do thinking members of the undead make you scoff at the screen, laughing in unintentional glee at every "corpse considering" moment. This is the dilemma you face when receiving George Romero's latest horror epic, Land of the Dead. If you think smarts make his masterful work within the genre that much more fascinating—and frightening—then you will love this film. It definitely feels like the culmination of a great many aspects of the director's dead oeuvre. If, on the other hand, you can't cotton to a skin-starved stooge suddenly turning savant, if the idea of brainiac baddies gives you creepshow conniption fits, then be prepared to throw a terror tantrum.
Facts of the Case
It has been a couple of decades since the zombie plague began. Humanity is more or less wiped out, with the countryside overrun by the living dead. In the middle of a major urban center sits Fiddler's Green. It is an oasis for the very rich, with wealthy families sharing luxuriant surroundings in relative safety. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider) created this sanctuary, and he employs a ragtag team of individuals as infrastructure. Riley (Simon Baker, L.A. Confidential) and Cholo (John Leguizamo, Summer of Sam) are "hunters" sent out into the world of the "stench" (the new nickname for zombies) and forced to forage for supplies. To help them on their missions, they employ a well-armed vehicle called Dead Reckoning, a massive rover with huge gun turrets and rooftop missile launchers. As they head out into the field on their search-and-destroy expeditions, they load up with necessities, while fighting off hordes of the local undead residents.
In addition to the hunters and the military, a throng of displaced people lives in the area surrounding Fiddler's Green. Some work for the complex. Others just try to find ways to survive the day. When Cholo is rejected for acceptance into the exclusive—and some would say racist—housing project, he decides to take matters into his own hands—and it couldn't have come at a worse time. A big black zombie named Big Daddy, once a garage mechanic, has started to rally his undead troops. His goal—to find the source of their destruction…and all roads lead to Fiddler's Green. It's up to Riley to save the day, or the world will truly be one great big Land of the Dead.
George Romero has made only one instant masterpiece: Dawn of the Dead…at least, from an initial critical and fan response. That 1978 opus, a nasty little gemstome of gore, rewrote the rule book about zombies and zombie movies. True, it was a tome Romero himself had crafted with his original masterwork, Night of the Living Dead, so he had every right to refashion it. And with its wicked sense of social commentary and unnerving tone of dire darkness, it was an instant hit and a quickly certified standard for all future films.
Night was not so lucky when it was first released. Reviled by critics and ignored by audiences, it took a considered cult of independent fright film buffs to bring the movie to the attention of the right people. It was a genre benchmark in hindsight only. For some, the jury is still out on Day of the Dead. It was widely dismissed when it was released, considered talky and over the top. Only in the last few years has opinion turned in favor of the film. Many now see beneath the surface of Romero's infinitesimal budget to get at the heftier issues at the center of his sick saga.
It looks like Land of the Dead will face the very same flummoxing fate. After a recent resurgence in zombie films that has seen everything from the horrid House of the Dead to the sublime Shaun of the Dead (the Dawn remake, while fine, is just too action-packed to be pure movie macabre), the news that George was putting on the filmic feedbag and, better yet, was being given a budget to realize his biggest, broadest dreams, had fans anxious with visions of a violent epic in their minds. After all, it was Romero who gave us the classic zombie girl with garden implement from Night, the glorious gut munching of Dawn, and Dr. Frankenstein's repellent experiments in Day.
Surely, he had something sensational up his sleeve. Of course he would deliver us from all the Resident Evil entropy and low-budget balderdash. Instead, Romero threw everyone a curve. Land of the Dead was not the balls-to-the-wall workout that devotees demanded, nor was it the over-intellectualized social statement that critics cream over. What he did do was reject the past, revamp reality, and reconsider the entire "humans-as-heroes" concept of his previous works. He finally took the step he was hinting at in the trilogy. He made the living far more indefensible than the monsters after their flesh.
Such a switch up may seem antithetical to the genre, but it is par for the course for George. To him, the zombie realm is real, a place with a logic and authenticity that few horror films even attempt to mimic. There is no juvenilia in his films, no outright jokes at the expense of the suspense. In Romero's cinematic shockscape, the occasional irony comes directly from outrageous elements playing out in all-too-real time. But making the undead the heroes, the far more sympathetic and championable charges in his creature-feature canon? That seems almost uncalled for. In reality, it acts like a revelation. Land of the Dead is a great film, not so much because of the things we expect to see—bravura direction, disgusting makeup effects—but because of this new focus on fiendishness. Had he stayed with it completely, Romero would have delivered a Lord of the Rings-style magnum opus. As it stands, this is still one of his most satisfying and slightly askew works in his craven canon.
At its core, Land of the Dead is a story about struggle, about a battle between two worlds. Call it the haves and the have-nots, call it the rich vs. the poor, or the majority vs. the minority, but in reality, the sides were set long ago. All commentary aside, this is Romero pitting the last of humanity against the growing zombie horde in a new and exciting way. It certainly has elements of analogy and, like all of the director's zombie films, reflects the current state of society with almost laser-like acumen. But Land marks the first time where Romero is really interested in the physical confrontation between humans and horror. Night was about survival, Dawn was about sanctuary, and Day about surrender.
With Land, a new parameter is in place—security. It's about the lack thereof, and the false sense of same behind barbed wire and well-guarded fences. It touches on the mismanagement of safety and the corruption in defense. From the members of the Dead Reckoning reconnaissance team, who occasionally scavenge a little something on the side to bolster the black market, to the corporate crook-making money off the backs of his frightened fellow man (even though cash can't carry much weight with a corpse), we see how protection corrupts, and how those who provide it distort it.
Romero's work is visionary here, similar in scope and effectiveness to his most memorable cinematic set piece—the opening shot of a deserted Florida town swarming with zombies from Day of the Dead. Here, we see the outer regions of the world, places no longer inhabited by humans. In this rotting realm, the dead live out pantomime existences of remembered actions and learned behaviors. Like Bub before them, they are gaining understanding and basic intelligence. And since they are without a constant source of instinctual nourishment, they appear to be focusing in on obtainable objectives.
In these initial shots, bolstered by brilliant effects work by KNB and longtime Romero pal Gregory Nicotero (who played Pvt. Johnson in Day) there is a loony lyricism, a kind of wicked wistfulness as Romero gets us contemplating a planet mostly populated by corpses. We see a bandstand populated by zombies, instruments in hand, a couple casually walking down the street, and a garage mechanic named Big Daddy who answers the call of his bell with a kind of involuntary motor memory.
It is this character who Romero asks us to follow, and it is this character who functions as another catalyst for how well you enjoy the film. A hulking horror of a black man, face full of determination and unbridled rage, Eugene Clark (who some might know as Sid Gomez from the Tech War series) does a clever thing in creating this unofficial zombie leader. He lets us inside the flesh fiends' minds, making us understand the drive to devour and the need to kill. He is already an established figure amongst his fellow corpses (his wounded yell instantly gets their attention), and he argues for an increasing sense of self, of undead recognition of place and purpose.
His determined pursuit of the Dead Reckoning vehicle, with its death-dealing implications to his "people," is like a cruelly comic comment on advocacy. Someone has to rise up and defend the defenseless. Sure, zombies can kill with a bite, but when faced with a megaweapon on wheels that can deliver smart bombs and automatic machine gun fire at will, his minions are technologically outnumbered. So Big Daddy takes his cause up with the central authority—the flawed pseudo-shadow government lording over the shanty/sanctuary called Fiddler's Green.
As for the humans, we get lots of nice, unassuming acting. Simon Baker is, at first, kind of flat as our hero Riley. He is not given much to do except be the moral compass attempting to keep John Leguizamo's Cholo in check. After he loses this promised providence, though, Riley suddenly seems to find the missing gravitas and instantly turns into someone we cheer for. His sidekick, a badly-burned moron with his heart in the right place (who just so happens to be a dead eye shot with a rifle), may be annoying to some folks (he is definitely Lenny to Baker's George), but Robert Joy turns Charlie into a loveable loser, a well-meaning man who simply wants to be needed by someone.
Rounding out the good guys is Asia Argento in the rather underwritten role of Slack, a prostitute-turned-mercenary saved by Baker. She does a really passable English accent this time around (only hints of her homeland occasionally slip through), and she does command attention when she's on screen. Even Dennis Hopper has turned down his dementia dynamic to make his Fiddler's Green demigod Kaufman an exercise in bland bureaucratic evil. He sells every line with a cowardly cravenness that is interesting to watch.
But it's the zombies that win us over, distinct personalities made even more meaningful by the way Romero handles them. Like a photographer with a supermodel, this director makes sure we witness their amazing individuality and physical foulness. Though they don't have specific names (except for Big Daddy) there are standouts like "Cheekless Girl," "Cleaver Wielder," and "The Almost Headless Priest" (who offers up one the of film's most effective shock scenes).
The work by KNB is exceptional, mixing practical effects with some CGI (and lots and lots of blood) to give us the carnage we crave. Dare it be said that the look of the undead world and its grotesque violence matches the previously perfect autopsy-like authenticity of Tom Savini's stellar job on Day. This is a veritable gore feast, a sumptuous bloodletting banquet of inventive deaths and even more nauseating throwaways. There is some stuff here that even made this old gorehound wince. Rather that ruin it, let's just say that the human body—and all its various internal and external organs—gets the right randy rip treatment at the hands of these horrors.
As to its merits as message, Romero is a tad obvious this time. Lines like "we don't negotiate with terrorists" and "they don't allow 'our kind' in there" are obvious attempts at tying the current administration to this unsettled shitscape of corpses and vice. Certainly the sentiment that seems to be at the front and center of the conservative agenda—free enterprise and survival of the richest—is at play here, but the tying to larger themes is tenuous at best. Hopper may be channeling Rumsfeld or a far more dapper and daring George W., but the truth is that the particulars of this missive are much better than the overriding agendas.
This is an easily believable social structure that Romero has set up, a recognizable realm of the elite relying on the underclasses to "handle" their dirty work. Watching these clueless bastards buckle at the first signs of trouble is one of Land of the Dead's most delightful realities. Making Fiddler's Green so misguided, making the zombies' quest so amorally noble, is a stroke of sly brilliance on Romero's part. Turning the tables leaves future filmmakers in the dirt. Unless they can whip up beings as believable and memorable as these monsters, they will again play second fiddle to the main man of the monster movie.
This is an adult film with an adolescent outer shell, a geek show filled with eventual, not immediate, gratification. This is a horror film that demands reflection, an exercise in excess that screams for study. Romero has always made movies that reveal their secrets slowly, not in some browbeating manner (it may take a few eons to figure out that fiasco Bruiser, however). Land of the Dead is an intelligent, inspired work of horror that shows just how gutless and graceless the new wave of tween-friendly PG-13 fright fodder really is.
Working on a big canvas for the first time since Dawn, Romero delivers the kind of zombie film aficionados crave—big, bold, and full of bite(s). While it may not, today, match the level of his previous living dead canon, here's guaranteeing that a decade from now, an entire legion of Land loyalists will be calling for this movie's masterpiece status. It may not be a career culmination, but it certainly gives the undead genre a brand-new benchmark. We'd expect nothing less from the man who started it all.
With their DVD presentation of Land of the Dead, Universal delivers a devastating technical package that is a little lame in the bonus features department. One gets the distinct impression that the notorious tendency to double-dip old George's oeuvre (and how many version of Dawn of the Dead do you have???) will rear its wallet-busting head again sometime soon. This initial presentation, while technically flawless, leaves a lot to be desired contextually.
>From the sound and vision standpoint, however, this is a great transfer. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is magnificently cinematic. This is a very dark movie, with most of the scenes taking place indoors, or at night. Usually, one expects massive digital defects—pixelization, grain, and compression—to rear their ugly head in a basic black backdrop, but the movie is clean and pristine. The blood is a very realistic red and the zombie rot a revolting mass of mottled coloration. Details are dense and contrasts are kept tight.
Equally impressive is the sonic scenario. Universal offers up a speaker specific Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 mix (in regular or DTS varieties) that provides a wonderfully eerie atmosphere of evil. Low zombie moans can be heard in the back channels, while fireworks explode in several directions as the decibels drive trough the system. Several scenes have their scope amplified in amazing fashion thanks to this aural offering. It truly helps the movie transcend its two-dimensional movie dynamic.
As for the extras, many of them are nothing more than advanced EPK material. "Undead Again: The Making of Land of the Dead" is a basic behind-the-scenes featurette that has a lot of gladhanding and backslapping. We do learn about how rigorous the shoot was, and get insight into some of the set pieces, but mostly this is a chance for the cast and crew to boast about working with "the master." "A Day in the Life of the Living Dead" is a bit better, since it allows Leguizamo to riff on subjects, freestyle, as he wanders around the set.
"The Remaining Bits" are minor trims that really add nothing of substance to the storyline (this Unrated Director's Cut is already four minutes longer than the film's theatrical running time) while "Scenes of Carnage" and "Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call" are musical montages of gore and CGI strangeness, respectively. Along with a look at how the green-screen material was handled, and a nice selection of storyboard/scene comparisons, the studio-sponsored extras are decent, but not devastating.
Some of the best bonus features come from sources outside the production. Greg Nicotero hosts a look at how the effects were accomplished, while the creative team behind Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, give us a genial, fan-style look at how they ended up making a cameo in the movie. Both of these featurettes are fantastic, since they give us insight into the absolute obsession people have with Romero and his movies—even those inside the industry.
But the best added content comes in the form of a full-length audio commentary featuring Romero, producer Peter Grunwald, and editor Michael Doherty. It's a sparse, more or less scene-specific affair (though there is conversation throughout), and provides a lot of detail, mostly about the material added to the director's cut. Romero is very proud of this film, and takes issue with questions of zombie "learning" and the lack of romance between Asia Argento and Simon Baker.
He has nothing but praise for the Canadian location, and hints that he would like to continue making dead films. Grunwald offers up more production-oriented anecdotes, while Doherty loves to dissect select sequences for their effectiveness. Overall, it's not a veritable talk-a-thon, but it does provide some crucial insight into how this movie got made, and what those who made it think of it.
History dictates that about 10 years from now, Land of the Dead will be seen as some manner of milestone. If it ends up being Romero's genre swan song (and from the sound of it, this is probably not the case), then he will have gone out as he came in, with imagination, creativity, and the creation of a horror high-water mark. If he goes on to make more zombie films, he has laid the perfect foundation for exploring a new, unnerving social order. We now have monsters that match their equally disquieting human counterparts, and a dynamic which shifts between contradictory sympathies, unclear public statements, and a real knack for finding the evil in even the most bland, friendly environment. Those of you who want your zombies running around like it's the 100-yard dash, who prefer terror of the action-packed variety, should stick with the retreads that capitalize on Romero's original films. But if you want to know what suspense and dread are really like, give Land of the Dead a try. George Romero has done it again, and the effect is eerie, exhilarating, and entertaining.
Not guilty! George Romero and his film are free to go. Universal is held over for a hearing on when and where we can expect the super-duper multi-disc special edition of this title.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-length Audio Commentary with Director George Romero, Producer Peter Grunwald, and Editor Michael Doherty
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