Wednesday, October 31, 2007

No More Room in Hell: Land of the Dead

For a long time the DEAD movies were a trilogy, DAY’s financial failure precluding further entries. But as decades passed, zombies came back in vogue, and George Romero actually managed to get Universal involved, on the condition that he’d deliver an R-rated film with the understanding that the unrated version would be on DVD. (This level of studio involvement was a first for the filmmaker, but there were several independent investors involved as well, and he continued to shoot in his native Pittsburgh, as well as Canada.) After a twenty-year absence, we returned to a world ravaged by the undead, and it had changed dramatically. LAND OF THE DEAD takes the series in a truly original direction, moving more into the realm of science fiction than horror, while still serving up plenty of shocks and disembowelments.

Years after the onset of the zombie apocalypse, civilization has unexpectedly started to rebuild itself. The island delta portion of Pittsburgh has become a fortress, guarded by electric fences, armed guards, and a massive armored ATV called Dead Reckoning. In the city, a select rich elite live in Fiddler’s Green, a tower that serves as combination apartment complex and shopping mall, while everyone else toils on the mean streets below. Raiding parties are sent into the zombie-infested outskirts to find supplies, and we open with one such expedition, led by Riley (Simon Baker), the inventor of Dead Reckoning and a man out to retire and head somewhere where he won’t be molested by other people, living or dead. Also along on the ride is Cholo (John Leguizamo), who in addition to gathering supplies does the dirty work for Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the man who established Fiddler’s Green and basically rules over it like his own private empire. Cholo buries the bodies (literally), picks up the booze, and has earned enough working for the man to buy a place at Fiddler’s Green. In theory. On their return to civilization, Cholo is told that the building has a very long waiting list, and he’s just not elite material. Forced to leave in a hurry by some pushy security guards, Cholo takes Dead Reckoning’s crew and hijacks the vehicle, pointing its rocket launchers at the tower and demanding that Kaufman hand over five million dollars by midnight. Kaufman recruits Riley, his slow, disfigured, but sharp-shooting buddy Charlie (Robert Joy), and a soldier-turned-hooker (or maybe the other way around) named Slack (Asia Argento) who ended up getting the three of them thrown in jail through circumstances too complicated to explain here, to go and take out the terrorist threat. In the meantime, one of the zombies encountered on the raid, a former gas station attendant named in the credits as “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark), has developed a spark of intelligence, and after seeing several of his fellow dead gunned down by stinking living scum, decides to lead his brothers back to the city, using his advanced intelligence to get them past the humans’ defenses. This, needless to say, is not good.

Between terrorist references and a society with an obvious caste structure, this is the most overtly political of Romero’s zombie films, something critics focused on heavily for good or ill. The allegory is similar to that in DAWN, that of a society that uses luxury to create the illusion of safety, but adds the element of the downtrodden underclass on which the empire is built. Fiddler’s Green brazenly advertises itself, but is very selective about who actually gets to live there, and the people who actually work to keep the city safe aren’t on the list. It’s not what one would call subtle, but it’s well constructed, and never too didactic- the elite of Fiddler’s Green aren’t really evil, just ignorant, nor are the lower classes entirely saintly. Kaufman, ultimately, is the real baddie, and Dennis Hopper is very enjoyable in the part- it’s not one of his more challenging roles, but he adds a nice comic touch to what could have been a bog-standard sneering baddie. Most of all, I think the allegorical aspects work because they’re well-blended into the world Romero creates, with attention lavished on life in the ghettos outside and the details of the city’s defenses, and Dead Reckoning itself, which I suppose is an allegory for something but is also just a badass armored death machine. It’s the emphasis on world-building that really makes the film stick out for me; the level of imagination and care on display in bringing Fiddler’s Green and surroundings to life is almost unheard of for the horror genre, and more readily brings to mind the dystopias of science fiction. The action takes place somewhere that’s tantalizingly real, and it’s an enveloping experience as a result. (Looking back over the series as a whole, there’s a common emphasis on verisimilitude that makes these films so consistently effective.)

At times the movie plays like an action picture- the “main” story, such as it is, resembles the premise for an 80s shoot-’em-up, even if it goes in a radically different direction. But there are quite a few good jolts in here as well, with understandably the best zombie makeup in the series to date and a bit of CGI enhancement (though the digital bloodspray is always just a tad too clean). Romero also indulges in a bit of humor and general quirkiness, not letting the tone get too grim. That the actors, particularly Baker, are all fairly charismatic helps. As mentioned before, the film was cut to an R for theaters, but having seen the film there and the unrated version on DVD I can honestly say there’s not a lot of difference (studio films can get away with a lot more than indie productions anyway.) It’s sort of a moot point now that the unrated version is out there, and I do recommend seeing that version just on principle, but I figured it was worth noting.

LAND OF THE DEAD was released in the summer of 2005 and quickly buried under much bigger pictures, but ultimately earned enough worldwide to justify a fifth entry, DIARY OF THE DEAD, which has started playing festivals and is set to get a proper release any day now. This next installment will apparently go back in the timeline a bit to take place parallel with the events of the early films, to look at the zombie uprising from a different perspective. It’s uncertain whether Romero will ever fully wrap up the series like he planned to, but so far I’ve enjoyed the ride. Looking back, these are films about civilization falling, and people trying to find safe harbor amidst the wreckage. It’s a series that’s continually pushed at and redefined the boundaries of the horror genre, and LAND OF THE DEAD continues in this tradition. It’s a true original, which manages to feel both very fresh and a little familiar at the same time. I can’t wait to see where Romero goes next.

Written and Directed by George A. Romero

Grade: A-

Happy Halloween, everyone, and stay scared.

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