Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Review: Land of the Dead (2005)

The past few years have been pretty kind to fans of flesh-eating zombies, with a steady stream of ghouls stumbling across cineplex screen in movies like Resident Evil, 28 Days Later..., a "re-envisioned" Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead.

This streak of undead success has even had a happy side benefit: they allowed writer/director George A. Romero to return to the genre he created nearly 40 years ago with Night of the Living Dead, to revisit his apocalyptic vision--this time with a modest budget (reportedly $15 million, more than the budgets for his previous three zombie epics combined) and actors you've actually heard of.

Years have passed since the dead began to rise and feast on the living. Humanity now exists in scattered outposts such as Fiddler's Green, a luxury skyscraper ruled by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) and occupied by the wealthy. The poor huddle in the streets surrounding Fiddler's Green, while zombies mill about outside the guarded, electrified perimeter. (Land of the Dead is set in Pittsburgh, but was shot in Toronto.) Kaufman sends out a team of scavengers headed up by Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo), who venture out into nearby towns in an armored assault vehicle called Dead Reckoning (the original title of this movie), which looks like the Mammoth Car from Speed Racer with a whole lot more firepower.

While out on a run, Riley notices that some of the undead--referred to by the living as "walkers" or, more desparigingly, "stenches"--are acting kind of peculiar, especially Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who doesn't merely wander around, but seems be trying to communicate with his fellow flesh-eaters and manages to grab a gun from one of the Dead Reckoning crew. (Don't you just know he's going to use it later?)

Things get complicated, though, when Cholo wants to join the residents of Fiddler's Green. Kaufman coldly rejects this notion, claiming that there's a "long waiting list." (Who is on this list, since damn near everybody is dead or poor or dead poor?) Cholo doesn't take this very well: He drives off with Dead Reckoning and threatens to blow up Fiddler's Green if he doesn't get five million dollars by midnight. Kaufman, in turn, hires Riley to retake Dead Reckoning--mostly because he wants to use it as a getaway vehicle should anything go wrong. (And it will.) So Riley goes out to get Dead Reckoning--with the idea of driving it to Canada himself--while the undead, lead by Big Daddy, slowly converge on Fiddler's Green, munching on more than a few soldiers and unlucky souls along the way.

Riley is a pretty dull hero; he's basically a nice guy in a not-so-nice situation. But the hero is usually less interesting than the supporting characters surrounding him or her--Dorothy was pretty bland compared to the Tin Man, Scarecrow or Cowardly Lion; and Luke Skywalker wasn't nearly as much fun to hang out with as Han Solo or Chewbacca. Fortunately, Romero surrounds Riley with colorful characters like Charlie (Robert Joy) a burn victim who's a deadshot with a rifle; Slack (Asia Argento), a tough, take-no-shit ex-hooker with the obligitory heart of gold; and Pillsbury (Pedro Miguel Arce), an enormous SWAT guy who gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Romero pacing is tighter than usual (at 90 minutes, Land of the Dead is the shortest of his undead movies to date), but as in the past, he uses the situation to comment on society and its ills--sometimes to great effect, sometimes less so.

For instance, Romero touches on consumerism (both literal and figuritive), but the economic state put forth in Land of the Dead are pretty murky. How is money still worth anything after the apocalypse? Where exactly are you going to spend it even if you still have any? And didn't Romero already touch on this all the way back in the original Dawn of the Dead, when two characters loot a shopping mall bank and hold bundles of cash up to a security camera? Or is he implying that humanity will cling to consumerism even after the world ends, because money and possessions are all we humans care about? It's not clear what point Romero is trying to make, if any. The intellectual grow of the zombies is hardly fresh, either--remember Bub, the undead soldier from Romero's previous ghoul grind, Day of the Dead? He was more charming than Big Daddy, too.

The metaphorical use of Fiddler's Green, though, is more than flexible enough to accommodate multiple levels of interpretation. Haves vs. Have-nots. Conservatives vs. liberals. Even America vs. the rest of the world. (Romero nods overtly in this direction when Cholo threatens to unleash a "jihad" on Kaufman.)

The presence of social commentary doesn't mean Romero skimps on the gut-munching. Oh no. There is more than enough flesh-scarfing, head-'sploding action to please even the most discriminating saucehead, with some visually beautiful moments, like when the army of undead rises out of the water, or long shots of ghouls roaming free on the streets of the city that had only moments before been quiet, if not peaceful.

Romero and the actors make the characters interesting enough (even the dead ones) that we care about what eventually happens to them. The notable exception is Hopper, whose performance is so atypically restrained and whose part is so underwritten (it's never explained how Kaufman amassed so much power or why somebody doesn't just drag him out of his tower and throw him to the zombies) that he's not an especially compelling villain, though he does get some good lines ("Zombies, man...they creep me out"). Leguizamo, on the other hand, is a more compelling bad guy with a more understandable set of motives: He's worked hard, paid his dues and wants what he feels he deserves. Who can't relate to that?

Though the ending of Land of the Dead leaves open the possibility of further sequels, this may well be Romero's last zombie flick. If that's the case, he goes out with considerable style and some admirable scares. If you're a fan of the films of George A. Romero, you'll adore this movie. And if you're not a fan? What are you doing here, anyway?