OF THE DEAD (2005)
Director: George A. Romero
Ask any horror fan worth their salt what the definitive zombie movie is, and a hefty portion will probably answer with George A. Romero's seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead. Filmed near Pittsburgh on a shoestring budget, the tale of ragtag survivors defending themselves from a mob of zombies surrounding a rural farmhouse has become a true classic and permanently etched Romero's name into the upper echelon of horror movie filmmakers. Romero made other movies after Night of the Living Dead (including, of all things, the documentary O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose), but he returned to what brought him to the dance in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead. The tale of four survivors holed up in an abandoned shopping mall, Dawn of the Dead was a scathing satire of '70s consumerism that was regarded as highly as its predecessor. Romero's zombie apocalypse would resume just over a decade later, when his 1985 film Day of the Dead depicted a group of soldiers and scientists forced to hide out in a limestone mine. His third entry into the "Trilogy of the Living Dead" was not as well-received as the two that followed before it, yet it has managed to retain a devoted audience all its own. Romero moved on with his career, not returning to the undead world he created for two decades. Sure, he wrote and produced a remake of Night of the Living Dead in 1990, but that doesn't exactly count, does it? But finally, a full twenty years following the release of what long appeared to be the final chapter in Romero's beloved Dead Trilogy, Romero finally released the much anticipated fourth installment, Land of the Dead. Let's get to the review, shall we?
We begin many years after the start of the zombie epidemic depicted in Romero's previous three zombie movies. The dead now vastly outnumber the living, many of whom have fled to Pittsburgh, which now serves as a refuge and sanctuary for those trying to escape the undead. Bordered by a large river and an electrical barricade, the fortress-like city has developed a feudal-like government where the poor live in slums, while the rich live in Fiddler's Green, a luxurious skyscraper situated in the heart of the city.
In charge of the Fiddler's Green is Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who maintains control with the Dead Reckoning, an amalgam of a tank and tractor-trailer operated by a team of anti-zombie commandos led by Riley Denbo (Simon Baker). Riley is preparing for retirement, but after sparking a gunfight in a bar, he ends up in jail with his best friend and Dead Reckoning teammate Charlie Houk (Robert Joy), and Slack (Asia Argento), a hooker he started the gunfight to protect.
Meanwhile, Riley's lieutenant, Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), has gone renegade. Having his dreams of moving to Fiddler's Green crushed by Kaufman and out to even the score, Cholo hijacks the Dead Reckoning and threatens to bomb Fiddler's Green unless Kaufman pays him a ransom of five million dollars. Refusing to negotiate with what he labels a terrorist, Kaufman turns to Riley for help. And while all this is going on, in the outside world, the zombies are beginning to resume their pre-zombie lives. A cheerleader carries her pompoms, an undead brass band toot their horns to no avail, a zombie couple walk hand-in-hand. The zombies are also beginning to show signs of intelligence, even the ability to communicate through various grunts. Taking center stage is "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark), a former gas station attendant who shows the most intelligence of all the walking corpses. Big Daddy becomes the de facto undead chieftain, leading them past many of the human defenses straight for Fiddler's Green as they seek vengeance for the raids carried out by the Dead Reckoning. What follows is carnage on a massive scale, as the citizens of the city try to escape the wrath of the immense zombie horde.
I enjoy a good zombie movie as much as the next person, but with Land of the Dead, it feels as if instead of innovation, we've been given more of the same. Outside of certain details, I really don't think much separates Land of the Dead from the other movies in the Dead Quadrilogy. As much as I liked and enjoyed Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead seemed almost like the same movie, only with changes in setting and characters. I also wonder about the movie's title. While Land of the Dead is definitely fitting, shouldn't it technically be Twilight of the Dead, just to go full circle? It's no big deal, but still, it would have been neat. In any event, as with his three prior Dead movies, Romero presents us with his own brand of social satire. With Land of the Dead, Romero uses his zombies to more or less complain about the government. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the enemies of the main characters are depicted as mindless creatures. Romero also attempts to draw parallels between Kaufman and George W. Bush, as evidenced by a bit where Kaufman says that he doesn't negotiate with terrorists (a parallel cemented when Cholo's use of the word "jihad" in reference to using the Dead Reckoning against Kaufman). There is also a portion of the movie that touches on the "bread and circuses" tactic of the Roman Empire, as Kaufman uses gambling, alcohol, prostitutes, and other vices to distract the slum residents from realizing how miserable their lives are. While this does set up one very fun scene (in which a character is pitted against two zombies in a gladiator-style fight to the death), the whole social commentary thing seems very heavy-handed. Government bad, oppressed people good, I got it. I want violent zombie mayhem, not an indictment of crappy government policy.
Regardless of my lack of enthusiasm in regards to his screenplay, Romero's direction is awesome. Combined with some wonderful cinematography by Miroslaw Baszak, Romero effectively creates a world rebuilding in the wake of the apocalypse. Though nothing really stands out as memorable (with the exception of the scene in which Big Daddy and the zombie army rise out of the river), Romero's direction is respectable. There are some parts where CGI is much too evident, like the zombie who's head is dangling behind his back, only attached to his neck by thin strips of loose skin. But if anything can be said about Land of the Dead, it's that the makeup effects have drastically improved. The zombies in Dawn and Day were just so embarrassingly ugly by today's standards, considering that they're just regular people slathered in blue-gray greasepaint. But here, the zombies really look like the walking dead. I've long been a fan of the work of the KNB effects group, and their efforts here are exemplary. The movie also has an energetic, effective score composed by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, music that never becomes overbearing or offensive.
And while the zombies may be the main stars of the movie, the regular cast deserves a mention too. Lead actor Simon Baker did a good job, underplaying the whole heroic aspect of his character while still having enough charisma to actually be acceptable as the hero. John Leguizamo can be irritatingly over the top in many of his roles, but he's wonderful here. With another actor, the Cholo character could have come across as a one-dimensional, throwaway character, but Leguizamo's performance makes the character much more endearing. Robert Joy and Dennis Hopper are both very entertaining as a dim-witted sharpshooter and the scumbag in charge, respectively, and rounding out the human cast is Asia Argenta. I'm not one to start a rumor, but I wouldn't be surprised if Ms. Argento, the daughter of legendary Italian director Dario Argento, was hired merely because of her father's reputation in the horror genre. She alternated between spacey and tough-as-nails, and whatever groove she was in took some time to get in line with. Representing the flesh-eating undead, Eugene Clark gives a wonderful performance, despite having very little to do besides look mean and grunt. And kudos to Romero for giving makeup wizard Tom Savini and Shaun of the Dead co-writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright brief cameos as zombies. As a fan of both Savini's work and Shaun of the Dead, I was very happy to see them in the movie.
While I wouldn't call Land of the Dead the "ultimate zombie masterpiece" that its tagline proclaims it to be, nor would I call it the best of the Dead Quadrilogy, but it's still a fine example of why George Romero holds such high stature in the zombie realm. The cast is entertaining, the effects are outstanding, and the setting is effective, but as I said above, it still feels like more of the same. And for that, I'll give Land of the Dead three and a half stars. It probably won't appeal to anyone outside of diehard fans of Romero or zombies (or both), so if you like that sort of thing, check it out.
Final Rating: ***½