Romero Retrospective: Land of the Dead

Welcome back to my Romero Retrospective, where I take a look back at the monumental films of that giant among horror masters, George A. Romero.  This time we flash forward to 2005, when Romero finally released the fourth installment in his Living Dead series, Land of the Dead, after a 20-year hiatus.  Land presents the final chapter of the series following the events of Night of the Living Dead, as the later films seem to function more as reboots of the franchise.  So now, without further ado, I’d like to sit back and take a look at this gloriously gruesome addition to the Dead legacy.

Looks like God left the phone off the hook.

The Good

Land of the Dead is a film full of “firsts.”  It is the first of the series to be created on a significantly large budget ($15-16 million), the first to be filmed outside of the US (in Ontario, Canada), and the first to receive an MPAA rating (although the original, unrated cut was later released on DVD).  For me personally, Land was the first Romero film that I ever had the opportunity to see on the big screen during its original theatrical release.

I can remember it like it was yesterday.  Two of my fellow partners in crime follow me into the darkened cinema, where an atmosphere of eager anticipation reigns as we wait with bated breath for the latest delightful horrors to be bestowed upon us by the “Grandfather of the Zombie.”  The classic Universal Pictures globe logo flashes in black & white across the screen, reminding us that this is indeed a major motion picture, but at the same is an attempt to hearken back to the early days of Romero’s career in horror.

Even with the more graphic sequences cut down to meet the MPAA requirements, the carnage onscreen is thoroughly impressive, with various grotesqueries serving as a garnish for the very human story at the film’s core.  The majority of the action takes place in the director’s beloved city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (all shots of the city were added via CGI), and the film shows us that “The City of Bridges” has become one of mankind’s final bastions of hope against the undead menace.  Surrounded by rivers on three sides, the city’s natural topography and an electrified barrier combine to create the ideal fortress; however, not all is as it seems.  Business magnate Paul Kaufman (served up with a flourish and heaping spoonful of dry wit by the inimitable late Dennis Hopper) has made the small settlement his own personal empire, with the privileged upper class living luxuriously in the Fiddler’s Green skyscraper, while the remaining citizens are forced to live in the lawless streets below, with little or no access to critical supplies.  (Incidentally, it has always been my theory that Kaufman must surely be a reference to Edgar J. Kaufmann, one of Pittsburgh’s leading businessmen in the early twentieth century who was responsible for several noteworthy landmarks in the city).  Kaufman’s military presence is epitomized by Dead Reckoning (originally set to be the film’s title), an armored vehicle bristling with machine guns and its own missile launching system that is used for raiding missions to collect supplies from the surrounding abandoned municipalities.

Caught in between the class conflicts are those directly under Kaufman’s employ, particularly the main protagonist Riley Denbo (Simon Baker), the designer and former commander of Dead Reckoning, and Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), who serves as the vehicle’s second in command and carries out most of Kaufman’s dirty work.  These two characters represent two differing views of the social situation. Riley and his partner Charlie (Robert Joy) feel disgusted with the ever-widening gap between Fiddler’s Green and the suffering masses below, and seek to escape to a “world without fences.”  Cholo, on the other hand, works diligently to ingratiate himself with Kaufman so that he can eventually have his own apartment in the Green.  When Kaufman balks at his request, Cholo refuses to be a lickspittle to the man and hijacks Dead Reckoning, threatening to bombard the Green with an all-out missile assault if he doesn’t receive a vast sum of money in compensation.

Riley, who has meanwhile been caught up in a cagey situation by rescuing a woman named Slack (played by the stunning Asia Argento) from a gangster, is recruited by Kaufman to stop Cholo and return Dead Reckoning at all costs.  Unfortunately, Cholo’s threat is the least of his problems, as the ever-evolving zombies discover that they can cross over the river bottom unharmed to emerge on the other side, wreaking havoc on the unsuspecting populace who now find themselves caged in by the very fences that once protected them.  I won’t go any further than that, except to say the film ends spectacularly, following conventions set by Dawn and Day in that it leaves off on a fairly uplifting note with hope for humanity’s future still intact.

As with the previous Romero films, Land of the Dead’s nail-biting action and cringe-worthy carnage are underscored by its realistic and powerful characters.  Bolstered by a solid budget, Romero brings in household names like Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo to add some Hollywood credibility to his latest flick.  In fact, these two actors are so enjoyable and witty in their roles that I can (almost) completely forgive them for taking part in the bastardized travesty that was the Super Mario Bros. movie (childhood scars run deep…).  Another high point of the cast (for me personally) is femme fatale Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, and a notable director/actress in her own right.  Romero’s directorial vision is complemented and enhanced by the players on his blood-spattered stage in various ways, as some of the most memorable lines of the film were ad-libbed by the actors themselves.  Zombie cameos by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (creators of the previous year’s Shaun of the Dead), make-up artist Gregory Nicotero, and Tom Savini, round out the stellar cast.  Romero’s own daughter even makes an appearance as a soldier!

Another continued tradition is the director’s scathing wit and biting social satire, which was enough to earn three out of four stars from film critic Roger Ebert for a unique portrayal of the increasing socioeconomic gap in the USA and questionable practices of its government in conducting the war in Iraq.  Without relying on expository dialogue or overly simplistic analogies, Land sinks its teeth the zeitgeist of its time and refuses to let go.

The Bad

In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word “trouble” loses much of its meaning.

Notwithstanding the above praises, however, I do find that on at least one or two occasions the film resorts to what I would refer to as stooping to the lowest common denominator.  Even Romero himself admits that Dennis Hopper’s line, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” is essentially beating the audience over the head with the film’s critical message.  Compared to his later films however, I find those few instances more than forgivable in light of the movie’s overall effectiveness.

I often hear that die-hard critics of the original trilogy are less than exuberant about this particular endeavor, probably due in part to the simple fact that it was positively received by the mass media and was created on a large budget.  Cries of “selling out” are mostly unjustified, however, as I am more inclined to agree with Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro when he says, “Finally someone was smart enough to realize that it was about time, and gave George the tools. It should be a cause of celebration amongst all of us that Michelangelo has started another ceiling. It’s really a momentous occasion …”

The Undead

Zombies, man.  They creep me out.

In Day of the Dead, George Romero gave us Bub, a veritable Pavlov’s dog among zombies who responded to positive reinforcement and was even able to display some basic human emotions.  Bub’s legacy goes one step further in Land of the Dead, as we meet “Big Daddy,” a former gas station clerk whose superior awareness as a ghoul prompts him to rally his decomposing comrades together and infiltrate the stronghold of the living.  As is often the case, the zombies serve as a mirror, exposing the hideous and decaying façade of a society bloated with corruption, but also showing the basic side of humankind’s carnal nature and our need for freedom.

All deeper meanings aside, Land of the Dead offers us some of the most impressive flesh-eating monstrosities ever to shamble into our nightmares.  While there are a great deal of CGI effects involved in the film, a large portion of them were simply used for environments or general enhancements.  Thanks to the large budget, Gregory Nicotero was able to create a gory arsenal of puppets and prosthetics that blend seamlessly together with the digital effects to reap a bloody harvest of entrails and severed limbs that will please even the most jaded gore-hounds.  The forcible removal of a navel piercing by the rotten teeth of a ravenous zombie, fingernails shredded against a metal wall, and other blood-curdling scenes are sure to stick in the viewer’s brain long after the ending credits.

On a personal note, I find Land of the Dead to be one of my favorite installments of Romero’s entire series, running a close second to Dawn of the Dead for pure fun factor.  It also marks a turning point in the series, closing the curtain for the Diary of the Dead reboot.  But I’ll talk more about that later. Full of spills, chills, and bone-crunching thrills, no one should miss this highly enjoyable addition to George’s legacy.

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