George A. Romero is averaging about a zombie movie a decade. Night of the Living Dead bowed in 1968, followed by “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978, Day of the Dead in 1985, and now “Land of the Dead.” 20 years is a long time to wait for the (so far) final film in a series, but Romero fans are a patient lot, buoyed by the high quality of the previous “Dead” films and the director’s well-publicized problems obtaining financing.
Taking place an indeterminate amount of time after the events in “Day,” “Land of the Dead” is set in a world where the reanimated dead are in de facto control. The movie opens with a human raiding party plundering a zombie-infested small town for food and medicine. Their job is made easier by the Dead Reckoning, a post-apocalyptic Winnebago with rocket launchers and armor plating. The team is led by Riley (Simon Baker), a no-nonsense type who simply wants to get the job done with as few complications as possible. His second-in-command is Cholo (John Leguizamo), a more pragmatic sort, who uses his position to profit in the black market. The two are, obviously, often in conflict, which comes to a head when Cholo’s side trip to a liquor store has tragic consequences.
The supply run is for the benefit of the few surviving humans in an unnamed city (it’s probably supposed to be Pittsburgh, even though filming actually took place in Toronto). More specifically, for the benefit of the wealthy survivors who can afford to live in the high rises of Fiddler’s Green, where all the amenities of pre-zombie holocaust America are in full effect. Riley, predictably, chafes at the class schism, while Cholo hopes to exploit his connections with Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the man in charge, to improve his own situation. When this fails, Cholo hatches a scheme to use Dead Reckoning for leverage.
The struggles between the haves in Fiddler’s Green and the have-nots forced to live in the streets pale next to Riley’s realization that the living dead have not only retained rudimentary memories of their former lives, but are once again learning to adapt and act together. The undead are led by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a hulking former gas station attendant who appears to take serious offense at the way the living roll into town and indiscriminately kill his fellow zombies. His solution: lead a horde of the hungry dead into the city to take on their tormentors.
If we were able to look at “Land of the Dead” as a standalone film, most people would agree it’s a decent effort, with real scares and some of the most inspired gore I’ve seen since, well, “Day of the Dead” (including one scene that’ll really make you ladies rethink those navel rings). On its own, it’s easily one of the best horror movies to come out this year.
And there’s the problem. It’s impossible to judge “Land of the Dead” without taking into account the legacy of the previous “Dead” films, and from that point of view, “Land” falls well short of the greatness of Romero’s previous zombie efforts.
How many of the film’s problems can be attributed to studio interference? We may never know. Aside from moving production to Canada for monetary reasons, Universal also reportedly slashed Romero’s budget midway through shooting (causing him to allegedly walk off the set during production), and the final round of TV spots for the movie are enough to make casual horror fans think twice. They also bumped the release date up from fall to summer, which some might take as a vote of confidence, but which seems to me more like an attempt to bury it. In September or October, “Land” would have stood out. As it is, Romero finds himself sandwiched between Batman Begins and “War of the Worlds.” Hardly an enviable position, in retrospect.
More importantly, unlike the first three “Dead” films – which we still discuss decades after their release – “Land” lacks any coherent underlying social commentary. The other movies were all of an era: “Night” made a statement about racism and civil rights, “Dawn” looked at America’s burgeoning consumer culture, and “Day” examined the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex. “Land” takes a few stabs at the Homeland Security state (fleeting shots of American flags on the scavengers’ motorcycles, Statue of Liberty ads, Kaufman’s insistence that they “don’t deal with terrorists”), but nothing sticks. Ten years from now, we’ll be discussing “Land” as an afterthought, not as an equal partner in the “Dead” canon.
Ironically, “Land” suffers from the recent popularity of the genre Romero himself spawned. With the success of the Resident Evil movies, the Dawn remake, 28 Days Later (not technically a zombie movie, I know), and Shaun of Dead, “Land” feels less like the latest effort from a groundbreaking horror filmmaker and more like just another imitation, even if this particular imitation also features loops of intestines spilling from abdominal cavities.
Too many aspects of the plot set-up fall on their face as well. How did the surviving humans clear out the city? How did they build a perimeter fence and fight off the zombies at the same time? Where does Kaufman come from, and why is he the big cheese? “Land of the Dead” clocks in at a spare 88 minutes, and I can’t help thinking a little more exposition would have gone a long way to making the movie more enjoyable.
Horror fans are going to be at odds over this one, I suspect. Personally, I wish I could have come into this film without the baggage of being a 30+ year horror fan who’s seen the films in the original “Dead” trilogy upwards of 20 times, but no dice. “Land of the Dead” features top notch gore, some inventive deaths, and decent performances by most of the principals, but it’s hardly the magnum opus for which Romero fans have been waiting.
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