DVD Review Of Land Of The Dead

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/27/06


  While speed zombies have become the rage, in such films as the recent remake of Dawn Of The Dead and 28 Days, in Land Of The Dead- the fourth of what is now a tetralogy of original Dead films by George Romero- we are back to the slow moving ghouls of old, although they are showing signs of evolving intelligence, if not fleetness. That said, it is clear that Romero has run out of ideas, and his attempts at social commentary in the original Night Of The Living Dead and original Dawn Of The Dead (both have been remade) have gone pallid. Those two original films were unique, in that they rose above their horror genre and zombie subgenre to become great films, much in the way Alien and Aliens transcended the horror-sci fi ghetto and the first two Terminator films did the same for cyborg-time travel flicks. But, there must be some sort of rule that allows only the first two films of such genres to become classics, for the last original zombie film from Romero, 1985’s Day Of The Dead, was horrible, and this film, while a little better, is still nowhere near passable. Romero, in fact, has seen subsequent generations of zombie enthusiasts pass him by.

  In this film, ostensibly, Romero wants to deal with classism, in both human and zombie society. The humans live in a city walled off from the dead by two rivers, with the rich living in a swank apartment complex called Fiddler’s Green, run by a kingpin and ex-Mayor named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), while the poor live an almost Mad Max-like existence where a sexy prostitute (what else?) named Slack (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento- another horror filmmaking legend) is stuck in a fight pit having to battle two zombies for her life. Mercenaries in an armored vehicle called Dead Reckoning (the film’s original title), scavenge for food, gas, and liquor, as well keeping both humans and zombies in their respective places- much like The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man, both based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. The zombies, too, have developed classes. There are still the mindless flesh-eaters that are used for target practice by ravening and depraved humans, but now there are semi-sentient dead, led by a dead black car mechanic called Big Daddy (Eugene Clark). He has somehow learned how to use guns and instruments, and plot strategies. He also has somehow learned and imparted the gift of zombiespeak to his dead pals, and leads them unrelentingly on an assault across the river to the human’s lair, in a shot of zombies emerging from beneath water that is a direct homage to 1962’s original ghoulfest, Carnival Of Souls. That the zombies’ leader is black continues the vein of subversive racial casting that Romero has used from his first Dead film in 1968.

  The live humans are a diverse, multicultural band, including Riley (Simon Baker, from L.A. Confidential), and Cholo (John Leguizamo), and while there are classic Romero lines, such as Kaufman remarking, ‘In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word trouble has lost its meaning,’ they are too infrequent and forced- being said merely as punchlines, not as anything deep that truly comes from the characters’ guts. Cholo wants to live the rich life and is a classic antihero, but he’s one dimensional and Leguizamo has never really learned how to act- he’s a comedian at heart.

  But, even more perplexing is that after four films, the humans cannot defeat the zombies, and even at this film’s end, when the zombies eat the idle rich of Fiddler’s Green and Big Daddy kills Kaufman (although why he targets the man is never answered- a dead sense of justice because- horrors- we find out that Kaufman is a racist?) the mercenaries ride off to Canada, content to let the dead alone. In the first film one could sense why there was a panic, but by that film’s end order was restored. same in the original dawn’s end. But, by Day the humans had taken some control, but succumbed to their own greed and hatred. Romero’s pessimism is unrelenting, but also unrealistic, even by the standards his own filmic universe has set up, and while an artist is free to set the rules of his art, he has to obey them, lest render them null and void. And Romero violates this most acutely by having the zombies evolve. In earlier films the dead were automata who killed and cannibalized due to remanant memories and impulses. But, if they are sentient, and killing and feasting, they suddenly become ethical beings, and ethical beings who murder and cannibalize, while no more monstrous to their victims, certainly lose face and sympathy as victims to the audience. This is where Land Of The Dead most fails its predecessors’ legacy.

  The film is the most impressive of the quartet, due to CGI, but the actual dead look the least scary of all the zombies. The DVD comes with a number of featurettes, but the Romero-led commentary track talks of mainly minor film details, in an in-jokey way, and little of the mythos, so is rather banal, which recapitulates the almost generic feel that this film has, as if Romero was told some backers wanted a fourth film, gave him lots of money to make it, and then he was stuck with figuring everything else out, especially a script, so took the money and ran, and merely stole from his earlier films.

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