January 19, 2014

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead (2005) is a problematic zombie outing, the fourth go-round for writer-director George Romero, whose obvious attempts at social commentary have never been clumsier. The setting is a walled city full of zombie apocalypse survivors. A swanky high-rise called Fiddler's Green separates the rich from the poor (who are confined to the streets and the slummier residences), and in the scene where Romero shows us "The Green" he can't resist the urge to cut to a shot of a big birdcage. Because the birds are like a metaphor, man! Romero lays on lots of "social satire," but none of it amounts to anything revelatory. People want to go back to normal. Normal is bad. Zombies are bad but not as bad as people, who are worse. It's all so damned obvious, like a lofty essay written by a student who thinks he's spinning rhetorical gold. (There's some really bad expository narration over the main credits, too.)

I don't mean to hate on George Romero. I grew up on Night of the Living Dead and its sequels. He's done good work before, and Land isn't a terrible movie. For all their flaws, the first three Dead films worked, and much of Land works too, despite its crummy dialogue and squishy, almost underwhelming plotting. And occasionally there are good bits of dialogue, like when John Leguizamo, as one of the grunts working for the "emperor" of Fiddler's Green, says "Looks like God left the phone off the hook." But the good lines always feel improvised, while I'm convinced the really bad ones were worked out on paper by Romero, gleaming with self-satisfaction.

There's an off-kilter pace to Land that results in a lack of suspense. The movie cuts back and forth between two parallel stories that are perhaps not as compelling as the director would like to believe. I think the problem is that we all know exactly what's going to happen, and this foreknowledge takes some of the air out of Romero's story, because he seems so convinced that he's surprising us. Nevertheless, the movie is an entertaining mess, full of enjoyable visuals. (It is pretty disgusting, though, especially if you watch the unrated version, which is, unfortunately, the only version available in widescreen at this time.)

Dennis Hopper makes an amusing appearance as Kaufman, the guy who runs the city with his briefcase full of money. But it's hard to understand his devotion to capital in a post-apocalyptic world, and even harder to understand why anybody would follow him. (Romero seems too in love with his own ideas to fashion them so that they'll fit within the confines of his movie.) Simon Baker plays the hero, a guy named Reilly who used to go outside the city to procure supplies, but is tired of working for the Man and wants to find his own way. (He's like, a loner.) I really enjoyed Leguizamo's performance. He's a foil, the greedy upstart who wants to steal Kaufman's money. (Again with the money, though. Who freaking cares?)

There is one nifty idea amidst all this: when Kaufman's grunts go out of the city to make supply runs, they shoot fireworks off to keep the zombies distracted. It's a cool effect, and the one little piece of invention that seems clever without being forced or "impressive". The zombies, it should be mentioned, aren't as memorable as they were in the first three films. They look too generic, and Romero's attempts to humanize them often come off as unintentionally funny. There's one zombie, poorly nicknamed Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who seems to be getting smarter, and he tries to rub off on the other ghouls, with mixed results. (It worked better with "Bub" in Day of the Dead.)

Robert Joy also makes an impression, as Simon Baker's sidekick. He's ostensibly dim-witted but loyal (not to mention a crackshot), and gives the best and least appreciated performance in the film. Also starring Asia Argento (daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario), Alan Van Sprang, and Shawn Roberts. ½

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