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Land of the Dead   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero
Cast: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark, Joanne Boland, Tony Nappo.

Review by Rob Vaux

There has been quite a bumper crop of zombie movies lately (and more to come with Australia's Undead hitting theaters next month), all of which have tried to put their own spin on the genre. Some are more successful than others, though a few (such as 28 Days Later) earn their spurs with boldness and originality. If you really want zombies done right, however, you need to turn to George A. Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are the standards by which every other effort is judged. Romero has been away from the game for the past 20 years, presumably because he didn't have anything new to add... until now. With Land of the Dead, he proves there's still some gas left in the tank, and if you're looking for the tasty undead goodness that kids love, he's the man to see.

Land of the Dead sets itself apart from its predecessors largely by moving the timeline forward. Most zombie stories deal with the original outbreak -- the grim period where the dead rise from the grave, and society attempts (unsuccessfully in most cases) to deal with them. A band of survivors holes up in a given locale, while hordes of flesh-eating undead pursue them merrily through the bulk of the film's running time. In Land of the Dead, however, all of that has come and gone. A new society has sprung up in the remnants of downtown Pittsburgh, where the Three Rivers provide a natural barrier against the walking corpses controlling the countryside. Naturally, the people in charge haven't learned much in the interim. While a coifed elite led by the evil Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) live decadent lives in a revamped luxury tower, the remainder of the inhabitants must eke out a squalid existence in the slums and ruins beneath. Some, like hero du jour Riley (Simon Baker), lead armed bands out beyond the city walls, where abandoned food and medical supplies are waiting to be looted. Most, however, exist in a state of quiet desperation, angry at Kaufman and his ilk but lacking the power to do anything about it. Naturally, the squabbles and infighting grow as the movie progresses, catalyzing around Cholo (John Leguizamo), a grade-A asshole who does the upper crust's dirty work in hopes of earning a spot within their ranks.

Yes, the new boss is much the same as the old boss, and Romero's protagonists here closely parallel those of his earlier films. Distrust and petty desires overshadow the real problem, even in a community that has survived its ravages. And though Kaufman thinks they can ignore the zombies, the zombies aren't willing to return the favor. They're evolving, too. They pick up little tricks, learn to ignore distractions, and one bright fellow called Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) can actually communicate with his compatriots through a mixture of grunts and moans. Riley makes ominous note of their slow development, but others dismiss the growing threat in favor of their own small-minded issues. Simply put, the zombies are learning, and we're not. It's a nasty little irony that Romero exploits to the fullest, bringing a fresh perspective to the genre's time-honored anti-humanist slant.

The expected satire on class warfare is present as well, though it feels outdated and some nuances play better than others. It's no mistake that Big Daddy is black, or that the rage he exhibits has tangible justifications. The humans in the city actively exploit the zombies, using them for target practice and as gladiators in bizarre blood sports for the masses. Is it any wonder, the film asks, that they grow angry at such treatment: that they start attacking us not out of mindless hunger, but because they've finally grown smart enough to fight back? The concept is intriguing and at times runs quite smartly. At other points, however, it's simply repackaging elements of older scripts. At least the zombies' new characteristics don't detract from the old: though Romero imbues them with animal self-awareness, they're basically the same ghoulish flesh-eaters that fans of the genre have come to love.

As a gorefest, Land of the Dead earns high marks. Romero finds plenty of new ways to let the undead eat their fill, which are clever and horrifying in equal amounts. He also has fun with the weapons and tactics of Riley and his gang, from fireworks that distract the undead from their potential meals to a battle engine called the Dead Reckoning that seems plucked straight out of The Road Warrior. They all come across with a delightful B-movie style: low budget without appearing cheap or sloppy. The characters are all ciphers, of course, though Leguizamo has some interesting quirks, and Hopper is a gas in an otherwise unremarkable role. Land of the Dead stumbles through some expected plot holes, especially towards the end, which lacks the chilliness of Romero's best work. Then again, with so many imitators moving in so many different directions, such flaws seem more charming throwbacks than unforgivable mistakes. Land of the Dead is really a Dog Days movie, and belongs firmly in the realm of down-and-dirty mid-August filmmaking. But for some of us, every day is a good day for zombies, and Land of the Dead lets their primary wholesaler do what he does best.

Review published 06.23.2005.

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