Sunday, June 26, 2005

Land of the Dead: The Zombie Master Returns

dir. George Romero

With the zombie movie craze accumulating over the past couple of years, the originator has finally been allowed to make a new chapter in his popular "Living Dead" series. We've had our highs and lows over the past two years. The highs being "28 Days Later," the remake of Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," and the goofy comedy "Shaun of the Dead." The lows being "House of the Dead" and "Resident Evil 2." There have also been some very strange middle grounds like "I,Zombie." So, now Romero, who has been trying hard to get a new zombie picture off the ground since 1985's "Day of the Dead," has finally been given the greenlight, not to mention a fairly high budget and a summer release date.

Romero, out of all of the masters of seventies horror, has probably had the biggest struggle in getting his films made. Over the past 12 years he's only been able to get two films off the ground, 1993's "The Dark Half" and 2000's "Bruiser." Both interesting in their own ways and very bad in many other ways. Leading up to 1993 he has had one of the strangest and most fascinating filmographies I've ever seen. If you want to see some cool, hip, very unique films, check out his post apocalyptic motorcycle riding jousting movie, "Knightriders." "Martin" is one of the best films about vampirism ever made. "Monkey Shines" just has to be seen to be believed. His collaboration with Stephen King on the horror anthology "Creepshow" is as fun a horror film as there has ever been. And if you're lucky enough to get hold of a copy of his documentary, "O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose" I highly reccomend watching it for the pure hell of it.

As far as his previous zombie films go. "Night of the Living Dead" was the first of his politically charged zombie films, and while it seems a tad dated, it's still a pretty damn creepy film. The last half where the humans are trapped in the rundown house fighting off a horde of zombies is still one of the most claustrophobic hours you will ever see on film. "Dawn of the Dead," the series "Empire Strikes Back," is pumped up to epic proportions, and there are so many different versions of it out there it's become kind of a crazy phenomenon. Roger Ebert calls "Dawn" the ultimate horror film, and it's not hard to see why. "Day of the Dead" is dissapointing, but not in the way say "Phantom Menace" was. It's just compared to the other two it doesn't really hold it's own. What has always been interesting to me about these films is that they've always been unique unto themselves. Each of the three films carry much different tones than the one that comes before them. They each stand alone and almost don't seem like a sequel. There is also a nice progression from "Night" to "Day" where the zombies keep gaining members and the humans keep losing members.

"Land of the Dead" continues that progression to armageddon. The humans for the most part seem to be giving up on life and just rolling with the punches. Where as the zombies seem to be striving to climb back up out of the grave and function as actual human beings. This is seen mostly in the character of Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who kind of becomes the leader of the zombies. He gets them to start using weapons and start thinking more clearly about taking the higher position in this very strange war. The idea of zombies with a concsience sounds retarted, I know, but it really works and becomes Romero's strongest assest in the film.

The humans however have retreated into a gated communtity, surrounded on three sides by water, and are trying to make the best of what little life they have left. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) has built his own Trump towers, Fiddler's Green, where the rich can almost feel like there is no zombie threat. The poor still have to struggle out on the streets and do Kaufman's bidding whenever he sees fit. But eventually of course Big Daddy and gang find a way into this new utopia and turn it all upside down.

As hard as Romero tries to turn this into something epic, he really loses control of the picture fairly quickly. There's a great opening sequence where Kaufman's army goes into town to raid for supplies while knocking off a bunch of zombies. Kaufman has created a vehicle called Dead Reckoning that is amped to the gills with weaponry and armor. They barrel through town in it and trample over the "Stenches" as they call them and then retreat back to the safety of Kaufman's city. After that sequence the movie just kind of dies; there are some cool sequences after that, but that's all there really is. Over the past twenty years Romero has obviously come up with some pretty cool zombie fighting and death sequences and he throws them in "Land of the Dead" whenever he sees fit, and a lot of them are cool. I especially loved the image of the headless zombie who's head snaps back around and bites his victim. However, there really isn't enough else going on to make the damn thing that interesting.

There's a driving subplot in the movie involving Cholo (John Leguizamo) and a few of the other army officers taking over Dead Reckoning and blackmailing Kaufman with it that ends up having no payoff of interest. Simon Baker from "The Ring 2" plays Riley (an obvious homage to Ripley from the "Alien" films), who just wants to buy a car to head north and get away from all people and zombies. Why doesn't seem very important to Romero, he just wants to do that and we're supposed to accept that, but I didn't. All I wanted was one good reason, and I was never given one until the end where he doesn't have much of a choice.

One of my huge pet peeves in film is not having a sense of location. And "Land of the Dead" is guilty as hell of this predicament. There's one sequence where the zombies take over an army barracks outside of the city. But when they initially do it you're led to believe they've actually entered the city, but then they're standing on the other side of the water. So, where is this barracks, why is it there? Who the hell knows, Romero doesn't bother to answer it. Then the zombies jump in the water then they're on the other side and in the city. How did they cross the water? Can we not see one snippet of them walking underwater, swimming, something for the love of god?

I also am getting of sick of this whole idea of the zombie purists. There have been many vocalists, Romero himself being one, bitching about the fact that in modern day zombie movies the filmmakers have resorted to having the zombies jumping around and running all over the place; they've become faster. In "Land of the Dead" Romero goes back to the old school style of the zombies ambling around aimlessly and taking their sweet ass time getting to their prey. Romero thinks this creates more tension, and I'm not disagreeing, but is this really a subject worth debating? "Night of the Living Dead" and the original "Dawn of the Dead" are not great films because of how the zombies walked. They were good films because they had a great story, interesting characters, wonderfully scary set-ups, etc. If Romero had concentrated more on this than the way they walked or how cool he could have them kill people maybe, just maybe he would have had a hell of a film. As it stands, he has moments of greatness followed up by stupid scenes or just flat-out boring ones. There's a great movie in here, but Romero didn't figure it out in time. What we're left with is a very mediocre film that could have been so much more.



At 6/26/2005 10:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the fact that it got a bit tense during the second half of 'Night of the living dead'.. especially remember the feeling of claustrophobia.. My favourite vampire movies would be 'Interview with a vampire', 'Van Helsing', 'Queen of the damned', 'Dracula'.. I think I even enjoyed Dracula 2000 and Underworld given my affinity for fantasy movies.

At 6/26/2005 05:24:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Besides "Martin," I guess my favorite vampire films would be: "Interview With a Vampire," "Dracula (1979), "The Lost Boys," and "Fright Night." That's just off the top of my head; I'm sure if I thought about it I could come up with a few more.

At 6/26/2005 10:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stephen King's 'the dark half' was a creepy book but am not sure if the movie did justice to the book as is the case with most movies.. but it is weird tht Romero chose that over others like pet sematary that d have been easier to play out..

At 6/26/2005 10:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

agreed pet sematary was already made but that was just an example.. anyway i think 'langoliers' and 'it' were scary in their own way.. and 'the shining' being the 'chosen one' as one of the most scary movies made.. surprising that the same person wrote shawshank.. am off on a tangent about King.. sorry abt that.


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