Ahoy again, squirts... Shortly after posting this review I got the heads up on the link down below. It is the unrated, internet exclusive trailer for LAND OF THE DEAD... it's pretty much the same trailer we've all seen (the one with the kind of iffy hard rock soundtrack) but they've added in 3 or 4 really sweet gore moments. Go take a look!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a big, juicy review that's bound to get us zombie and Romero geeks' salivary glands working in overtime. All the advance word on the movie is stellar and I really dug the script. I was onhand for a night up in Toronto, sneaking around and fulfilling a lifelong dream of being a Romero zombie (totally unbeknownst to the filmmakers or producers, by the way) and got to see some of the zombie work first hand. It really sounds as if Romero has stepped up to the plate and swung for the bleachers with this one and I can't WAIT to see it! There are some spoilers below, but if you want to get yourself excited for this movie, then I suggest giving it a read. Oh, and you can check out the two newest TV spots over at MovieBox by click right here! Enjoy!
It’s been less than 24 hours since I sat in a darkened theater out in the terrible uncivilized wilderness of the Deep San Fernando Valley, invited to watch an advance screening of a film I’ve waited two decades for. Less than 24 hours since I staggered out of that same theater after the final credits rolled and into the ugly hot sun of Woodland Hills. And my mind is still reeling. I don’t even know where to begin…
This year, two beloved filmmakers named George returned to give us the latest (and last?) installments in the legendary franchises they launched many, many years ago. Both franchises have been endlessly imitated by others. Both franchises have legions of rabid fans. Both franchises began as groundbreaking landmarks in their respective genres. There was a lot on the line in both cases. Expectations were high.
Unfortunately, only one of the two Georges got it right. And his last name isn’t Lucas.
George A. Romero hasn’t had a lot of success in recent years. Even his last zombie film, the woefully underrated “Day of the Dead,” came out 20 years ago to mixed reactions among critics and fans alike. In the years since, Romero fans (and probably George himself) have watched with increasing frustration as zombie films made by other, younger, less experienced directors enjoyed solid box office and home video success. It seemed like everyone else and his dog could get a zombie film off the ground…why couldn’t the man who practically invented the genre do the same? Why couldn’t the Master return to teach these damn kids how it was really done?
Well, at last…at long fucking last…he has. And it is good. Really good. Actually, so much more than that.
“Land of the Dead” is fun, thrilling, scary, meaningful, touching, intelligent and, yes – oh yes – violent, bloody and amazingly, wonderfully, imaginatively gory. It’s almost as if the gore in the film was so over-the-top, so brutally fantastical in its violence, that the MPAA didn’t even know what they were looking at…as if they had no idea of what was being torn apart into bloody shreds of flesh on-screen. More on that in a bit.
Don’t let the trailer and TV spots worry you. This isn’t the “Escape from L.A.” of zombie movies. This is a very confident film, with a lot on its mind and a pounding heartbeat, made by a director who obviously still gives a damn. Nor is it a hard rock MTV-style gloss-fest. This film is raw, gritty and pure old school Romero. In the same way that “Day” is a bigger budget echo of “Night,” so too is “Land” a larger, broader reflection of “Dawn.”
I’m not going to run through the plot beat-by-beat from beginning to end but there will be a few spoilers sprinkled through my random observations below…
The film opens on a perfect note: The old black-and-white Universal logo, with the single prop airplane orbiting the globe, instantly taking us back to the vibe of the first film as well as Universal’s own classic series of monster movies. Then, in somewhat of a departure for Romero, the film indulges us with an edgy opening title sequence cut from the same blood-stained cloth as Kyle Cooper’s unforgettable titles from David Fincher’s “Seven.” The scratchy, flickering B&W handcranked titles track the zombie outbreak, leading us to the present, where zombies rule the world, leaving only a handful of survivors protected (or trapped, depending on your point of view) behind the walls of a fortified city, with a gleaming high-rise at its center. (Romero later hammers this “beautiful prison” point home by using a large pretty birdcage as a recurring thematic prop in Fiddler’s Green.)
The previous three films in Romero’s “Dead” series all began with our human heroes, setting-up their place in the world, establishing their strengths and weaknesses. Right off the bat, “Land” does the same…with one major exception. This time, the “heroes” are the living dead. We start with them. The world is now clearly theirs. We humans are now the outsiders who plague the Earth. When a zombie is “killed,” we see the anguish on the face of Eugene Clark as Big Daddy, the evolving leader of the dead. It’s very unsettling to be immediately thrust into this reversed perspective but of course, that’s entirely the point, isn’t it?
Romero purists have rejected the approach of showing running zombies, as in “Return of the Living Dead,” “28 Days Later” (yes, I know, Danny Boyle’s rage victims are not truly zombies) and the 2004 “Dawn” remake. Even though Romero keeps his living dead at their old, slow, meandering pace – the human characters even refer to them as “walkers” and “stenches” to reinforce the point – something is clearly different here. The zombies of “Land” seem more dangerous, more violent, more powerful. They’re no longer the bumbling blue-faced mannequins of “Dawn” who just happen to accidentally get hold of you, or who are only truly effective in swarming masses. These “walkers” are actually out to get you, with murderous intent…almost with a deep-seated sense of revenge on their minds. They’re not just hungry for human flesh. They want to kill you as violently and painfully as possible. None more so than Big Daddy. This former gas station attendant-turned-zombie field general seems more alive than his human opponents. He is strong and ferocious, howling like a wild animal at his mortal enemies.
But that’s not to say that our human characters are lifeless shells with nothing to offer. On the contrary. They have their own complicated issues and personal problems to solve. And with his typically deft, economical sense of humor, Romero quickly establishes the class structure within the protected city…
On one extreme, we see the Lower Class, living, lying, stealing, cheating, fucking…all just to survive another day on the streets. It’s an effective mish-mash of the streets of Rome in “Gladiator,” “Thunderdome’s” Bartertown and the militarized checkpoints of the Middle East or Northern Ireland. (Look for “Shaun of the Dead’s” Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright as captured zombies forced to pose for souvenir photos here.) It might not be cozy but it’s alive and thriving and angry. But for the time being, it holds together. Because, like Ancient Rome, the Emperor above keeps his citizens distracted with games and vices.
In this case, the Emperor is Kaufman, played by Dennis Hopper. He’s the mastermind who built the walls, hired the army and brought an overall (if false) sense of security to the city, keeping the zombies out and the humans in. But rather than adapt to the new world, Kaufman is intent on keeping things the way they were. His prized centerpiece to the city is Fiddler’s Green, a towering glass skyscraper filled with luxury apartments, restaurants and shops. Those lucky enough, and rich enough, and white enough to be allowed residence in FG are constantly reminded of how good they have it thanks to video monitors and audio announcements constantly advertising the upscale benefits of Kaufman’s glorious shrine to the Upper Class.
At this point, it’s worth noting that each of Romero’s previous “Dead” films served as sly social commentary on the decades in which they were made. The turbulent ‘60s of “Night,” the consumer-driving ‘70s of “Dawn” and the Reagan-era militaristic ‘80s of “Day.” Unfortunately, Romero didn’t direct a “Dead” movie during the ‘90s, so “Land” benefits from having two decades to comment on: the corporate, yuppified ‘90s (represented by this film’s Upper Class) and the terrorized post-9/11 world we live in now, reflected in “Land’s” Lower Class. The clash between these two worlds and times works extremely well.
We find our human protagonists caught in the middle of these two worlds. Simon Baker as the noble Riley, Asia Argento as the mercurial Slack, Robert Joy as the ever-loyal Charlie and John Leguizamo as the ambitious Cholo. All of them are looking for a way to improve their current situation. Cholo wants to move up. Riley wants to move out. In the end, everyone gets what they deserve.
Which brings us back to the zombies. We see bodies ripped apart in this film. Heads and spinal columns torn out. Intestines dragged across the street. Arms torn in half down the middle. Brains and fingers being eaten. Necks and arms chewed into. And bullets to the head, blood and brain matter splattered into the air…gore, gore, gore galore.
I always knew that Universal would demand that Romero deliver an “R” rated film. I always consoled myself with the hope that the eventual DVD release would include an uncensored director’s cut. My friends and I at the screening were howling and cheering with each new zombie gag, pleasantly shocked that this stuff got through the ratings board. I mean, my God…if this theatrical cut of “Land” is the censored version, I can’t even imagine what an uncut version would include.
And that’s what’s so fun about “Land of the Dead.” It represents 20 years of pent-up zombie fetishes unloaded across the screen in one 90-plus-minute explosion. Romero, along with make-up effects god Greg Nicotero and his team at KNB, have dug deep and not just come up with spectacular gore. They’ve come up with imaginative gore that is not intended to merely gross people out. It serves the story, the moments, the characters. And ultimately, it’s there to thrill and entertain. I can’t wait to see this again on opening night, this time with a packed house of fellow “Dead” heads.
Is “Land of the Dead” perfect? No, of course not. I wish it could have been 30 minutes longer. Romero creates such an interesting world that I wish we could have had time to savor it more but I’m guessing he was hamstrung by a tight budget and schedule. “Land” moves like a freight train – speeding and, at times, rushing through its plot. “Dawn” was a sprawling epic that took its sweet time with only four primary characters to focus on. “Land” has twice the scope and five-times the characters but is shoehorned into what seems like just over half the running time. There is just so much jam-packed into this film: cage matches, corporate politics, pot-smoking skateboarders, pimped-out dwarfs, spectacular missile strikes, hot lesbian action…it goes on and on! It’s almost too much for one movie.
There are also several minor details that I questioned, such as: If the zombies move that slow, how do they always seem to catch up to the humans running away from them…and with a head start? If the walled city has been up for years (29-year-old Slack mentions that she’s never seen the outside world of the dead), how is it that all the abandoned supermarkets and liquor stores out in the dead zone seem so well-stocked and organized? Wouldn’t all of those stores have been ransacked in the chaos immediately following the beginning of the zombie outbreak? And where did Big Daddy conveniently find that fire pot for his final move against Kaufman?
But you know what? Who cares? These are such minor quibbles, I’m almost embarrassed to even mention them. Romero’s films have always adhered to their own unique sense of logic and “Land” is no different. But unlike his previous films, this one feels huge. It enjoys the scale of a big Hollywood movie, yet never forgets its humble origins or its loyal fanbase.
I read another early review which ranks “Land” as better than “Night” but not as good as “Dawn.” I can’t do that quite yet. It’s going to take some time for this one to sink in. All I can say is that it’s a thoroughly worthy counterpart to the other three films, proudly staking out its own territory and yet perfectly fitting in with the rest of the series. Romero’s “Dead” films remind me in many ways of the “Alien” films. Each entry has its own unique style and flavor, which is also what binds them together.
Fortunately for us, however, is that unlike “Alien Resurrection,” George A. Romero’s “Land of the Dead” doesn’t suck. And finally…finally…I can say that I’m actually satisfied and content about a film this summer. I’m seeing “Batman Begins” tonight, so I hope the goodness keeps on coming. But at this point, all I can say is…
Thank you, Mr. Romero. You did it.
Grand Moff Lebowski