Published at: June 24, 2005, 5:52 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
One of the dangers inherent to revisiting an early triumph for an older filmmaker is that they won’t be able to recapture whatever it was that made that early work connect with an audience, or that they just won’t be able to summon the same voice. George Lucas seems to be a great polarizing example of that, having burned down so much goodwill with his fans that even the Original Trilogy’s been tainted for some of them. For years now, George Romero’s been talking about returning to his roots and making another zombie film. There was that infamous flirtation with RESIDENT EVIL, and then several starts and stops on TWILIGHT OF THE DEAD or DEAD RECKONING or DIAMOND DEAD. I’d finally gotten to the point where I figured it would remain a rumor, and then, just as I’d given up hope of ever seeing it, Romero actually went and made the damn thing.
Walking into the screening at the Arclight on Tuesday night, I realized I was actually uneasy about seeing it. Romero, more than almost any of the other classic ‘70s horror filmmakers, has had a difficult career, marked by any number of disappointments. It would be impossible to overestimate the influence that he’s had on an entire generation of younger horror filmmakers, but he’s never really been given the respect he deserves in my opinion. He’s got a fascinating, if uneven, filmography, and as long as I’ve been interested in horror movies, he’s been someone that has stood alone from any trend.
The first review I ever read for any of his work, which was what typically led me to see someone’s movies when I was younger and trying to learn, was written by Roger Ebert for READER’S DIGEST. It was scathing, blistering, a poisonous hate letter. He called the film pornographic and wanted it pulled from theaters. Of course, a few years later, he reversed himself completely upon re-examining the film, and he’s even called DAWN OF THE DEAD “the ultimate horror film.” But it was that first article, the one where he piled on the hate and the repulsion, that I took as a ringing endorsement. I had no choice. I had to see a movie that made someone react that way.
What’s always impressed me about that original form is the blunt force of it. The stark black-and-white imagery, the raw emotion of the way the characters interact... it’s a desperate film, a sweaty, grimy little film, and it’s one of those movies that lingers like a nightmare. There are so many indelible images in that first film that I couldn’t boil it down to one thing I liked about it if I tried. It’s important to remember that when Romero made that movie, with that ending, he knew it was going to be a tricky sell because the civil rights movement was in full swing. But just as he locked the picture and started shopping it around to distributors, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. Romero was reportedly torn up and anxious, sure that no one would want to release his film with that ending intact. Now, over thirty-five years later, that ending retains every bit of its ability to shock and upset. It doesn’t matter when it was made... that ending takes balls.
DAWN OF THE DEAD is the pinnacle of the series, the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, if you will, the EVIL DEAD 2. It’s the one where absolutely everything comes together and it’s bigger and more ambitious than the first one. In NIGHT, everything’s played in microcosm, like an Edward Albee play with reanimated dead people that eat flesh. In DAWN, we get a sense of the way the world is crumbling now, the ways that people are trying to survive. Even people who have never seen the original DAWN have heard the title and may even know the premise. It doesn’t surprise me that Universal was so successful with the remake last year. It’s one of the simplest, most streamlined ideas for a movie ever, and it manages to mix social commentary with real scares effortlessly. Of all the films Romero made, this is the one that I’ve revisited the most frequently, and I’m always impressed anew by it. Some horror films don’t age well, or you find that familiarity dulls their effectiveness after a while, but DAWN still feels powerful and contemporary. It’s my favorite ensemble cast of the three original DEAD films, the gore effects are inventive and plentiful, and there’s an unrelenting bleakness that packs a real emotion punch. Plus... Goblin! Which is always a good thing! I’m also fascinated by the 7,485 different cuts that seem to exist of this film, and by the involvement of Dario Argento, and by the way the score keeps showing up in hip-hop and other movies. It’s a movie that deserves all the extra scrutiny.
It’s easy to bash DAY OF THE DEAD, and I’m used to seeing people dismiss it. I even do it a little bit, but how can you write off any film that features a character as great as Bub? I think DAY is the most compromised of the films in terms of budget and what the script was supposed to be versus what the film is, but Romero’s commitment to the world he created comes through loud and clear. I also like how you can see a real evolution from film to film to film. The world keeps devolving. Things continue to break down socially. Entropy wins. Hope seems to be a thing of the past in DAY, which might account for why the film makes some people so uncomfortable. The violence in the film seems meaner than in the first two. Everything’s uglier, and I’m not crazy about the cast in this one. Bub’s genius, though, and almost enough to make the film great all by himself.
The one thing that is consistent over all three of the films a sort of integrity, a genuine point-of-view that they’re trying to express. Romero made these films independently, and it shows. The films don’t follow easy formulas. They aren’t simply carbon copies of one another. So my concern when the lights when down and that great 1930’s version of the Universal logo came up was simple: could he possibly maintain that same voice all those years laster while working for a major studio?
Fuckin’ A right he did.
I am deeply impressed by LAND OF THE DEAD on every level. Technically, it’s the most accomplished thing he’s ever made. It’s also the closest thing he’s ever made to a mainstream movie. Part of that is the casting, which consists of familiar faces, a marked difference from the unknowns he’s employed in the series so far. Part of that is the relatively luxurious budget, miniscule by Hollywood standards but enough to let Romero take the next step with this story. For most people, there’s little difference between the living and the dead now. The living give up a little bit more each day, and the dead seem to actually be struggling their way back towards something that resembles life. It’s enough to make Riley (Simon Baker from THE RING 2) decide that it’s time to leave behind his job as part of a security team. He sees the end of everything right around the corner, and he’d rather be alone when the shit comes down.
Not everyone’s resigned, though. Cholo (played by John Leguizamo in one of the most nuanced performances he’s given in years) does the dirtiest work for Kaufman, and he figures he’s earned his way into Fiddler’s Green. When he realizes that Kaufman will never accept him as an equal, and that he’ll never be white enough to live in Fiddler’s Green, he steals the oversized battle tank that is the community’s greatest defensive weapon, the Dead Reckoning, and he holds it for ransom, threatening to turn it back against Kaufman’s brave new world if he doesn’t cough up a small fortune, leading Kaufman to send Riley out to catch Cholo, his former comrade-in-arms, and to retrieve the Dead Reckoning.
Notice anything about that plot synopsis? Romero’s written a film that is compelling and dramatic even before you add zombies into the equation. This isn’t just a good horror movie; it’s a good movie, a biting look at the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in our culture.
LAND OF THE DEAD is a post-Apocalyptic drama about class struggle. What really sells it is the way Romero uses the zombies as the social class that actually exists below poverty. Zombies, or “stenchers,” as several characters call them, are a problem to be solved, a hazard to be avoided, or trash to be swept aside. No one views them as human anymore. No one flinches at the idea of destroying them. No one pays any attention to them unless they have to.
And that is a serious mistake.
The very first scene of the movie, right after the exceptional opening credit sequence by Naomi Anderlini, shows Riley and a younger soldier watching as some zombies go about the business of their daily routine, a shambling parody of the way they used to live. There’s one zombie in particular that Riley’s fascinated by, a tall black guy in a gas station jumpsuit with a nametag that reads “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark). He seems to be capable of puzzle-solving, and of communicating with the other zombies, and even of organizing them. Later, when the Dead Reckoning swings through the most heavily infested areas, cutting down zombies with bullets to the head, Big Daddy is actually horrified and infuriated by what he sees. He wants to wake up his brethren and help them to safety, but he can’t. All he can do is watch dozens of them get destroyed, then watch the truck drive away again. But he watches where it goes. And he decides to follow it, actually leading the others. They take their cues from him. What he learns, they begin to learn. And before you know it, there’s a genuine army of these things, and they’re a bigger threat than any pumped-up running zombies we’ve seen recently could ever be. Eugene Clark’s not as great an actor as Howard Sherman was as Bub, but I’m impressed that this is the way Romero’s twisted his “black hero” archetype this time. Big Daddy is the Malcolm X to his fellow zombies, the first to care about how all the other zombies are being treated, the first to actually do something about it. Late in the movie, Big Daddy finally comes face to face with Dennis Hopper, who can only scream, “WHAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT?!” at him. Big Daddy responds with a furious noise that probably means the exact same thing, and for a moment, these two species, so close but so different, stand there like a funhouse mirror, each one horrible in its own way. It’s radical stuff, and Romero really makes it work.
I hope this is the start of a new trilogy. I hope we’re going to see ROAD OF THE DEAD and then WORLD OF THE DEAD, or whatever the heck he’s going to call them. I hope we follow the survivors from this film as they try to find a place they can finally call home. There’s more optimism at the end of this film than I’ve ever seen in a Romero DEAD film before, but I don’t think it’s because he made the movie for the studio. I think post-9/11, Romero genuinely believes that there is hope for us, something he may not have before now. He seems to really care about these characters, even the ones who aren’t fully fleshed out. Asia Argento and Pedro Miguel Arce both register strongly in smaller supporting roles, and there are dozens of zombies that make strong impressions. Which brings me to the work by Greg Nicotero and KNB Studios. I have to be honest... Greg’s designing several things for my episode of MASTERS OF HORROR right now, but that has nothing to do with the sheer glee that I take as a gorehound when I look at this film. Buckets of blood are spilled, and there’s a lot of red meat on display. This is exactly what I hoped for, but I feared the MPAA would never let it happen. Somehow, this is the first of the DEAD films to get a rating upon its initial release, and it actually got an R, but it’s still just as violent and horrific as any fan would want. I’m sure the inevitable restored director’s cut on DVD will be even more fun, but as it is, there’s a lot of stuff here that will cause huge reactions in the theaters this weekend. There are a few tricks that appear to have been digitally assisted or augmented, but for the most part, this is an old-fashioned make-up show, and that alone would be enough to get excited about. Romero knows that it’s just icing on the cake, though, and he always keeps the focus on the characters, on the situation, on the reality that he’s trying to weave. It’s a masterfully controlled film. For some horror fans, this will be a bigger event than EPISODE III was for STAR WARS nerds, because there is promise here of more to come, a return to form for a George we thought we’d lost. I love SHAUN OF THE DEAD. I enjoyed 28 DAYS LATER. I even thought Zack Snyder did a good job with his remake. But there’s no question... the king of this particular sub-genre has returned to claim his throne, and he is in fine form.
I’ve got a number of other reviews in the pipeline, including THE ARISTOCRATS, MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, MURDERBALL, and the outrageous PROMEDIO ROJO, so keep checking back all weekend. Until then...