Saturday, July 30, 2005

Long Overdue - "Land of the Dead" Review

This is so late that it'll be hard to find anyone who cares - but I still wanted to post my thoughts on "Land of the Dead," George Romero's latest zombie movie.

I've been a big G.R. zombie fan ever since "Night of the Living Dead" became a Halloween staple on local TV. Around 1980, KTLA advertised a Halloween showing of "the most horrifying movie ever made" and launched a big PR push for "Night of the Living Dead" (or NOTLD, if you're a Dead Head). For about a week prior to showing the movie, they'd run these promo's that were brief shots of Barbara (played by Judith O'Dea) running while a grim sounding announcer warned that the movie contained "extremely graphic depictions of terror and cannibalism." Adult supervision was recommended and so I had to watch. I was, at 20, technically an adult, so I watched with my kid brother and thoroughly enjoyed the flick.

You gotta understand that Halloween was (and is) practically a religious holiday with Jeff and me. We'd buy a ton of dry ice, dress up as slaughter victims and scare the hell out of anyone old enough that we wouldn't feel bad about it. At the time, we lived in a particularly rough neighborhood of the I.E., and keeping an axe handle or handgun close at hand was considered common-sense on most nights and especially Halloween. Anyone taller than me who showed up looking for free candy might get breakfast instead: sour milk and stale cereal in a plastic bag designed to leak all over the place.

But you had to be quick to get it into their sack. Then we'd spend the rest of the night on top of the garage armed with a garden-hose or a super-soaker loaded with vinegar to dissuade the malcontents who'd come back and try to egg our house. What can I say? We were jackasses in a town that boasted the founding of the Hell's Angels. But I've grown up since then. Sort of.

At any rate, Halloween was a big deal. So we watched NOTLD and got a big kick out of it's simple plot line - people hole up in a remote farm-house and try not to get eaten by zombies. The formula is simple and it is the exact same story line for every zombie move Romero ever made. Stray from the formula it's just not an Authentic Zombie Tale.

"Land of the Dead" is pretty much the same tale, expanded. The time frame is sorta the present. Romero correctly assumes that everyone pretty much knows the story and we're thrown into it with only a modicum of introduction. A large city is fortuitously situated on a triangle of land surrounded on two sides by large (think Mississippi) rivers. The 3rd side is a no-man's land of barricades and barbed wire. Or maybe it's on an island - it's not really explained. At any rate, the city is divided into yuppie scum living in high rise apartments on top of a converted shopping mall called "Fiddler's Green." The non-yuppie scum live in Bladerunner-esque slums on the street serving up rat stew and dressing in clothing so moldy and disreputable that the Salvation Army would say, "uh, no thanks..."

Except for our heroes, who are very fashionably attired the sort of neo-goth clothing made fashionable by the heroes of The Matrix. This is a group of mercenary/scavenger's that raid local towns and cities for supplies to keep the bourgeois up to their ears in liquor, cigars and caviar. Why they do this is beyond me and is really the weakest point of the movie.

George has always considered himself, like most self-absorbed, egotistical, hollywood wonks, more of a social commentarian rather than a guy who makes his money peddling the socially acceptable big-screen version of snuff films. So he has to have this interplay of haves and have-nots to maintain this fiction, a sub-plot that was entirely missing from the original NOTLD, by far his best and most successful movie. So he throws it in here, but frankly, it just distracts from what the audience came for - zombies eating people shooting zombies.

After the plot is established you're left with the unanswered question, "why would anybody do this?" I mean the scavengers. They risk life and limb to bring back food that supports their friends and family, but most of it, it's made clear, is going to the wealthy in their high-rise apartments. And what is their reward? Money. As in greebacks. That's just silly. With the total breakdown of the economic and political system, food is the real currency. What would the movie have looked like if the leader of the scavengers (a little too-pure-to-be-true guy named Riley and played by Simon Baker) had told the king of the yuppies, Kaufman (played by Dennis Hopper) to get bent - no food until he embraces democracy or communism or just starves? What's he gonna do - shoot the only people competent enough to feed a city? Let them eat Gucci's!

So that's the story, except that there's a large hungry mob of zombies waiting just the other side of the river. Which brings me to the second weakest part of the story. In all of George's previous movies, he featured a strong black character as a lead actor. In 1968, this was rather daring. By Day of the Dead, it was merely de riguer. Here the strong black character is a "smart" zombie, played by Eugene Clark, who realizes that a hot meal is waiting just on the other side of the river.

I don't have any problem with a strong black character - it's the smart zombie part that's just silly. This guy becomes the undead equivalent of Che Guevarra, teaching the "dumb" zombies how to find and use weapons and proceeds to march to the city. Upon reaching the river, they look around and you can almost see the cartoon light-bulbs over their heads, "hey, we're already dead! Let's just stroll across the bottom and come up on the other side..." I'm not the world's best swimmer and it's all I can do to push down and touch the bottom. But this bunch of decaying biology experiments are not only not carried away by the tide, but they walk like they're loaded with lead and move in straight line right towards the target. I know this is a zombie flick, but come on...

The rest of the cast turns in a competent performance, with the exception of Simon Baker who, like Tom Cruise, appears to have just one facial expression ("Grim Determination") for the entire flick. Asia Argento plays an eye-candy part as the heart-of-gold hooker who really wants to be Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, but can't escape the fact that she got this job by being the producer's neice. The most interesting character in the whole flick is played by Robert Joy, Riley's mentally-challenged second banana, who just happens to be the world's best sniper.

The gore is what we've come to expect from Romero, no big surprises there. The movies proceeds in a formulaic fashion that results in no tension - it goes from point A to point B to it's entirely predictable conclusion with no deviation. There's a couple of really poor CGI and blue screen effects that, at least in my audience, produced giggles instead of drama.

28 Days Later and Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead were gorier and more dramatic, with some scenes of great pathos. (The scene in Zack's DOTD where a daughter pleads for the life of her zombie-disease infected father is truly heart-breaking.) But, all that said, this movie will be a big hit with zombie dead-heads like me. It's got Romero's name on it and the formula is what we've come to expect and, frankly, what we wanted. Look for this movie to make most of it's money in DVD sales to die-hards (like me) that have every version of the first three movies on both VHS and DVD.

Everyone else will be left wondering why anybody greenlighted this movie in the first place.

No comments: