Land of the Dead, 2005
Written and Directed by George Romero
97 minutes (director's cut)
My favorite scene in Land of the Dead comes early on. It takes place in a sort of gaming and pleasure palace in Fiddler's Green, where all the richest people in a barricaded postapocalyptic city live. The poor, you see, live in the slums that make up the rest of the city, and make their living by getting the stuff that the rich people want.
The wealthy inhabitants of Fiddler's Green are inured to the nightmarish world in which they live to such a degree that they have made to such a degree that they have made zombies into objects of fun and games, such as target practice. Or in a sort of cockfight between two of the monsters, in which they are painted respectively red and black and are made to fight each other. "Zombies don't fight," one man obects. "They do when there's food."
And what food, as a woman named Slack (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento, who produced Romero's masterpiece Dawn of the Dead) is thrown into the Thunderdome-like cage in place of the dog or cat that would normally be used. We later learn that she's a political dissident, a thorn in the side of Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, channeling Don Rumsfield) who owns this Dionysian pleasure palace. In the stands around her, people cheer on the ghouls, placing bets, and it's only when the hero of the movie Riley (Simon Baker) shoots the zombies that they scatter.
But why do they cheer? Do they know that she's a political dissident -- are they cheering for the destruction of someone who is attacking "their way of life?" Is Romero making some statement about the disconnect of these rich people from the other humans around them, that they are so isolated that they have lost their humanity? Or is he suggesting that it is the violence of this world, a world in which every person has most likely not only killed members of the undead, but also friends and family members who have turned into the undead, is so pervasive as to make human life seem not precious, but worthless? It is the genius of this film (like Romero's other zombie films) that it suggests these questions in the audience. It is the weakness of this film that it is so focused on the standard action plot it finds itself using that it doesn't attempt to answer them.
Let me back up a bit. Land of the Dead is the first of the Romero zombie movies that attempts to show how societies, rather than just random bands of survivors, will weather the shock of the rising of the dead. This is also the first of his zombie films that has an appreciable budget ($15 million, a shoestring for most filmmakers but a veritable feast for Ramero), which is not a coincidence. Romero uses his budget to pay for a larger cast, more impressive gore effects (this time not by Tom Savini but by the special-effects group KNB, headed by Greg Nicotero), and more expensive sets.
All of this gives the film a much more epic scope visually, but at 97 minutes (this is the unrated edition, which is about six minutes longer than the theatrical version -- most of the excess is taken up by a brief scene inside Fiddler's Green and with longer takes of some of the gorier effects that had to be cut to gain the R rating), Land is only a few minutes longer than the shortest of the Dead flicks, the first, which took place almost entirely in a single house. He also includes an action-oriented plot involving Cholo (John Leguizamo, perfect in the role) ,a poor mercenary, blackmailing Kaufman with bombing in an attempt to buy his way into Fiddler's Green. Romero uses this plot as a way of social commentary, but he's so focused on the needs of the action movie that he rushes past some of the more interesting points.
I realize this review is wandering all over, but I can't continue without mentioning one of the central points of the movie, which is the further development of the zombies. In Day of the Dead, Romero gave us a single zombie Bub who was able to perform simple tasks through imitation and through distant memories. Here, we have a whole group of zombies gaining some level of awareness of their surroundings, led by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who spends most of the movie trying to protect his fellow undead and to get his tribe to safety. One of the final images of the film suggests a future in which zombies and humans are able to coexist relatively peacefully.
There's so much I haven't mentioned about this movie, which just goes to show how much there is to like here. I'm a big fan of Romero's movies, and Land of the Dead is no exception, but I do think that Romero has either lost his nerve or given into corporate pressure in railroading his story along the action-movie plot the way he does. Night and Dawn are masterpieces of organic story, of rich connective tissue causing events to flow into one another like dominoes falling. These movies are not easily divisile into straightforward "acts," and resist analysis because of it. The later two films, Day and now Land have much more restrictive structures and are thus more predictable, which makes them not only less scary but less interesting to boot.
Diary of the Dead hasn't opened in my area yet, but I'm hoping that George has returned to his earlier roots in terms of structure as well as theme. It's gotten very mixed reviews, but then again so did Day and Land, and you can expect to see my review as soon as I can get ahold of it.