Saturday, December 1, 2007

reVIEW (31)

In preparation for the upcoming Diary of the Dead, here’s a look back at George Romero’s Land of the Dead.

In 1968, then 28-year old George Romero shot a little black-and-white movie in Pittsburgh, and in the process, not only gave birth to the zombie film as we know it, but also became the Father of the Horror Film as Social Commentary. That movie was the original Night of the Living Dead.
Nearly four decades later, and Romero has returned for a fourth zombie outing in the Land of the Dead, ushering us back into the world whose rules he pretty much wrote in Night, Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985).
Here, Riley (Simon Baker, TV’s The Guardian and The Ring Two) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) are mercenaries on the cusp of retirement, about to pack in the supply raids and zombie shooting for new lives, while Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) is the big man of Fiddler’s Green, an exclusive community for the powerful and influential, surrounded by the hordes of have-nots huddled around its skyscraping, climate-controlled glory. And in the ruins of suburbia, the walking dead seem to be regaining a semblance of sentience…

Navigating this simmering cauldron of societal unease with the confidence of a well-traveled journeyman, Romero once again tells a tale of survival horror which is far more than just flesh-chomping and head-exploding grue.
In the wake of modern civilization’s fall, trod upon remorselessly by the shuffling feet of the living dead, Romero posits the emergence of three discreet societies: Fiddler’s Green, the co-opted, jury-rigged society for the privileged few; the urban squalor of the sprawl, a more organic community, growing fungus-like in the leavings and detritus of the Green, the masses scrambling for warmth and protection through osmosis; and the living dead of suburbia, finally waking from their long sleep of apathy.

It is by the clash and grind of these societies that the tale of Land of the Dead is told, a tale of individuals trying to make some sort of sense of the world they find themselves in, of the hand Fate has dealt them.
Riley wants out, Cholo wants in, while Kaufman, the author of much of the misery and injustice we witness in Land of the Dead, sees the Green as his God-given right, by virtue of his having taken it and molded it into what it is; very American attitude, that.
Paradoxically, Kaufman even turns the milling masses into a mirror image of the walking dead, taking the “bread and circuses” maxim and giving them vice and entertainment, keeping them oblivious to the inherent wrongness of the situation.

Ironically, it is the dead of suburbia, cruelly stripped of their cognition and humanity, who first begin to stir themselves into concerted action, finally tiring of the abuse heaped upon them by the bands of the quick who repeatedly invade their territory to steal food, medicine, and supplies. (Admittedly, all of this is now useless to the dead, but it is, after all, the principle of the thing, and the flagrant disregard the quick have for them, that becomes the bloody bone of contention here.)
In the sprawl, it is only agitators like Mulligan (Bruce McFee) who try to stir up the flames of revolution, while the masses are kept occupied by gambling and bloodsport (just as the zombies are, initially, fixated by the fireworks displays of Riley’s “sky flowers”; this, in itself, a chilling echo of man’s own inherent tendency to stare, fixated, at gaudy displays of hollow “entertainment,” while his world crumbles and decays around him).

Admittedly, Romero does what he does best in Land of the Dead; manage to pack all of that (and more) into a movie that is ostensibly about flesh-eating zombies. Somehow though, there was still a part of me that wondered why he chose to return to territory he’d already charted so well in the past.
Yes, in the wake of the success of 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead, zombies are once again part of the horror du jour landscape, but Romero is so much more than the zombie guy.
As I recall, Monkey Shines was a tense, nasty little shocker, and all that had was a psychotic monkey. Nope, no shambling, hungry undead there.
Of course, what did he choose as a follow-up but yet another zombie movie, Diary of the Dead.
Strangely enough though, given my tainted approval of Land of the Dead, I’m actually anticipating Diary, as it appears to be Romero’s return to independent filmmaking, and he seems very excited about the work.
And hey, if George Romero is excited about something, then any self-respecting horror geek would be excited about it too.

Parting shot: Terminally hot Asia Argento (daughter of legendary Italian director Dario Argento; who starred opposite Vin Diesel in XXX and headlines the highly anticipated La Terza Madre) is Slack, the nominal love interest here.
Also, appearing in zombie cameos are long-time Romero collaborator and special make-up effects guru Tom Savini, as well as Shaun of the Dead duo, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.

Parting shot 2: A review of The Ring Two can be found in the Archive.

(Land of the Dead OS courtesy of

(The above is an altered version of the review originally titled “Dead Like Me.”)

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