Land of the Dead

Synopsis: Starring Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo, Land of the Dead finds humanity’s last remnants battling to survive the unspeakable truth: The ravenous zombie hordes besieging their fortified city…are evolving!

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Land of the Dead 7.75

eyelights: its scope. its production quality. its gory zombie action. its zombie make-up.
eyesores: its zombie protagonist.

“I always wanted to see how the other half lives.”

It took twenty years for George A. Romero to follow-up his last zombie movie, ‘Day of the Dead‘.

Twenty years.

Though he consistently directed motion pictures in the intervening years, it was only following the success of the 2004 remake of his ‘Dawn of the Dead‘ that he was afforded the proper budget to realize his vision of the zombie apocalypse he’d conceived of for his 1985 effort.

In 2005, brewed from pages’ worth of unused ideas cut out of Romero’s original ‘Day’ script, came ‘Land of the Dead’.

Set at an unestablished time after the events of ‘Night of the Living Dead‘, ‘Land’ finds a United States overrun by a zombie epidemic. Groups of armed marauders roam the countryside, looting deserted towns for valuables and destroying the zombies that they encounter.

But they start notice something unusual: the zombies are acting a little like humans.

What they don’t realize, however, is that some of the “walkers” are clever enough to make their way back en masse to the city. And, while the privileged few bicker amongst themselves, the zombie hordes will storm Fiddler’s Green, their luxury fortress, taking them by surprise.

This new entry in the ‘Dead’ trilogy, is a much slicker affair. Backed by cash and modern technology, Romero was able to make a grade-A picture that stands up to modern standards and audience expectations. It’s perhaps even Romero’s most well-realized picture.

You can completely see it in its scope, the set designs, the special effects, and, notably, the zombie make-up and gore effects. There may not be anything nearly as awe-inspiring as what he and Tom Savini had done in ‘Dawn’ and ‘Day’, the overall quality is quite stunning.

But it’s a little lacking in the social commentary department. Though it puts a spotlight on the growing disparity between the wealthy and the rest of American society, and how soulless modern existence has become, its messaging isn’t nearly as overt as they’d been in the past.

Still, it’s an entertaining and noteworthy picture.

My chief criticism, truth be told, is the fact that it all hinges on zombies evolving. This was something I had a difficult time with in ‘Day of the Dead’ and this remains true here: we’re expected to believe that, with time, zombies can regain a minor amount of their intellectual capacity.

Hmmm… not so sure.

But it’s a fait accompli, and you just have to grin and bear it even if you don’t buy it; Romero spends no time trying to convince us of the validity of this notion. So, when the Gas Attendant zombie rallies his peers and leads them to the front, all you can do is watch it unfolding.

For good or bad.

If anything, I was particularly taken with the post-zombie apocalyptic world that Romero presented. Though it doesn’t hold humanity to the highest regards (i.e. selfishness and greed rule), he put a lot of thought into creating a credible outcome for humanity’s survivors.

In ‘Land of the Dead’, people seem to have vacated the rural and suburban areas and barricaded themselves in secure urban areas. In Pittsburgh, most are struggling on the streets while select few live in Fiddler’s Green, which has a large indoor mall and lavish condos.

Under the rule and protection of Paul Kaufman, armed marauders seek out resources backed by Dead Reckoning, an armour-plated 16-wheeler stacked with armament. With it, they can mow down any opposition and shoot fireworks in the night sky to distract the “walkers”.

Frankly, I like how humanity has organized its survival here (the fireworks are a clever touch) and it makes sense that it’s happened under an unscrupulous businessman. It made sense in 2005, and it makes even more sense now, in the Trump era. It’s analogous, maybe even prescient.

It’s Romero’s condemnation of North American society, which elevates wealth above all other concerns, while large swaths of the population struggle. One character reflects on the zombies, saying “They’re pretending to be alive…” and another retorts “Isn’t that what we’re doing?”.

Romero couldn’t be clearer.

But the rest of the picture is really just a build up towards the inevitable confrontation, as the zombies slowly march towards the city – and tear down its defenses all too easily (were they designed by grade schoolers?). Still, the zombie feast in the mall at the end is particularly satisfying.

Ultimately, the picture revolves around the interpersonal conflicts of a handful of characters: Reilly, who wants out of Kaufman’s crew; Cholo, who wants buy his way into Fiddler’s Green; Slack, an ex-soldier forced into the sex trade; and Kaufman, the cold and calculating villain.

One of the picture’s problems, for me, is that there was no one to root for: Reilly was relatable, but charmless; Cholo was a selfish, cold-hearted @$$hole; Slack was a tough female, which I like, but she was a bit flavourless; and Kaufman, though commanding, feels bland.

And don’t get me started on the Gas Attendant zombie, also known as Big Daddy; I had a hard enough time with Bub from ‘Day of the Dead’.

The characters are actually well-written; their personalities are well-defined and make sense, contextually (ex: I very much like that Cholo is so callous about death; his way is appropriate for him. I also appreciated that Kaufman was so uncompromising that it would be his undoing).

But they lacked something

The cast doesn’t help much: Simon Baker is excellent but doesn’t have the meat to carry the film, John Leguizamo isn’t convincing as a tough marauder, Asia Argento (though she has presence) can’t act worth her life, and, though hard to imagine, Dennis Hopper is far too nuanced.

If not for the cast and its characters, ‘Land of the Dead’ would be a stand-out zombie picture; it’s well-conceived, perfectly-paced, superbly realized and, aside for some bad blue screening while they’re driving around, this is by far the best looking ‘Dead’ film of the lot.

Granted, I find it hard to accept how smart the zombies were, but it’s a natural continuation of ‘Day of the Dead’, which was a natural continuation of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ which was a natural continuation of ‘Night of the Living Dead’. By that virtue alone it’s a successful entry.

George A. Romero came roaring back with ‘Land’, and he’d keep the momentum going with ‘Diary of the Dead‘ and ‘Survival of the Dead‘, two sadly underrated and overlooked entries in his ‘Dead’ series. It was the perfect swan song: it wasn’t just a return to his roots, but to form.

R.I.P. George A. Romeo.

Story: 7.5
Acting: 7.5
Production: 8.0

Chills: 2.0
Violence: 5.0
Gore: 8.0

Date of viewing: September 17, 2017

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