The response to our tag team approach has proven successful, so expect more of these for choice titles. The next one being War of the Worlds. Each time it’ll be Russ, Devin, and myself and one gentleman or lady plucked from our group of literate buddies (most likely an Atlanta contingent member) to help out. Today, it’s master of hopping Andrew Sweeney. Enjoy!
Russ Fischer: The old saying is that you can
never go home again. It’s been 20 years since a George Romero zombie flick
shambled onto screens. Day-haters would claim 1978’s Dawn
of the Dead was his last truly great film. To make matters worse,
talented filmmakers have recently made excellent flicks like 28
Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, which feast on
Romero’s history like a zombie on Duodenum Surprise. In short, audiences now are far more
aware of the Dead legacy than those of 1985. Is there any way that, after all
that time, Land of the Dead could stand tall among the Romero elite?
After years of failed financing, several script rewrites and an unfortunate
resemblance to the dodgy Dawn remake, Land of the Dead proves
that sometimes, old sayings don’t mean shit. Romero doesn’t just go home. He
moves back in, picks the best spot and reminds everyone just who built the
goddamn joint in the first place. And while even his best imitators are still
coming to terms with twenty-year old films, George Romero only looks forward.
before we talk about that, let’s cover the basics.
Nick Nunziata: The zombie holocaust is set up
in a quick and trendy credits sequence that emulates the jagged
pseudo-disturbing nature of Seven and its ilk, then hits the
ground running when the movie introduces us to our leading characters,
including Simon Baker as someone who may be the best leading man in a Romero
film ever. Ken Foree is a lord, but both he and Duane Jones were both
characters who surprised us with their power and leadership. The sneak attack
of the Living Dead being that George A. Romero was slyly sneaking a
strong leading role for a black man in front of his audience and in Dawn
of the Dead it was Foree’s presence among more traditional characters
made to seem like the leads until the last act. Here, he has his hero from
frame one and develops him in a way we just do not see in horror films. Baker
portrays Riley, the leader of a team of hunter/gatherers for a barricaded city
with only two things on his mind: ensuring that the less fortunate among the
populace are cared for and that he can leave this world behind in favor of the
idyllic tranquility of
Yeah, there are a few none-too-subtle cultural and political comments but we’ll
address those later.
great protagonist because he feels totally a part of this world Romero has
built. In its way, he’s the Mad Max or the Man With No Name character, trimmed
of fat and wholly driven by his own code. Without a leading character like
this, these movies can tend to be more about horror gags than actual fully
realized ideas and thankfully Romero and his surprisingly capable leading man
deliver. It’s what kept Day of the Dead from being a
masterpiece like the first two Romero zombie films (it’s still great, mind
you), nothing to cut the dread and give the human element some spark of life.
Riley’s claim to fame is the creation of the Dead Reckoning, an all-purposes instrument of wasteland survival.
Part semi, part bunker on wheels, and part rocket launcher, it’s a mobile
command center to keep the zombies out while the good guys are getting supplies
in. One could almost wonder if that secure box and the gated city it defends
might have some allegorical relationship to this country we live in.
When we start
our tale, it’s Riley’s last day on the job and the shifty Cholo (John
Leguizamo, who starts off weak but finishes strong) is already starting to hint
at worse things to come. Things are starting to unravel in this little cove of
Utopia in Hell.
Devin Faraci: Not that unraveling is a
surprise in a zombie movie. Zombie films are like Sandra Bullock movies or porn
flicks – you know exactly how they’re going to end. The fun is getting there.
And this time around Romero makes the journey lots of fun.
sure that an R-rated Dead film would even be worth
watching. The beauty of Dawn and Day (and Night
for its time) is that they’re so totally over the top – well, that
isn’t the beauty, but it’s the hot fudge slathered on a couple of scoops of
yummy ice cream. And while Land is not as hardcore as the last
two, it makes up for the less graphic aspects by keeping the hits coming
throughout the film. This is the most action packed Dead film. In fact,
Romero has structured the movie just like an average action film – except that
it’s smart, interesting and has stuff to say.
action throughout the film doesn’t keep Romero from setting up reasonable
characters (these aren’t Shakespearean in depth, but they aren’t the
one-dimensional, let’s do dumb shit just so we can die characters who inhabit
so many horror films) and creating a real and complete world. What’s impressive
is the economy that he uses to make that world – a brush stroke here and there
and we get the full picture of this post-apocalyptic world, maybe a couple of
years to a decade after the dead first started to rise, where the rich are
locked away in a high rise tower of luxury while everyone else lives on scraps
in the streets below. It’s a not so-subtle take on the economic system of a certain
major nation – and the fact that the people in charge use fear of the “walkers”
or “stenches” to keep people locked in the city certainly seems like yet
another bit of commentary.
Andrew Sweeney: If there’s one thing
you expect from a Romero movie, it’s commentary, and Land doesn’t
disappoint. Unlike the recent remake of Dawn, both the original Night
and Dawn were Romero’s personal soapboxes. Now it seems he has a
bit of a chip on his shoulder about
focal point for his criticism falls on Dennis Hopper’s Mr. Kaufman. Kaufman is
the CEO of Fiddler’s Green, the ivory tower that houses the wealthy, and the
man that employs both Riley and Cholo (Baker and Leguizamo, respectively). I
haven’t seen Hopper this good in quite a little while. Sure, he plays it over
the top, but it takes a certain kind of actor to play over the top with real
presence. Kaufman is the big bad in the penthouse, but he also comes in as the
comic relief, which you should have known from the trailers. He gets the
quotable lines, he gets to shoot henchmen, and he does so in a damn fine suit.
And on the subject of suits, while Simon Baker emerges as a strong
action lead, his ragtag band are the ones that hold him up. Riley’s second is
Charlie, very much in the vein of Tom Cullen and Steinbeck’s Lenny (Read a
book!), if either of those gents could cap a midget from fifty paces. Charlie
proves himself useful very early on as a zombie hunter, while the actor (Robert
Joy) proves himself a bit later as Riley’s main support. But honestly, what
would a zombie flick be without an iconic zombie role? We had Bub from Day…
All right, so there haven’t been a grand amount of iconic zombie roles. There
is now, however, in the form of Big Daddy the gas station attendant (Eugene
Clark). This cat feels it when other zombies are taken down, he figures out how
to use the machine gun, and he teaches zombie butchers to wield their cleavers.
Big Daddy is the first of the zombies to exhibit more of the “thinking”
behavior we see as the film progresses. This behavior furthers that commentary
stuff, but it also sets Land apart from the standard “zombie”
Russ Fischer: That’s how Romero is
looking to new avenues in the genre, and also keeping the movie fun. We’ve seen
every permutation of the classic Romero zombie, and these creatures need more
than a burst of speed to keep them fresh. I got a huge kick out of seeing this
weird evolutionary process that he’s created for the undead in Land.
The river scene was chilling, and while Riley’s crew and even Kaufman get some
solid kills, the most satisfying bits of film are those in which Big Daddy
takes a step forward.
By drawing the zombies closer to humans, Romero takes steps hinted
at in Day of the Dead, where Bub showed glimmers of humanity. I love
that this isn’t a simple human versus monster movie. There’s a real sympathy
here for the undead, and it makes the movie far more complex than the work of
your average Romero imitator. Only the coldest audience would refuse to root
for these zombies, even though the main characters are worth saving.
(Actually, I kept thinking of Shivers as the movie ran. Fiddler’s
Green is a lot like
attitude towards zombies is now identical to Cronenberg’s empathy for his
movie’s weird parasites.)
That only accounts for half my love, however. The balance goes to
Romero for having the stones to make a movie about exactly what he believes in,
and nothing else. Fox News will tell you that more than 50% of this country
doesn’t agree with his views, and when was the last time you saw a studio
picture that didn’t cater to every demographic? For that matter, when was the
last time you saw an American studio backed horror movie with a solid suite of
characters inside a tight story with well-conceived commentary? They’re few and
The question for me is whether or not this obviously partisan
movie will play as entertainment to people who don’t agree with Romero’s views.
Some elements may be commentary or may simply be plot, like the zombies who are
initially dazzled into silence by fireworks displays, but then become too
‘smart’ for that to be a factor. Actually, no — that’s commentary. But it also
works as plot, which is always the case here. There’s nothing shoehorned in
simply to make a point. Whatever problems the script may have had, what we see
on screen is remarkably unified. With me, Romero’s preaching to the converted,
I hope that a strong story and cool zombie scenes will carry less sympathetic
audiences along with the film.
Nick Nunziata: But Romero knows about balance,
and he never lets the message or the zombie smorgasbord rule the day for too
long and thankfully he’s tossed in quite a few action scenes that are less
about tension and more about the joy of watching heads fly open and bodies
ruined fully knowing that people are a lot more willing to watch hardcore
violence if it’s committed on unfeeling zombies. At times, it felt like a video
game with easy to hit zombies being nothing more than man-shaped bulls-eyes
(which is also summed up in a great visual gag late in the film). It shows that
ol’ George can easily do what the Dawn
remake did as well as take a mighty piss on the Resident Evil flicks without his coke bottle glasses fogging up.
as big a fan of Big Daddy as you folks, though. Granted, it’s impossible to
fill Bub’s shoes (was that him in the carnival sequence?) but while I like the
evolution of the zombie characters I wasn’t sold on what made this particular
one so much more advanced than the others other than the fact he represents one
of the true blue collar professions as a gas station attendant. Also, I can
only take so many pained screams at the heavens before wanting a little more
meat in my diet. At least he’s better than Carpenter’s Big Daddy Mars though.
wasted is Asia Argento, but that might just be because her character had the
most generic introduction possible, something straight out of an 80’s
post-apocalyptic time killer. And she wore clothes.
this is a very solid entry in what is still a very robust franchise and Russ’s
comments are dead on. I wonder how a group of people so very much enraptured in
being lulled by the sight of the rockets red glare in the sky while the danger
is a lot closer and at eye level will react to an undead mirror held to their
Andrew Sweeney: Without putting too
much of my own commentary in, I don’t have that much faith in mainstream America. I
don’t think that most common folk will make the connection that there’s a
duality in Land. I think most people will cheer when Kaufman
tells his lackey that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” and I don’t see
people being as sympathetic to the foreigne… undead, rather. (Now, to be fair, I didn’t get the
sky-flowers thing until the day after I saw the flick.) But for those who do
notice a cinematic sledgehammer to the noggin, Romero has a lot of pointed
things to say. The layering of those messages is where the power of it lies for
me, because for every heavy-handed, Morse coded message, there is a subtler one
underneath, and its that one that sticks with you after you leave the theater.
This brings me to an admission that will get my film-geek-cred
card revoked, I’m sure. I’m not really a Romero fan. I thought Night
was revolutionary for its time, but both Dawn and Day
left me pretty cold. I considered them “gore for gore’s sake” and a little
bland past that. Now wait, put down your scythes and let me finish. All the
gore (and its there, believe me) and action is balanced by these “brush
strokes” as Devin put it; simple, subtle scenes of comedy or drama that make Land
much more than the sum of its parts. There’s a sense of camaraderie between
Charlie and Riley that’s never directly addressed, but the actors make it
plain. There’s the rivalry between Cholo and Riley that’s not directly
addressed, there’s the pseudo-romance between Riley and Asia
that’s never addressed… Are you seeing a pattern here? As a Romero outsider,
I was really impressed by the film’s understatement when it comes to the
characters and the story. A standard Hollywood
flick by an old standby would’ve spelled things out in every facet, and the
film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. I can only compare Romero to a
magician who uses the flash paper to distract from the mechanics of the trick.
Most of the audience will be impressed by the big flash of light and will stare
at that, but the fans of magic will watch the magician, and be impressed by his
deftness and sleight of hand. And seeing as how I’ve become buried in my own
imagery, I’ll pass the torch and dig my way out.
Devin Faraci: That’s the Romero way, Sweeney.
In all of the Dead films to date he’s allowed the relationships
to breathe inside the story organically, without having people stop the forward
momentum of what’s going on to have some kind of scene that spells it out. It’s
just another part of what the man does so brilliantly in this film – he has
smuggled an almost indie aesthetic into a film that, to me, seems very
commercial. This is a movie with plenty of action and things blowing up and
good comedy (ie, not self-spoofing, but laughs that come out of the characters
and situations – although there is a segment, where Kaufman has a racially
diverse team of tough guys with code names, that’s obviously a straight satire
of how most other filmmakers would have handled this material), but it also
retains the heart of the last three films.
I agree a bit with Nick on Big Daddy – I like the concept and
everything, but his cries into the sky were a little much at times. That’s
hardly a complaint at all, mind you (I do have two minor complaints about the
film – the inserted characters who keep walking in front of the gory stuff
(think Eyes Wide Shut orgy) and the fact that the ending is a
little flaccid. The movie revs up and sort of peters out. It needed to end a
little bigger). But what’s great about Big Daddy is how he lets you into zombie
empathy. And he does some of my favorite stuff in the movie – as a former
organizer I can say that I would show this movie to people to explain the power
of organizing. Big Daddy may have been a blue collar worker, but I think he was
a union man as well, since he seems to have read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for
Radicals, the primer for organizers in
Even abandoning my own pinko love of the commentary in this film,
it’s just neat that the human/zombie paradigm gets shifted around a bit. We’re
seeing new sides to the conflict, and Romero is daring us to think about the
feelings of these stenches. And best of all he pulls it off – I mean, we knew
he could after Bub, but in Land he makes it work on a grander
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that Land of the
Dead is the second best Dead film. I can’t imagine how
any movie can dethrone Dawn, but I wonder if Romero still has it
in him to surprise me. I didn’t think that the guy could come back at this late
stage of the game and redefine the whole genre. Land of the Dead is
one of the smartest, most fun films I have seen in a very, very long time.
Russ Fischer: Well, Romero’s
original aesthetic was about as indie as you can get. While his other films
have strayed into mainstream studio territory, the Dead flicks have always
held that edge. I’m thrilled that Land of the Dead doesn’t break the
Part of that edge is his use of
gore. There’s been a lot of question about whether Land has enough, and from
my perspective it certainly does. Dead Alive this isn’t, but there’s
no doubt that you’re watching a Romero zombie film, and I didn’t feel like
concessions were made. The classic bits are intact — flesh rending and entrails —
and there are a couple nice touches, like a head-whipping biter.
Though I avoided almost all early images and clips, I’d been anxious
about the look of the makeup, as I often find Greg Nicotero’s work to be too
cartoonish. But this stuff is all I could have asked for. It’s grim and
serious, and fully fits into the series. Furthermore, CGI has really broadened
Romero’s palette. This is a far more detailed and fully realized version of the
world he’s been building for decades. And zombies aside, the makeup on Robert
Joy, as Charlie, is simply fantastic.
(No one ever complains about the zombie ringers in Dawn who
have just been brushed with blue paint, but I’ve already endured bitching about
the use of CGI here. Unbelievable.)
I can’t see any reason to doubt that this is among Romero’s best
work. It stands with Dawn and Night as prime horror
cinema. Land of the Dead performs a dual feat: it acts as a great film standing
alone, and as a marvelous cap to a monumental series. Even better, it does so
without bowing to commercial concessions, current trends or any expectations
other than Romero’s own. I didn’t dare expect even this much, and could never
have hoped for anything more.
Nick Nunziata: That’s the truth. This was the most thrilled I’ve been leaving a theater since Collateral, but for much different reasons. This is a perfect blend of old and new, fairly cutting edge technology and old school horror filmmaking. Whether or not the rumors are true about Romero being pushed around behind the scenes are irrelevant. It feels like Romero film and plays like a Romero film and what it lacks it sheen and polish it makes up for [excuse the pun] in BRAINS.
There will undoubtedly be people who see this as just another horror film or as opportunism, but to me it’s a Trojan Horse in Hollywood waiting to open and and muck up the system. When the old guard can do it better than the new guard and provide something that manipulates the fear reflex of an audience even better and just as pretty it just might knock the sense into executives to whom names like Romero, Coscarelli, Carpenter, and Argento are just conversation fillers when talking to the "next big name in horror".
Screw that, Land of the Dead is a reminder that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.