George A. Romero's Land of the Dead
by George Romero (wr/dir)
Review by Drew Bittner
Universal Pictures Film
Date: / Show Official Info /
Simon Baker / Riley
John Leguizamo / Cholo
Asia Argento / Slack
Robert Joy / Charlie
Dennis Hopper / Kaufman
Eugene Clark / Big Daddy
Opening with crackly radio reports of the dead rising and worldwide panic, George Romero?s fourth zombie movie, Land of the Dead, shows ?what happened next.?
It is now some years after the events of Night of the Living Dead. A handful of the living survive in a ruined city, bounded by two rivers and an electric fence. A wealthy few live, play and shop inside a heavily guarded skyscraper called Fiddlers Green and the rest don't. There's no middle class here, only haves and have-nots. The most successful of the have-nots are mercenaries like Riley (Baker), who leads armed groups to raid suburbs for essentials. They've honed battle with zombies (referred to as "stenches") to a science, to the point that Riley's second-in-command Cholo (Leguizamo) is arrogantly careless, losing a soldier on an unauthorized side-trip for booze and cigars.
Riley realizes that the zombies are changing. They aren't mindless husks any more and he fears that their tactics--particularly using fireworks to distract the zombies--may not be effective forever.
When the soldiers whoop and holler their way through a zombie massacre, a massive gas station attendant, Big Daddy (Clark), takes command. In anguish and rage at this slaughter of his "people", he leads a mob of zombies toward Fiddlers Green to get revenge.
Back in the city, Riley discovers that his own escape plan (a car he'd been rebuilding) has been stolen. With his buddy Charlie (Joy), he goes to an underground arena to get justice, only to disrupt a caged zombie fight and save the life of Slack (Argento). The three of them are tossed into jail for his "civil disturbance".
Cholo, meanwhile, finds his ambitions thwarted by Kaufman (Hopper), plutocratic overlord of Fiddlers Green. It seems Cholo isn't white enough to qualify for a spot in the luxury skyscraper, no matter how many bodies he hauls to the junkheap for Kaufman. Enraged, he enlists his buddies to steal Dead Reckoning, a monstrous armed and armored vehicle used for scavenging runs. He demands a ransom from Kaufman by midnight or he'll level Fiddlers Green.
Riley and his friends are let out of jail to find and stop Dead Reckoning, but are saddled with three of Kaufman's goons. Can Riley find Dead Reckoning, stop Cholo and return to the city in time to prevent a zombie onslaught? Well?
Far and away the most ambitious of the Dead movies, this fourth installment retains the sharp-edged political/social satire that put Romero's work well above his imitators. Land of the Dead throws a spotlight on the ways (both subtle and brutal) in which the powerful get what they want and block others from doing likewise, sometimes only for their own amusement. Kaufman's smirking cat-and-mouse game with Riley is well-played, as is his contempt for Cholo's aspirations. Baker, Leguizamo and Hopper vividly portray men with overriding goals and weaknesses, whose inevitable clash will shake the house of cards that is Fiddlers Green. One great character bit: Kaufman's toting suitcases full of cash and Cholo's demand for ransom money are painfully ironic, given that money is a cultural artifact with no intrinsic value.
Clark deserves special mention for creating a zombie chieftain who is sympathetic, even as his army assaults the human enclave. Big Daddy teaches his followers to use tools, including guns, and conceives a clever way of attacking the city. With no lines of dialogue beyond howls of fury or simple grunts, Clark makes Big Daddy into a formidable enemy for Kaufman, as well as a worthy leader.
Robert Joy creates a memorable, reliable friend in Charlie, a semi-retarded and horribly burned man who owes his life to Riley. Asia Argento (daughter of Italian horror-meister Dario) is equally terrific as Slack, a woman victimized by the city's elite but smoldering with a need to fight back and gain her independence.
Where the previous movies often felt claustrophobic, this film expands the horizons and oddly feels agoraphobic at times. Viewing the vastness of the empty city brings home that humanity is on the verge of extinction. As much as the zombies themselves, moments like this bring home the quiet desolation, the true horror, of this post-apocalyptic world. Rather than shell shock and disbelieving hysteria, the survivors exist in a bizarre, poignant twilight of melancholy and denial--they've dealt with their personal terrors and moved on, rarely reflecting on the past except in brief, wistful asides. Similarly, for much of the film, the zombies aren't seen as being all that dangerous; they've become a problem, akin to the homeless, to be savaged or ignored but rarely feared. One of Romero's points seems to be that the living become numb to horror and so resemble the undead, even as the zombies struggle to regain some pathetic semblance of their bygone lives.
There's plenty of blood and violence to satisfy splatterpunk fans, but astute viewers will quickly realize there's an awful lot more to the movie than buckets of blood on the screen. (By the way, keep your eyes peeled for some very neat in-joke cameos, including a returnee from the original Dawn of the Dead.)