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Land of the Dead

George Romero, Canada/USA, 2005

Rating: 3.0


Posted: June 27, 2005

Ever been on a long car ride headed to a destination that you really don’t want to see? If you’re lucky enough to not be driving, a good book, magazine, or iPod can make the journey a lot less undesirable. But when the car stops and you gotta get out, there you are face to face with a surrounding that, given your druthers, you’d just as soon not see at all. In Land of the Dead, George Romero is at the wheel, taking zombie fans on a ride and dropping them off in the middle of a tired, played-out and unwelcome theme, but he gives us just enough spectacular zombie moments to keep our minds off of where we're headed.

After settling into the theatre for the start of Land of the Dead, the first notion one gets is that the film has been going on for about an hour and we've already missed the real beginning. Humanity is pretty much gone, and the world’s only inhabitants are the walking dead and a few outposts of humanity. One outpost is a “secure” city bordered by water and an electrified fence. The wealthy and powerful live in a huge skyscraper called Fiddler’s Green, where life goes on pretty much as normal with shopping malls, restaurants, and all the other attractions of upper-class life. Meanwhile, in the streets, the huddled masses live as best they can, scratching out a hardscrabble existence day by day, sitting in makeshift homes in front of televisions with no tube. Hmmm... let’s see, the wealthy live in protection and comfort at the expense of the poor. This is a noble concept, brought to life far better by Marx than by Romero, better suited to a Poli Sci class or a Sean Penn tirade than to the premiere zombie franchise of all time. Tell you what... we’ll come back to that one in a bit.

Because a fortified city needs supplies, a huge armored tank/truck (think Damnation Alley except with GE Miniguns, M60s, and dual six-pack rocket launchers) leads human expeditions to outlying areas to secure canned food, medicine and other supplies from surrounding dead cities. This vehicle’s name: Dead Reckoning. Some of the coolest scenes involve Dead Reckoning mowing down zombie hordes and launching barrages of fireworks -- or “skyflowers,” as they are called, as the colorful explosions totally mesmerize the undead.

Now, while all the characters suffer from a terminal lack of development, we can focus on three here: Riley (Simon Baker), the designer of Dead Reckoning, who is ready to ride off to the north in search of a better life; Cholo (John Leguizamo), who is bent on moving from the streets to Fiddler’s Green; and Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the man in charge of everything. In a decent film, Kaufman would be a poorly developed character. Here, we need only a few shots of him in his three-piece suit, sipping brandy and smoking cigars, to define him as “the man,” the “establishment,” the embodiment of the wealthy living off of the labor of the huddled masses in the streets.

Cholo, in addition to risking his life by leaving the protection of the city to secure supplies, has also profited by doing some of Kaufman’s dirty work, including disposing of the bodies of any dissidents within the city. When Cholo tells Kaufman that he has saved enough money to move into Fiddler’s Green, Kaufman informs him that that won’t be possible, as there is a considerably long waiting list. Oh, those devious upper-class schemers! Cholo does not take the news well. He hijacks Dead Reckoning and threatens to blow up Fiddler’s Green unless Kaufman gives him $5 million. Kaufman then sends Riley out to recapture the tank and save the city.

Okay, enough of the setup. To recap from my highly regarded Legacy of the Living Dead feature, in Night of the Living Dead, the zombies represented a kind of counterculture, a face to the turmoil of the Vietnam era and racial tensions in America. In Dawn of the Dead, the zombies were used to take a shot at consumerism. In Day of the Dead, the counterculture has taken over, and that the real monsters are the remaining humans. However, none of these subtle themes overpowered the film.

In Land of the Dead, however, Romero’s just venting his political spleen. Land of the Dead is a heavy-handed political film that browbeats its audience with Romero’s socio-economic mantra of the subjugation of the poor and the associated evils of American life. Perhaps the most unappealing aspect of that doctrine is that it does so at the expense of what was billed the “ultimate zombie masterpiece.”

There are several scenes, such as one of a human raid for supplies, which portray the zombies as the noble creatures and humans as predatory monsters. At one point, when the humans have a chance to eliminate a group of zombies, Riley lets loose with the unbelievable line "Let them go... they’re just looking for a place to go... just like us." With that line, and subsequent inaction, the zombies officially become the protagonists. The inmates are now officially running the asylum. This was perhaps Romero’s goal all along, but it sure doesn't make for a satisfying zombie flick, I'll tell you that much.

In a way, I suppose it's fitting that the man who created and defined this genre is also responsible for destroying it. And unlike Romero's zombies, it's supremely improbable that it will ever rise again.

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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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