George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead

Cast:
Simon Baker as Riley
John Leguizamo as Cholo
Dennis Hopper as Kaufman
Asia Argento as Slack
Robert Joy as Charlie
Eugene Clark as Big Daddy
Sasha Roiz as Manolete
Krista Bridges as Motown
Pedro Miguel Arce as Pillsbury
Tony Nappo as Foxy
Joanne Boland as Pretty Boy
Jennifer Baxter as Number 9
Boyd Banks as Butcher
Jasmin Geljo as Tambourine Man
Max McCabe as Mouse

Analysis:
George A. Romero returns to the genre he helped create – the zombie film – in high style.

Following in the footsteps of his first three ‘Dead’ films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead) zombies have overrun the world, and humanity has been forced into walled in cities to survive, with special mercenary units going out to find fresh supplies. Riley (Simon Baker) is the leader of one such unit, working for big man in charge Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Riley dreams of escaping from the city and out into the wilderness of Canada where he can be free of zombies and men alike. But before he can leave he has to go on one last mission to stop Cholo (John Leguizamo), his second-in-command, from destroying the city in his own bid for power. Obsessed with their own personal battles, no one has noticed that the zombies have begun to communicate and work together, and are preparing to overwhelm the city.

George A. Romero has mostly been known as a great horror film maker – and he is, mastering all of the different areas of the genre, from squirm inducing gore to taut emotional tension to classic jump scares, and all of those skills are evident in Land of the Dead. He doesn’t get nearly as much credit, however, for his sarcastic wit and keen eye for social commentary, both which have always been as much a part of his zombie movies as the gore and both of which are back in full force in his latest film.

Romero’s zombie movies have always been about people, not zombies. That’s what makes them work so well and Land of the Dead is no exception. In a world overrun by the living dead, the worst evil still comes from men. Inside the glass tower of Fiddler’s Green, life continues as if the zombie apocalypse hadn’t come. Prosperous people in good clothes eat at nice restaurants and shop in nice stores and live in nice apartments. Outside the tower, in the rest of the city, it’s a different story. People live in rundown shacks, cars, and tents. They’re dirty, they don’t have much medicine or much food, but they get by. They’re kept entertained by all number of vices set up by Kaufman – played with perfect oiliness by Dennis Hopper – the lord of the city, to keep them from noticing what a bad deal their getting.

The only one that does know what’s going on is Riley, played with detached charisma by Simon Baker. He’s attuned to nature and dislikes the cold concrete artificiality of the city and the people who run it. He sees the zombies as just another part of nature, predators to be killed in order to survive, but not to be hunted down and slaughtered. He’s realized that trying to control the world is a waste of time; it’s better to try and live with it.

There’s a rising insurgency in the city by some of the lower class, who want to throw the upper class out of their tower and create a more communal government to benefit everyone. Kaufman has been using mercenaries like Leguizamo’s Cholo to do his dirty work to keep the insurgents down, in exchange for money that he’s never going to pay. Cholo is a character straight out of one of Leone’s westerns – he’ll do horrible things to get what he wants, but expects people to keep their word and if they don’t he rain murder down on them. Leguizamo is ruthless and charming as Cholo, and it works perfectly with the western ideal, even at the end as he faces his fate head on.

Romero’s created an entire world for these people – a world that has been overrun by zombies, and he intelligently and realistically brought it to life, which is no small feat. It’s a lot of balls to juggle, but Romero does so admirably. The whole ensemble works, with even the smallest character’s getting just the right amount of attention to keep things moving. Baker is probably the weakest link in the chain, occasionally too bland as a leading man and easily upstaged by Leguizamo, but on the whole it works.

And before anybody gets worried that it’s all social commentary and there aren’t any zombies in this zombie movie, rest assured there are. When the zombies finally make it to the city, rising out of the river like Martin Sheen, it initiates the largest zombie attack Romero’s ever attempted, and it’s gruesome. It doesn’t quite reach the over-the-top gore levels of Peter Jackson’s classic Dead Alive, but it’s a great zombie attack and easily the highlight of the film, with some of the best gore site gags I’ve seen – I’ll never be able to look at a belly button stud the same way again.

It also sees the return of the slow zombie. Romero has said that he is against the idea of the fast charging zombie, preferring the classic ambler, and he makes it work here. These zombies don’t need speed to be scary – they come on slow but inexorable like the ocean tide.

Land of the Dead is classic horror done by the master, filled with wit and solid characters, which works on several levels.

George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead is rated R for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use.

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