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Land Of The Dead (2005)
Director: George A. Romero

review by Paul Higson

He's back, they're back and I am back. Back in the cinema, with the chomping dead on the screen where they belong, serving the zombie master's allegorical purpose, as they ought to be. Nobody does it better than George A Romero. His Land Of The Dead is not perfect, but whatever Romero gets wrong, he makes up for it twice over in other ways, like intelligence in a horror film. The plot is basic, the characters not quite as developed as one might like and driven by a director's taste for justice there is the odd plot move that you drop your shoulders at. But it's the details, and the wealth of ideas and the politics, and the gruesome imagination, and the non-stop of incidence and action that keep you in, have you startled, re-uptake you with laughter and thrills.

In a three-tiered zombie post-apocalyptic society there are the idle hoards of zombies, the working class alive and the wealthy elite, the latter tucked away in a tower block called Fiddler's Green. The working majority scrape a living like filthy cooties around the base of the phallic tower. Salvage crews journey out into the cursed earth re-stocking the city, an activity funded by the emperor of the city, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). The little town the salvage brigade hit for supplies is one of those lovely little sitcom places, a place were angels might give you an idea of how the world might have been without you. Only this town is seen through the blackest of lenses. The first pan over the green to the bandstand is a landscape from hell, an appal topped by a sick snicker, as the zombies who found their way back give a pathetic blast on a trombone and a periodic chink on the tambourine. Riley (Simon Baker), spies on a little group of perambulating carcasses at a gas station, the petrol pump attendant and dating dead teenagers seemingly attempting communication, Riley coming to the conclusion that the dead are evolving. The backstory to the teenagers can be imagined, at the pique of their love they died, and, going by the lore of the series (set in Dawn Of The Dead), they are tied together in death because they once meant something to one another in whatever it was that came before.

Riley has a sidekick, the simple Charlie, his face a knot of scars, one eye blind, rescued from a fire by Riley, and looking after one another ever since. The one good eye is a very good eye indeed, and with a lick of the sights of his rifle he hits that zombie brow every shot. Newcomers to the partnership question the symbiotic relationship but they have clearly survived only as a result of being together. Charlie is introduced in the shadows, mistaken by the new salvager for a zombie. In this ugly new world a simpleton with a mangled face and one eye would be dead in a trice. Where it not for a protector, he wouldn't see the wrongly assumptive assailant coming. Charlie is played by Robert Joy, who is normally seen in sparky roles, confrontational, sly and alert, and so there was some initial disappointment seeing him reduced to this, but the teaming is eventually bought and its impressive downplaying by Joy.

The salvage crew run alongside a battle-truck cutely christened 'Dead Reckoning.' Cholo (John Leguizamo) is the reckless veteran of the missions, risking lives to replenish his sideline in beer and other illicit wares. He has a direct line to Kaufman but his days of usefulness are numbered, as he wants into the upper echelons. The dead are wising up and follow the vehicles that shot them up. Follow them out of town and into the direction of the city.

Most amusingly there is a core contingent to the dead ranks that you might call 'Team Zombie'. The petrol pump attendant, aka Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), the till death us don't part teenage couple (Lara Amersey and Michael Belisario), a big butcher (Boyd Banks) and a blonde in a number 9 baseball outfit (Jennifer Baxter) together dawdle through conflict after conflict and obstacle upon obstacle, and will still be there. The dead picked up on the way, meanwhile, do the Starship Enterprise thing, are the dispensable dead and do the falling down under an explosion of squibs while the star zombies trundle on. It is knowingly absurd and you are expected to laugh with it. Tom Savini returns as the Dawn Of The Dead biker in hungry corpse mode, while KNB bring that identical clown zombie back from Day Of The Dead (I only recently noticed that in his last scene in Day Of The Dead, he shared the scene with a ballerina zombie who was walking on her toes. How wonderful is that?). So there is the possibility of a reference to Night Of The Living Dead too. Perhaps I will notice the Graveyard Ghoul in there somewhere come the perfectly natural repeat viewing.

The politics are clear, Kaufman is Bush, but the entire allegory was one, at the time, clearly more one of wishful thinking, that since appears to be coming to pass with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a dreadful tragedy and a terrible state of affairs. Kaufman represents the Republican leadership and government, distracting the population by buying them sinful pastimes. He has his wealthy allies and his army. The living survivors at ground level are the democrats and independents, largely aware of what an exploitative bastard he is, but powerless to change things in the current mindless climate. The dead 'survivors' are the switched off Republican voters, the zombie majority. Hey, they are even led by a petrol pump attendant. But as with the recent situation, even they are awakening to who is responsible for their maltreatment. They have been ignorant to their plight but they have been pushed and are responding, turning on the leader. When Big Daddy catches up with Kaufman he turns on him with a petrol pump, cracking the car windscreen with it, pumping gasoline into the vehicle. There is a terrible missed opportunity here, as the director is spoilt for an avenger. Should he let Big Daddy kill him or Cholo? Instead, he works up a scenario in which they clumsily both see him out. A more apt angle would have been to have Kaufman drown in gasoline trapped in his car. Dead, he would have reanimated swimming in the cubic capacity of the vehicle, allowing Cholo to wade in and 'kill' him the second time.

With the exception of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger this is an all-new crew for Romero, and though sad to see the end of the familiar Romero film family, this has not hampered the veteran filmmaker. It is very much the spectacular Romero vision. Although it lacks the characters that the earlier episodes had, it, at least, has no poor performances, which is what Day Of The Dead suffers most from, the film in which he seemingly had an emergency casting preferring character faces over acting ability for a couple of the leading characters. There are no bad performances but neither are they, despite the usual rich Romero dialogue, overly incisive and the director relies instead on quirks like dress, abilities and names to surrogate true back history for the many characters. For example, Phil Fondacaro (one of the best screen Draculas I have ever seen) is a nasty dwarf called Chihauhau. Asia Argento is never fully engaged in properly in the film as Slack, the fishnets whore who is rescued from the 'bear pit' by Riley and becomes one of the team sent to recover Dead Reckoning from Cholo and his mischievous crew. You can add to the brew members of Kaufman trained fighting police unit and you have an odd clutch of types.

Romero has it that members of each collective survive to represent the unilateral conjoining of the many rogue political elements. Of course, a simple plot requires McGuffins and here the fight had to be over a vehicle and money. Larger than the average SUV that vehicle is too. The dollar should be worthless in this landscape but, understanding the controlling effect of money Kaufman, ensures its continuing importance. The film feels more like a John Carpenter film, but Carpenter when he could still hack it, and Carpenter if he could see a story through. Romero is the only one of his heyday contemporaries still doing what he did so successfully then now. Cronenberg is also continuing to turn out intelligent and cutting-edge cinema, but they are two aside, while Craven makes his eighth mediocre film in a row, Carpenter sprints from film to film repeatedly running out of energy, De Palma skips across genres with only occasional success but more often embarrassing himself and Argento proving far too often how embarrassing he can be, with an occasional touch of daft genius (a complete sucker for Sleepless, am I).

If the turnaround from announcement of the film to completion was worrying, it shouldn't have been. It was not that rushed a script, clearly taking elements from abandoned projects over the last 20 years. Day Of The Dead was made as a compromise at short notice when the money was not in place to afford a bigger idea about trained armies of the dead. Then there was 'Twilight of the Dead', in which New Yorker George would seem to have had the Twin Towers as the setting, with a community of survivors housed therein. There was time spent developing Resident Evil to no avail, and subsequently 'The Ill', to be set in England. The best bites of the four projects will have been cribbed from for the new film... and there is the sense of some of those jigsaw pieces being hammered in by a fist. The film should not be getting full marks, and may grate in part when seen a few times, but first impact is what is getting reviewed here.

I can now claim that I saw all four dead films for the first time in a cinema. Cronenberg was on a neighbouring screen at the AMC with The History Of Violence and I was oh so tempted to take myself in and make a double bill of it, reviving the circumstances during which I saw the first in the dead quadrilogy, Dawn Of The Dead on a double bill with The Brood, and Night Of The Living Dead six months later on a double bill with Shivers. The audiences these days are prone to chatter and though I normally get my, "Shut up! If you're not watching the film, then get out!" very early, I would like to think that the relative hush that took over the cinema was more down to the film and its bewitching hold on them. It's incredible that Romero and the dead are back, I thought the big picture was beyond him, that he might be too frail for the epic feature. I'm a big fan and I am over the moon. I was cool in the knowledge that the film was coming but I'm a silly kid again now that it is here. Thanks, George!
Land of the Dead

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