Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Land of the Dead

In the last two posts, we've examined Dennis Hopper as a chainsaw-wielding Texas Ranger and a drug-addled gangster, but now it's time for his most terrifying incarnation:

Nose-picking Republican.

Hopper plays Kaufman, a snaky CEO who has created Fiddler's Green, a sanctuary in a world overrun by zombies. For those with money and class, they live in luxury, protected by a private army to indulge in excess and be oblivious to the outside world. For those who can't get in, they huddle at the base of this skyscraper in poverty.

That's why Cholo (John Leguizamo) wants in. A mercenary scavenger who ventures outside the city to forage for supplies, Cholo thinks he's saved enough money to buy his way in. But when Kaufman rejects him, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning, a heavily armored vehicle equipped with rockets and machine guns, and threatens to shell Fiddler's Green unless he's paid off. Rather than "negotiate with terrorists," Kaufman taps Riley (Simon Baker), another scavenger, to recover Dead Reckoning and stop Cholo. Meanwhile, a zombie known as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is showing signs of intelligence. After a human raid kills several of his brethren, Big Daddy leads a zombie horde onto the city, drawn by the lights of Fiddler's Green.

After a twenty years, director George Romero returns with his fourth entry in his Dead series, Land of the Dead. It marks his only studio zombie film, giving him the highest budget he's had for a zombie movie, and he uses it to craft his epic, although it stumbles in places.

Whereas the previous entries were confined to one location and group of characters, Land involves several factions venturing across a city (Toronto standing in for Pittsburgh). The scope Romero achieves is impressive. The crumbling urban wasteland of the film suggests a modern Escape from New York with zombies (this connection was reinforced when Romero stated John Carpenter wanted to score the film). Everything looks grungy and industrial.

On the downside, the limited scenarios of the previous films allowed for a greater degree of focus. Land runs a little over 90 minutes, and as a result, many elements feel truncated. Riley's search for Dead Reckoning is resolved with a convenient homing device, and his seizing it occurs after a few minutes of dialogue and a quick scuffle. That's a cheat. Another group, an angry rabble seeking to overthrow Kaufman led by Mulligan (Bruce McFee), hardly figures in at all. Likewise, when the zombies inevitably attack the city and Fiddler's Green, it occurs too quickly and easily. While I can buy zombies taking over a skyscraper, it feels rushed to fit in the last twenty minutes.

Still, there is a leanness to the proceedings, and Romero hints at fascinating back stories. Many people have criticized the film's insistence people would still find value in money in a post-apocalyptic world, but Charlie (Robert Joy), Riley's sidekick, says something about how such things are that way everywhere. When Cholo makes his demands to Kaufman, his crew looks confused and upset, indicating they weren't aware this was Cholo's plan. Little stuff like that is sprinkled throughout the film, and it gives most characters a way to stand out.

But the film's biggest problem is its inability to generate much terror and suspense. Most of the primary characters hardly interact with the zombies. If I'm not mistaken, Riley is only threatened by them on one occasion, and Cholo's group hunkers down in Dead Reckoning unbothered. Most zombies attacks occur against anonymous soldiers, and while those are gory and exciting, they're not particularly scary.

This is related to Romero's decision to make zombies smarter and sympathetic. This also drew criticism, but I think it makes sense. Big Daddy is an extension of the previous African American characters in the series. Ben, Peter, and John all displayed levelheadedness, resolve, and leadership in their respective films, and Big Daddy is the next progression. For a zombie, he's smart, displaying basic problem solving and leadership skills and weapons use. He has the clearest vision, heading straight for Fiddler's Green while the humans are running around absorbed in their conflicts or blinded by greed.

The zombies are still shambling, rotting corpses (excellent effects by KNB Effects, although the CGI is weak), and they're becoming more dangerous. The humans have become complacent since they're relatively safe, treating the zombies like jokes by hanging them upside down for target practice and using them games. This comes back on bite them on the ass (literally).

The best scene in the movie is when Big Daddy leads his ghouls out of the river unopposed by either the cold or humans. The shot is creepy, dark, full of dread, and apocalyptic. If the opening raid in the outlying towns sparked Big Daddy's attack, this is the blowback landing on home shores. Ignoring the problem and walling themselves off from the world have failed. In another great shot, Big Daddy and his bunch shatter the glass entrance to Fiddler's Green , destroying the residents' illusion of safety. I think Romero missed an opportunity not having Big Daddy use the elevator to get to Kaufman. It would have furthered the evolution aspect, although the confrontation in the parking lot is satisfying.

Romero made a studio film, and he got benefits and drawbacks from that arrangement. Land has the best acting and largest scope of the series, and Romero manages to work in commentary about human nature and society, and the zombies look great and are examined in unique ways. But the script feels rushed and contrived, particularly in the second half, and the interesting characters are hardly ever in danger. A compromised work but an interesting one.

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