A SERIES THAT'S ANYTHING BUT DEAD
George A. Romero, the godfather of the zombie genre, has taken his concept to the next level. You'd think that with countless imitations this idea would have grown tired by now, but "Land of the Dead" is still surprisingly fresh as the flesh that's for dinner.
When the film opens the zombies are already walking. Those who haven't yet been infected have adapted to life with the undead always just feet away, and those too slow to react become their fodder. Our hero is played by Simon Baker. We know he's our hero because he's good looking and his name is Riley. Riley leads a band of missionaries who survive by killing zombies with their unlimited ammo supplies and by brining food and booze into the city for its people to consume.
The shantytowns where the people dwell are at the foot of a towering skyscraper that encompasses the city of Fiddler's Green, a luxurious super-rich community for the wealthy to literally escape the outside world. Shopping in elegant malls and dining in fancy restaurants these aristocrats forget the hellish nightmare that exists outside their very walls. If they haven't forgotten then they just don't care. Social satire at its best a la Romero.
Working under Riley is Cholo (John Leguizamo), a rugged Hispanic who wants in and has saved up enough money to live in Fiddler's Green, but knows "his people" don't fit in and would never be accepted. When he's flat-out rejected by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the penthouse occupant and leader of the residency board, Cholo revolts and plans to take down Fiddler's Green with Dead Reckoning, a monstrous truck with enough artillery to take down the city and any zombies that might get in their way.
Kaufman sends Riley to stop him, but he too opposes Kaufman who is clearly evil in that he has no regard for the innocent civilians who live just outside the guarded city. Riley does however and wants to stop Cholo for just that reason and will try to save whatever is left of civilization.
Romero's futuristic bleak world is fascinating in that it gives us a good look at the people fortunate enough to still be alive but screwed in that they'll never get into Fiddler's Green and are basically waiting to be overtaken by zombies
if when they break through the barrier.
The armed mercenaries travel in and out of the city depending on what they're doing. To get food and supplies they must leave the protection of the city's military and rummage through old gas stations and food stores looking for supplies while avoiding zombies.
They have discovered a great new tool to keep the zombies distracted while they're pillaging: fireworks. Dubbed "sky flowers" the bright display from the fireworks keeps the zombies fixated on the sky. You'd think their desire for human flesh would take precedent but we'll save that for the conclusion.
The zombies themselves, unlike in the previous "Dead" films, have evolved and advanced to such lengths that they can communicate with one another, utilize tactical rifles and make gasoline go boom. Oh yeah, they can swim.
Before Riley sets out to stop Cholo from destroying the city he spends one last hour underground where decency has checked itself at the door. Clueless civilians have their pictures taken in front of chained zombies as if they were at a carnival. Other captured zombies are tied up and painted with bulls-eye targets on them for firing practice, and two are even thrown into a fighting cage where people wager on which one will win the fight and capture the food.
The food this time happens to be a street hooker named Slack (Asia Argento) who desperately tries to fend off the zombies in the cage while onlookers cheer for her death.
Naturally Riley doesn't like what he sees and comes to her rescue. This is fine and all, but why, oh why does he -- being that he's one of those "I work alone" types -- decide to recruit the hooker into his small team to stop Cholo? Ah, because before she became a prostitute she was a candidate for the military and can shoot and yada yada yada.
Also in Riley's camp is Charlie (Robert Joy), a grossly disfigured friend whose loyalty to Riley is unmatched. He's a sharpshooter and is the reason Riley is still alive. We know this because Riley often engages in passionate discussions with Slack who is such a hard-ass that she is often arguing with him for no apparent reason. "He thinks he's the reason you're alive," she snaps. "He is," Riley responds thinking perhaps it was a mistake to bring along a hooker with whom there is no sexual attraction.
But perhaps I digress into something that's not all that important. Sure, the dialogue is pretty weak and the long running "I'm trying to make myself useful" catchphrase gets annoying rather quickly, but the film is saved by the wonderful imagery and delightful violence we all expect from Romero.
It is a shame however that I don't like Slack, one of the main characters. The actress who plays her, Asia Argento, is prominently known outside American cinema and has been featured in European knockoffs of Romero's zombie genre. That he included her in his film is a tribute to her father, Dario Argento, a proprietor of some nasty Italian horror films such as "Tenebre" and the infamous "Suspiria."
But Slack is unimpressive and simply doesn't belong in this movie. Better it would have been to have used her in "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" a film whose characters we wish would die quickly.
There is one more downside I wish to discuss. Last week a great movie called "Batman Begins" came out and only a few people told me they didn't like it. One person's reason was that near the end Batman does something out of character when he decides not to save one of the villains when he should have. I felt the same way here in "Land of the Dead" only the opposite: Riley, when given the opportunity to blast a few zombies away, empathetically tells his driver that "they're just trying to find a place to go…just like us" and forgoes the opportunity to make some splatter. I didn't think there was room in a Romero film for "understanding" between the races, but it's small beer in the overall picture which is that "Land of the Dead" is a crowd pleaser and should bid well with his fans who may be anticipating a future unrated cut of the violent flick which could always be a little bloodier.
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