Land Of The Dead

3 stars


19th September 2005

For the few of you out there who might not be aware, Land of the Dead is the fourth film in writer/director George A. Romero's dead series, following the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), the exceptional Dawn of the Dead (1978), and the criminally underrated Day of the Dead (1985). These three films have served to influence countless aspiring filmmakers throughout the years, and, if the recent glut of zombie films is any indicator, they continue to do so to this day. Now, 20 years after the release of his last living dead film, Romero has returned to lay claim to the throne he rather unwillingly vacated. But does he deserve to sit upon it?

The story goes something like this; the ranks of the living dead have now grown so numerous that they have overrun the planet and the remaining human survivors have retreated to fortified cities for protection. Riley (Simon Baker) leads a group of scavengers that includes Cholo (John Leguizamo), the hot-headed Latino (are there any other kind) and Charlie (Robert Joy), an expert marksman who is a bit short in the brains department. Their job is to venture out into the small towns that surround the city to gather supplies (food, medicine, fuel, etc.) and bring them back to Kaufman (a delightfully over-the-top Dennis Hopper), the head honcho of Fiddler's Green, the ivory tower that sits at the heart of the walled city. When Cholo and Kaufman have something of a disagreement, the Leg takes it upon himself to steal the survivor's fortified tank Dead Reckoning to inflict some damage on Fiddler's Green. Kaufman calls on Riley and Charlie to track down Cholo and get his toy back, Riley only agreeing because he has plans of his own; he wants to get the hell out of the city and head on up to the pristine land of Canada.

Riley and Charlie pack up their weapons and, along with new companions Slack (Asia Argento, who is officially the hottest thing on the planet) and a crack team of commandos that work for Kaufman, they head out into the zombie wasteland. Meanwhile, the zombie hordes are evolving, and, like Bub the zombie in Day of the Dead, they have started to reclaim the faintest trace of their lost humanity. They resent the fact that they're constantly being used as target practice by their favorite food, so, led by the hulking Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), the zombies set out to storm Fiddler's Green to get them some sweet, bloody revenge.

Land of the Dead is steeped in some rather heavy-handed politically allegory, but it's all part of the film's charm. It's also part of what sets this film head and shoulders above other recent efforts like the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) or the dismally bad Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004). Whereas those films are just hollow excuses for gore effects and jump scares, Romero has injected his film with some substance. One might argue that the satire is too heavy-handed - much of the political satire is leveled right at the short-sighted policies of the Bush administration and its rabid supporters - therefore it may or may not enhance your enjoyment of the film. It might turn some viewers off, but I have a friend who is a Republican and a staunch Bush supporter, and he still love the movie, so like Chuck Berry said, it goes to show you never can tell.

All of the actors deliver solid performances across the board. Simon Baker is both strong and compelling in the lead role. John Leguizamo, despite being saddled with a rather stereotypical and somewhat underwritten role, is excellent, as usual. Asia Argento is more than just eye candy (though she definitely is that as well), delivering a decent performance that strikes a good balance between the humorous moments and horrific ones. Dennis Hopper must have been picking bits of the set from his teeth with a toothpick at the end of every day, because he chews the scenery through the entire film. The performance works in the content of the film, though, and it's fun to watch him being so gleefully despicable. Eugene Clark is good as Big Daddy, but he's definitely no Bub the zombie. The standout performance in my eyes, however, belongs to Robert Joy as Charlie. He is outstanding, and he definitely gets the lion's share of great lines and kick-ass moments. Joy is acting under a lot of make-up, and he joins the ranks of Ron Perlman, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Picardo as an actor who can deliver a nuanced performance despite being buried under layers of latex.

Land of the Dead is far from perfect. There are some minor logic errors that are never addressed (Where does the city get its power? Where are they finding all the uncontaminated fuel for Dead Reckoning?), the film drags a little in the middle, and the ending leaves something to be desired - all problems that probably could have been fixed with tighter editing or with some minor tweaking to the script. Had Romero taken the time to do that, he might have managed to elevate Land of the Dead from a damned good movie to a great one.

Despite these few minor flaws, Land of the Dead is definitely a return to form for Romero. He's been out of the zombie game for quite some time, delivering only a couple of mediocre but passable time-wasters like Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993). However, there's only been one out-and-out stinker (the utterly dismal Bruiser in 2000) in the long years between films featuring the living dead, which, when you consider it's two whole decades, is pretty good going. With this film, however, Romero proves that when it comes to zombie, he is still the undisputed king. He demonstrates once and for all exactly why his films have become so beloved, and why he continues to influence countless filmmakers to this day...even while he's blowing them completely out of the water.

More:  Horror  Zombies
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