Land of the Dead (2005)
Directed by George Romero
Starring Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy, Dennis Hopper
Length 93 minutes
Not only has the crap hit the fan since DAY OF THE DEAD, it has splattered all over the world. The zombie infestation is now almost complete. As more survivors kick the bucket, the ranks of flesh-hungry zombies grow. By the time LAND comes around, humans have resorted to modifying an entire city into a vast fortress that contains a crude but effective society (with basic trade, etc.). In the center of the city is a mammoth skyscraper called Fiddler's Green: part condominium, part country club, and part mall (a cute twist on DAWN OF THE DEAD's setting). It's run by a Mr. Kaufman (Hopper), who is an unscrupulous, stereotypical suit-and-tie rich prick and Donald Rumsfeld knock-off. In trite fashion, the privileged folks inside Fiddler's Green lead cushioned, distracting lives while the folks outside are the middle class and the obligatory have-nots.
Modeled on Pittsburgh, the city is protected by heavily armed military, barbed-wire and other barriers, and three surrounding rivers. The zombies reign in the outskirts. Special teams of foragers, headed by Riley (Baker) periodically cross the bridges to scavenge food and supplies. Cholo (Leguizamo), second in command to Riley and a hotheaded opportunist, leads his crew on motorcycles (a cool echo of DAWN's biker gang) while Riley mainly sticks with his halfwit partner Charlie (Joy). Half of Charlie's face is healed scar tissue from a past burn, making him look like a zombie from certain angles. Charlie may be slow at thinking, but his rifle shooting is quick and precise.
On each excursion, Riley's central team cruises in a monstrous, tank-like vehicle called Dead Reckoning which is equipped with ass-kicking and zombie-ripping weapons. Colorful fireworks (called "Sky Flowers") are set off to distract the zombie masses while Riley's men scavenge. If safety breaks down, however, Dead Reckoning does its business: blasting zombies as cowboy bikers buzz around on a dangerous shooting spree.
Cholo, of course, is unsatisfied with Riley's relatively straight policy, and he's not shy about being anxious to take command after Riley retires. He also aims to get access to Fiddler's Green by saving up profiteering money and kowtowing to Mr. Kaufman. But Kaufman has no genuine concern for his goon, and when he makes this clear Cholo decides to unleash his vengeance on Kaufman and Fiddler's Green with the help of commandeered Dead Reckoning. Reckoning also has warhead capabilities. So selfish Mr. Kaufman better watch out. (This scenario echoes the biker thugs' envy of the heroes' well-stocked mall-turned-fortress in DAWN OF THE DEAD.)
Eager to avoid mutually assured destruction, Riley and Charlie, along with a new recruit named Slack (Argento) and others, try to intercept Cholo's mad plan while also not playing into Kaufman's slimy hands.
True to Romero form, humans who should be cooperating to survive and prosper are at each others' throats instead. And what happens during human in-fighting? The zombies find a way through defenses and end up enjoying an abundant feast of human flesh and organs. What else? But this time the zombs don't blunder into their meal. A prodigious zombie, Big Daddy (name derived from his gas-station uniform), has somehow taken note of the humans' routines and weaknesses, and he realizes that the Sky Flowers must be ignored in order for his kind to develop deliberate solidarity. Big Daddy, a dead Spartacus, rallies the zombie masses into a frightening campaign to invade the city and oust the complacent humans within.
CHARLIE: "Nice shooting."
RILEY: "Good shooting, Charlie. No such thing as nice shooting."
Another half-hour, please. I'm known for assessing good films thus: "It should have been a half-hour or so longer." Most films don't give enough time. Very rarely do I call for less time, although I think the recent "thriller" Hide and Seek should have been about an hour and 41 minutes shorter, if you get my drift. Romero's Dawn of the Dead was just right. Land needed more time, especially since it's apparently the final chapter in the Romero zombie line. I don't know if the wimpy 93 minutes is due to the bigger-budget Universal Pictures involvement, but it seems that Georgy and his crew weren't given the leeway they've been used to with previous films that allows patience, character development, and epic illusion.
I remember Romero commenting on the blessing of being relatively independent of the big movie houses and thus being able to realize more of intended works. Not only does Land lack the genuine Pittsburgh locale, it had to be made mostly in Canada. So this latest film, which has been as piss-in-pants anticipated by zombie/Romero fans as much as Heaven's Gaters yearned for the Hale-Bopp comet, is a bittersweet arrival for me. It pleased me overall, but it was too short and its script seemed like it lost limb after limb as it marched onward. I wish it could have been another "family"-style project, filmed in Pittsburgh (I think he once had Oxford Centre in mind), and not as apparently troubled by the Almighty Dollar.
Since I love Romero's underrated Knightriders, Riley's ragtag bunch of biker warriors, a benign echo of the biker thugs in Dawn and now a hybrid echo of both in Land, was a welcome sight. Filmmakers love to imagine post-disaster/post-apocalypse societies buzzing around on revamped or makeshift vehicles, though I'd guess that non-motor bikes, roller blades and skateboards, and horses would be more likely modes of transportation. But in the resourceful society headed by Kaufman, the gas pumps are working - and gas becomes a major plot point later in the film. Without abundant fuel Dead Reckoning wouldn't be able to run. And the Dead Heads wouldn't be able to cheer for the cool bikers who so deftly clip zombies left and right as they zoom through the infested outskirts. Speaking of, Romero delivered the expected array of blunt violence, and Greg Nicotero proves worthy of filling Savini's makeup effects shoes.
This film's plot demands not only suspension of disbelief but heavy suspension of "Aw, come on!" Remember Bub from Day of the Dead? He was the experimental zombie prodigy that hopeful Dr. Logan coddled and instructed because of his extraordinary understanding, capability, and behavior that surpassed mere mimicry and hinted at a more profound potential via zombies' basic and emotional memories. Bub seemed like a loyal puppy dog compared to the usual ravenous ghouls the underground survivors kept at bay and periodically rounded up for examination. He was receptive to Logan's teaching, and his facial expressions went beyond the grisly, mindless contortions of the typical zombie. (This aspect was brilliantly done by Howard Sherman's mime techniques.) By film's end, Bub avenges Dr. Logan's execution by shooting a gun at Jesse-Ventura-like Private Steel and pumping lead into the over-the-top-hothead Captain Rhodes. Bub's firearm proficiency and his funny salutes hinted that he had probably been military during his life. Humans' destructive ingenuity came back to nab them, so to speak, just as Plan R in Dr. Strangelove made destruction inevitable.
Bub's charm and significance as a "missing link" between zombiehood and humanity succeeded mostly because of suspension of "Aw, come on," I think. I was never comfortable with the Bub factor, but I accepted it as Romero's way of further commenting on what it is to be human and the fine lines between fear and pity, humaneness and brutality. I also accepted it because there was no alternative. I trusted Romero. As long as the Bub thing didn't go too far, I was able to swallow my discomfort. Damn the day I learned that Romero's rumored ideas for a 4th film extended the Bub factor by positing an army of zombies that marches against human survivors! I could only picture some Island of Dr. Moreau knockoff gone wild. I was aghast. (Ok, ok, I was an overreacting NERD.) The rumors jibed with confirmative statements by Romero himself. Saddened, I held my breath for whatever resulted, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.
Because I feared the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by how relatively slight the "Aw, come on" suspension was in Land of the Dead - comparatively speaking, of course. I suspected that the zombie revolution idea would be totally ridiculous and I would be forced to stand up on my theater seat, hurl my snuck-in snack at the screen, and scream, "AW, COME ON!" Didn't have to do that. Yay.
Big Daddy, the Bub-based leader of unlikely zombie liberation, takes Bub's seminal handgun shooting many steps further. Though not as "cutely," Daddy makes similar emotional expressions that are dominated not by curiosity but by the rage of an oppressed people. He has become aware and therefore the desire to wield his due will drives his miraculous strategy. I'm reminded of H.A.L.'s awareness, human-likeness, and consequential angst and desperation in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As technological advancement increasingly rendered humans into eclipsed, expressionless or heartless machines themselves, a machine became more human than humans. (This reversal is implied by the overkill glee of zombie hunters at the end of Night of the Living Dead and especially the superior 1990 Tom Savini remake.) The Terminator films also center on the eeriness of machines gaining consciousness and volition. Big Daddy is pissed. He' s the mass mover figurehead for zombies. And he shows his dead kind that getting across the rivers is imperative over watching the pretty fireworks and lining the streets like sitting ducks for humans' target practice. (His outraged bellows, however, are quite obnoxious and make Godzilla and Jurassic Park's T-Rex seem like two of the Three Tenors.)
Two of the closest cinematic scenarios I can cite in regard to the zombie revolt are Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and, again, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Conquest, ironically the 4th chapter in the amazing Apes series, future earth society involves the slavery and basic mistreatment of apekind by humans. Originally as a replacement for the total loss of dogs and cats from a plague, apes' domestication veered into full-blown servility. Apes' abilities were sharpened and reinforced so they could clean, run errands (shopping, etc.), and generally make humans' lives more convenient. The crap hits the fan when a talking ape named Caesar inspires his fellow subservient simians to cast off their slavery and revolt.
Apes fans know that Caesar is the matured offspring of the chimps Cornelius and Zira from the first three films. (Zira got pregnant by Cornelius during their time-travel sojourn on 1970s earth in Escape From the Planet of the Apes.) Caesar's potential is much more believable as far as fantasy goes: he was spawned by intelligent, talking parents and had the benefit of apes' evolution behind him. The stretch that domesticated apes could be rallied into systematic revolution, however, raises the "Aw, come on" alarm, though.
This alarm also goes off at the thought of Big Daddy and the rest of the zombs cooperating in their own "Attica." It doesn't ring poignant when it comes to walking dead. I've honestly tried to tap into the sympathy we're supposed to feel for the abused ghouls at the end of Night, but it doesn't work. Call me heartless, but I don't feel sorry for zombies. They're human-eating, animated corpses! DUH!
The 2001 parallel probably doesn't need explanation. I refer to the film's beginning that depicted evolutionary early Man (which I, mind you, find highly problematic in reality) barely surviving in the relatively wee hours of life on earth. Kept frightened and burdened by constant predator threats and challenges from rival groups of primates, life wasn't a bowl of Cheerios. But one day, in perhaps the most recognizable scene of the film (for action and music), the "gifted" primate (named Moonwatcher in Arthur C. Clarke's deeper novel) discovers (thanks to subliminal suggestions from the Monolith) that a large bone from an animal carcass can serve as a striking tool. Bones are used to bash lower animals to death and meat becomes available. Later, during a noisy showdown with a rival gang over a crucial water source, the bone-savvy gang become superior because they can smash their enemies with the new tools that are also weapons. So I don't end up beating an obvious horse, I'll let the relation to Big Daddy's realization speak for itself. (Interesting that his name is Big Daddy, by the way. A reference to the fathering primate ancestors?)
stacked deck against wealthy whites and the deliberate choice of a black
zombie as rebel leader also bugged me. Not only is such symbolic racial
antagonism old hat, it's not so cut-and-dry anymore -- and certainly not
poignant in regard to the theme of collective, demonic demise rising up to
consume humanity via the collective inhumanity of living, so-called
rational humans. This sad fact cuts through racial and class lines as
history plainly shows.
As for the wealthy whites, I'll simply admit that the Kaufman character sucked. Talk about resorting to a two-dimensional cliche to drive home clunky socio-political satire! Geeze! Kaufman is the typical slimeball exploiter. His nouveau-riche rough edges make him behave like more of a cock-sure mob boss than a seasoned fatcat. Perhaps he somehow profited from the zombie emergency and connived into power. Of course, I could blame Hopper's crummy self-caricaturing delivery. And Hoffman's boast that he emulated Rummy Rumsfeld for the role is more laughable than brave and scathing. So? I like Rummy about as much as I dig chewing crushed glass, but save the predictable lampooning for "Saturday Night Live." More subtlety, please!
The heavy-handed script points just bugged me. Anyone who didn't notice the Bush Administration representation in the Kaufman character (played underwhelmingly by Dennis Hopper) IS dead. When Kaufman snapped, "We don't negotiate with terrorists" in regard to a warning about Cholo's dangerous ultimatum, I groaned. There's also another sore thumb: death of Kaufman through ignited...you guessed it, chumps...gasoline! NEXT! (Was Fiddler's Green named as an allusion to Emperor Nero's alleged fiddling as Rome burned?)
I don't mind political quips in films, but the several current-events-centered lines and aspects in this film seemed cheap, stuck out like sore thumbs, and beneath the otherwise subtle Romero tradition. Romero is best when he satirizes our general foibles and sins and focuses on how such flawed individuals cope in extraordinary situations. Social uprisings and such usually bore me anyway. They tend to ruin poetical study of unique men and women in favor of the life of the mass. Auden wisely said that poets' "natural interest is in singular individuals and personal relations, while politics and economics are concerned with large numbers of people, hence with the human average (the poet is bored to death by the idea of the Common Man)."
Then again, Whitman wrote that "the attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots," so what the hell do I know! I just dig Romero's personal points over his larger social points, that's all. Riley's loyal defensiveness when Charlie is picked on as a "retard" is much more touching than the fight for a Zombistinian state.
The film was originally slated to be entitled Dead Reckoning, but the studio reportedly wanted to stress identification with the previous "of the" films (like the Planet of the Apes sequels). CITY of the Dead might have been better, but nobody asked me. The multi-meaningful name, Dead Reckoning, for lethal mobile arsenal and summation of the primary theme, is cool. Not only does the physical tool/weapon (modified bone?) turn on its masters, but the walking dead, representing humanity's loss of humanity and consequential moral rebound by the very force they suppress, sublimate, and take for granted, strike back like divine retribution in the Moses days. Also, the dead (like 2001's H.A.L.) seem more human in their conscious suffering (a step above sentient animals) and will to be free than the greedy machines and slaves to machines that most humans have become. The decision to use Land of the Dead is understandable, though, if not just because it was the title of a Bogart film from 1947.
Leguizamo as Cholo is...Leguizamo as almost every role. Simon Baker is wonderful as Riley: subdued, manly, and good-hearted like Peter in Dawn. Asia Argento as Slack is pleasing. She's one of those hard-edged chicks with a sexy body and a "I could kick your ass" face who gets cuter and more feminine the more you're acquainted with her - at least as far as the role goes.
A very understated attraction and seedling love between Slack and Riley redeemed the otherwise dissatisfactory characterization. They were too busy warding off zombs and trying to avert further disaster to jump into the Hollywood just-met-let's-F sack, yes, but Romero seems to have saved a possible romance for another day. This area is Romero's forte: individuals' potential; affection, the hope of love, the momentary interactions between complex human beings and impersonal scourges or interruptions.
What is best shown in Land of the Dead is humans' silly conflicts added to unforeseen accidents. Think of the stupid moves that get characters into deeper trouble in slasher flicks. From our safe, popcorn-chomping perspective, they seem set on rails leading to unavoidable demise, but they suffer mainly because of tunnel vision, poor decisions, surrender to dread, and miscalculations. It's so easy to watch such films, yell at the screen, and deride yet another stupid ass who runs right into a killer's pitchfork or seeks refuge in a gloomy cellar or fights with another potential victim instead of soberly cooperating to make a successful getaway. Extraordinary times don't only demand extraordinary measures, they enable extraordinary haste and mistakes.
This brings me to the frustrating recurrence of human folly in Romero's films. Just when characters seem to be in an ideal or at least tolerable situation, they screw it all up. How folks cope with crucial situations deeply depends on effective or ineffective communication. Once Ben and Barbara team with the Coopers and Tom and Judy in Night of the Living Dead, hope seems possible, common defense and ingenuity can keep them alive until help comes. An hour later we're aghast: How can they be so STUPID? Why did Ben and Harry Cooper fight with each other to the point of violence over something minor while a bigger threat of organs-eating risen dead presses outside?
We have crystal-clear judgment thrones and perfect-vision hindsight; the characters just expertly mess up good things. Likewise for the survivors in the mall in the original Dawn of the Dead: they had resources, a secure hideout, etc., but the evil of selfish bikers, overstepped bounds, and Flyboy being a dumbshit ruined it all in less than an hour. In Knightriders, Billy, Linet, Morgan and the gang of gypsy-free entertainers had a great gig going counter to conventional, soulless materialism. But weakened integrity and the allure of fame and fortune got a finger in and the gang themselves caused almost complete ruin. The underground survivors in Day of the Dead had a rather tight system that was dashed by in-fighting, ego clashes, and surrender to stress.
So it goes with the characters in Land. Cholo's ambition and Kaufman's greed and hubris create an Achille's Heel for Big Daddy and his dead goons to exploit. We, the viewers, see how silly the conflicts are against the big picture (and the Big Daddy). Kaufman's own words illustrate the relative smallness of certain gripes when he says, "In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word 'trouble' loses much of its meaning." Why can't he heed his own words? Doesn't hoarding money also lose much of its meaning when corpses are walking and killing? What good is cash and luxury aboard a sinking Titanic? And why would endangered passengers bother spatting with each other while every second is crucial to survival?
Humans are prone to sacrifice true humanity for the sake of illusory benefit. And they tend to throw babies out with bathwater when it comes to desperation or greed. Shells of humans, not humans, remain. While observing zombies acting out their incipient recollections, Mike says, "They're pretending to be alive." Riley replies, "Isn't that what we're doing? Pretending to be alive?" How easily that can become so: habitually acting, replacing form for substance, losing the spiritual song in the din of distraction or war. Once real living becomes mere pretense, death renders life trivial. What's the loss? Why mourn lowly things? And if zombies are the only outcome, where does God fit in? (This is what I don't dig about zombie/vampire flicks: the implicit closed physical system that only includes micro-salvation and no ultimate Love.)
In such despair, such living death brought on by our own folly, we are all as expendable as zombies and reduced to potential fertilizer in the long run. Only hopeful love and faith and realized human dignity bring salvation. I close with a pertinent scene between Riley and naturally profound halfwit Charlie right before fireworks (Sky Flowers) are shot off to dazzle the zombies:
Riley: "Put some flowers in the graveyard."
review by David Herrle 8/2005
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