As a zombie movie, Land of the Dead is an OK horror opus. For director George A. Romero, who has a tendency to turn 60 minutes worth of story into 120-plus minutes of movie, it’s reasonably compact. And it does have an agreeably handmade feel to it (which, admittedly, results in a certain cheese factor). The movie may not bring anything earthshaking to the zombie sub-genre, but as an exercise in intestine-munching horror, it’s largely successful.
The problem is that Romero is out for something more than a mere horror picture, and on that level, he’s somewhat less successful — or at least less clear-headed.
This isn’t the first time that a horror movie has been used as a political allegory, nor is it the first time that Romero has used the genre to this end. The first three entries in his “Dead” series all qualify as sociopolitical satires. And they all suffer from Romero’s tendency to present a relatively simple and obvious idea — for example, Dawn of the Dead‘s shopping-mall zombies aren’t all that different from the normal habitues of such a venue — then state and restate it with mind-numbing heavy-handedness.
The director doesn’t quite do that here. There’s a more complex theme at work — one that is strikingly similar to that found in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. In that film, Craven offered what he called his “reaction to the Reagan years.” The titular “people under the stairs” were those who had been disenfranchised and robbed of their ability to speak out about what was being done to them (their tongues had been cut out). In order to keep them distracted, they were given a TV to watch — and the spectacle of the bombing of Iraq (“The sky over Baghdad is lighting up,” remarks an announcer) during the first Gulf War.
Here, Romero gives us something very similar, with his zombies serving much the same function as the people under the stairs. In fact, the zombie-killers distract them by shooting off fireworks, dazzling the creatures into immobility and making them easy targets. Romero’s approach here is not an exact George W. Bush-era duplication, and he broadens the target to include the people who go along with or benefit from the policies he’s satirizing — complete with a cautionary comment to them about the exact level of commitment these policymakers have to them. For that matter, he sends a message to the policymakers themselves, suggesting what their fate might be once the smoke-and-mirrors distractions stop working.
Moreover, by placing these people in a shining skyscraper complete with its own shopping mall, Romero not only takes on the whole gated-community mentality, but brings his earlier mall-life satire full circle by presenting these folks as nothing more than slightly more conscious versions of his walking dead. Much like the real zombies, they feed off others — albeit in a less literal manner.
It’s a bold idea, forcefully and effectively presented, that works on more than one level, since the zombies can be seen as either the poorest of the poor or as the victims of the war on Iraq. And it’s made just that much more complex by establishing a class of citizen between the elite and the zombie — a strangely complacent lower-middle class that cannot be shaken out of a kind of jaded apathy about the state of affairs in their world.
In this respect, Land of the Dead is one of the most subversive films to come along in a month of cinema-going Sundays. But it comes complete with a huge central flaw that makes it fall apart upon examination: Simply put, it’s just not possible to effectively humanize creatures who view mankind as nothing more than so many box lunches on legs. Try as it might, the film cannot make a persuasive case for coexisting with creatures whose primary goal in “life” is to eat you. And since this is a zombie picture and has a bathful-of-blood and bucket-of-giblets quota to fill, the problem becomes insurmountable.
Still, it’s a pleasure to find someone working in the horror genre today who has something to say — and who actually stops to consider the violence being inflicted on his “monsters.” When the film’s nominal hero, Riley (Simon Baker, The Ring Two), is congratulated by his mentally challenged sidekick (Robert Joy, The Shipping News) with,”Nice shot,” Riley corrects him by remarking, “Good shot. There’s no such thing as a ‘nice’ shot.”
There are other problems in terms of story coherence. Why, for instance, are both the head of the whole shebang, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), and his immediate human nemesis, Cholo (John Leguizamo), obsessed with money in a world where money has no further meaning? Also, there’s no indication that there’s anything left of the world outside the enclave of Fiddler’s Green, yet Riley plans on heading to some kind of better life up in Canada.
As an extension of Romero’s last zombie opus from 20 years ago, Day of the Dead, Land works as a reasonable development of the “trainable” zombie idea — only in this case, the zombies are slowly training themselves, becoming more self-aware and organized. It’s interesting that Romero’s earlier tendencies toward racial commentary, as when he presented black heroes, have been here altered by offering a black head zombie, Big Daddy (TV actor Eugene Clark). The approach doesn’t entirely work, but that’s mostly due to the fact that Big Daddy spends too much of the movie in silly moments where he reacts to indignities and atrocities with outraged roars. (At one point, he actually says, “Roar!”) It’s altogether too much like Darth Vader’s “big moment” in Star Wars III — only over and over again.
Flawed as it is, Land of the Dead is effective horror filmmaking and a worthy attempt at being something more than that. That Romero can’t quite pull off the latter doesn’t keep the film from being fascinating. Romero may occasionally fall flat on his butt, but he does so with some degree of flair and wit. Rated R for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke