(Originally posted on 6-27-05)
George Romero (the original Night of the Living Dead) was one of the early pioneers of independent cinema. A number of our most successful contemporary filmmakers got their inspiration from his example. More than that, though, he has always been a restless intellect that has used the blood tinged palate of the horror genre to comment on the wider world as he sees it.
With each installment in this de facto series of “Living Dead” films he has consciously and actively strived to up the ante, both in the gore quotient as well as in the subtext. In this sub-genre of horror films that he, in essence, created, Romero has always aspired to be Socrates while everyone else has struggled to be Tony Robbins. He has been out of the picture for way too long and it is heartening to see him back on the scene. Unfortunately, his triumphant return to Zombie Zen and Mayhem falls a little bit short of its full potential.
Land of the Dead focuses primarily on Riley (Simon Baker), a burned out mercenary type retained by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) to scavenge the outlying area for any type of consumables that they can find. Kaufman is the ostensible CEO and Leader of the City and its commercial center, Fiddler’s Green – a virtual Eden of Capitalist Consumerism in the midst of a besieged and broken down city rotting in its own poverty and fear. Only the richest and most well bred can get a spot in Fiddler’s Green, everyone else in the City is there mainly to support the Fiddler’s Green lifestyle, and it is all run by Kaufman. Into this mix there is also Cholo (John Leguizamo), Riley’s second in command who believes he can buy his way into Eden, Charlie (Robert Joy), Riley’s most loyal and trusted friend, and Slack (Asia Argento), a defiant female forced into prostitution by Kaufman and rescued by Riley. Finally, there is Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), one of the “Stenches” and the biggest wild card of them all.
Romero, the social critic, tries valiantly to make his case on the dangers of the isolation and selfishness of the privileged elite from the working class and the underprivileged, but there is too much to cover here and not enough room in the film to give his ideas the meat they need to drive his point home. There is so much that he leaves for us to take on faith that it becomes distracting – What is going on in the rest of the world (is there a rest of the world still? If not, then why is there advertising for Fiddler’s Green?), has any industry survived (if not then where does the ammo and gasoline come from?), what is the economic base of this new world (money apparently is good anywhere, but how is the value behind the dollar ensured?), etc. Social criticism is difficult to pull off effectively in the best of circumstances, let alone as the backbone to a Zombie Gore-Fest of a film. The framework of this world is laid out in front of us, but there is no depth to it.
However, for Romero the film-maker, the greatest sin is that he fails first and foremost in creating compelling situations through which his normally compelling characters must make their way. The two main characters of Riley and Kaufman are clichéd and, even with strong performances from the two actors, they cannot and do not rise above the material. Riley is a text book stoic, desperately hoping for a better day, but having to stay and do the right thing. Kaufman is the text book evil corporate bad guy with no redeeming qualities, one dimensional and predictable, step by step.
Cholo and Charlie are interesting and rise above their roles, but not to the extent that they make up for the blandness and predictability of Riley and Kaufman. And Slack is a completely wasted opportunity. She is set up wonderfully and then quickly becomes a plot device that does not contribute in any meaningful way to anything that follows her introduction.
The main distraction though are the Zombies themselves. By giving them the chance to evolve, Romero has taken a brave and dramatic creative step forward, however, by already stratifying the living between the rich and the poor, the impact of what is happening when the “Stenches” enter into this world is lessened tremendously. The rich have all already been shown to be selfish and heartless, so you cannot feel for them. The poor are so generic and clichéd in their poverty that you do not feel for them. And the “Stenches” are… well, the “Stenches”. They are the Living Dead. I am truly not sure how you can give your sympathy to a group that, even though it is quite clear that they are now starting to assert themselves in the world, still go about single mindedly pursuing the living and snacking on them in the most gruesome ways possible. The Gore is extremely gory and well shot, and rendered by first class artists, but the tension is non-existent. And what is a horror movie without tension?
I really wanted this film to be the one. The one to challenge the corporate movie establishment and revitalize a genre that has increasingly sold out its heritage. The one to do to the Hollywood mindset what, in essence, Romero is trying to have his Zombies do the privileged elite here. But it just doesn’t quite pull it off. It just isn’t compelling enough, and the edge of the blade that he used to wield so expertly just isn’t as sharp as it used to be. The background needed to be broader and the details sharper.
But I still have faith in him. He deserves another chance, one that doesn’t have strings tied to his finances. I still would like to see what the Maestro could do with a real budget and real resources, but without someone looking over his shoulder and second guessing him the entire way.
It wasn’t this time, hopefully it will be the next one.