Dir/scr: George A Romero.US. 2005. 94mins.
Film-maker George ARomero did not invent the idea of the dead returning to life, but he did helppopularise it with his seminal genre films, starting with 1968's Night OfThe Living Dead and continuing with its two sequels, Dawn Of The Deadand Day Of The Dead. With recent horror box office receipts flowing red,he gets the chance to finally return to the director's chair with Land OfThe Dead, a serviceable execution of a familiar story thread that shouldplease horror aficionados.
Romero's film lacks theadrenalised jolt that helped the recent Universal Pictures remake of his DawnOf The Dead surge to $60 million in domestic box office and over $100million worldwide. It is very much a horror movie entrenched in the old schoolethos of gore and guts rather than the amplified terror-meets-action philosophyof more recent hybrid fare. This is not to say that the movie will not pleasegenre diehards in the US (where it opens on June 24), but only that it probablylacks the sort of crossover appeal that will pull in action audiences.International prospects should receive a boost from the film-maker's relativerenown.
Set in a world long sinceoverrun by the walking dead, Land Of The Dead's hero is Riley Denbo(Simon Baker), a no-nonsense kind of guy who heads night-time supply raids intoadjoining cities utilising "Dead Reckoning," a massive armoured garbage truckdecked out with klieg lights and all manner of mounted weaponry.
Riley's hotheadedsecond-in-command is Cholo (John Leguizamo), an opportunist who games thesystem for personal gain, stocking up on non-essentials like booze and cigarsthat can then be sold at a premium mark-up on the black market.
The zombies - or "stenches,"as they're mostly called within the movie - are a deadly but hopelessly dazedlot, stumbling about and feeding on what they can, easily distracted byfireworks (thus the night-time raids). This is until a gas station attendantzombie, obviously unnamed but known in press notes as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark),starts to piece together remnants of cognitive recollection, and leads amassive (if slow) revolt.
While the zombies are themost immediate antagonists, Romero of course sets his film against aclass-order backdrop (a staple of his Dead sequels), and so the realvillain of the piece is Mr Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the well-heeled businessmanwho runs Fiddler's Green, the sort of ultimate post-apocalyptic gatedcommunity. Housed in a towering high-rise in a city protected on three sides byrivers (Pittsburgh, anyone'), Fiddler's Green maintains, for the rich andelite, the illusion of normalcy, of life as it was before the dead came back tolife.
In the under-class slumbelow, though, illness, prostitution, gambling and other vices run rampant.When Kaufman spurns Cholo's attempts to buy his way into Fiddler's Green, thelatter responds by stealing Dead Reckoning and hatching an impulsive extortionscheme (for' money'). Unbeknownst to Kaufman, this coincides with a breach inthe city's security walls.
After having been jailed forsaving prostitute Slack (Asia Argento) from a zombie gladiator feeding frenzy,Riley is sent to retrieve Dead Reckoning from Cholo. He takes with him Slack,his mentally handicapped friend Charlie (Robert Joy) and several of Kaufman'smercenary babysitters.
Romero's script isn't athing of grace and beauty, but it achieves a sort of brawny entertainment onits own terms. Set over the course of just over 24 hours, it's built aroundsome highly improbable condensations - the zombies hatch their intuitiveassault plan and cross the river all in less than one day - and we furthermoreget precious little sense of the community that made Romero's original films(particularly Dawn Of The Dead) such genre touchstones.
While the goryconfrontations are all of top-notch production value, there's no trulyexpansive scope that additional resources would have allowed.
Then there's the matter ofour characters, too. As sketched, Riley is a pretty bland hero, and Baker doeslittle to enliven his personality. Leguizamo brings a nice surly charisma toCholo, but there's not enough time spent with him to bring his roilingdiscontent and emotional separation from society at large fully to bear. We getonly a glimpse of the discord and acrimony, and the movie as a whole feelsforced into a streamlined vision at odds with the setting.
The only character thatreally connects separate from the group dynamic is, interestingly enough, Joy'ssimpleton Charlie. In a role that easily could have descended into caricature,he brings an unfussy and candid sense of humanity to Charlie - of a guy "justtrying to make himself useful."
Many of the other namesRomero surrounds himself with are, if not genre newbies, folks he's comfortablewith. Attentive horror fans will, however, get a kick out of seeing "undeadcameos" from effects maestro Tom Savini and Shaun Of The Dead collaboratorsSimon Pegg and Edgar Wright, among others.
Dennis E Jones
Pedro Miguel Arce