Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!
This is also a Zombie World Tour post!
Land of the Dead is George Romero’s fourth film of the franchise, and the first one I saw on its release in the theater. To say I was excited to do so would be a ridiculous understatement. The experience was one of the bitter disappointments of my life. Instead of big budget grandeur and an expansion on the previous installments, Land was bloated as a water corpse, poorly executed violence, with a simple minded social message so blunt I left with a concussion.
If I was going to review the film here, though, I had to watch it again, didn’t I? Sure, there was a copy on my shelf, and it was used – never by me. (I don’t do partial collections.) Blowing the dust off the top I popped in the disk, ready to hate it again.
To my surprise, I have to say Land of the Dead is not entirely without merit. The acting is professional all the way down to the zombies, the color palette is very nice, and if you like gore this is your movie. The story takes place years after the fall of the human world, and is set in and around a town very much like Pittsburgh, where a new city has grown inside the husk of the old. The well-to-do live inside a gleaming skyscraper, while the rest scrape by in the gutters below. No one grows crops and there is no industry. Humankind are STILL scouring the old world and living off the makings of the long dead.
Speaking of the long dead, there are a lot of them rambling around the countryside, trying to maintain their old life despite being rousted and robbed by marauding humans. With every dead movie the zombies in Romero movies look more stereotyped. Cheerleader zombie, Musician zombie, Softball Player zombie, Gas Station Attendant zombie… A lot of you probably don’t even remember when going to the gas station meant driving over a black cord that dinged a bell inside to alert the attendant, who would come out and fill your tank and wash your windshield. Big Daddy still attends his station and he’s got a bone to pick with the humans.
There are big name actors here like Simon Baker (The Mentalist), Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, and, um, Asia Argento. Okay, she’s not a big name actor but the daughter of Dario Argento who was instrumental in the making of the original Dawn of the Dead. Much has been made, at least in my circle, of how bad her acting is, in Land, but I though she’s at least as good as Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead, and lends a small measure of believability with her everyday manner. Tom Savini reprises his evil biker role from Dawn of the Dead, which is a funny joke if you catch it. An enormous armored vehicle called Dead Reckoning, made of scraps and leftovers from parts of the old world, is one of the main characters.
Zombie films are supposed to have a social message, as George Romero taught us long ago in the black and white years of Night of the Living Dead. But man, all the messages here are SO over the top in your face it’s more than a little irritating.
Even the prologue is over the top. A woman’s voice reads The Zombie Meme List over shots of mayhem. It’s supposed to sound like an echo of the social media at work during the time of the fall (as we all know, another standard feature of zombie films), but it felt more like a laundry list. The last item hinted at the ramped up danger in this future world where the living have given over the bulk of the world to the dead. What if they begin to think? It’s a question Romero toyed with in Dawn, but now it’s in your face. To that end, the first zombies we see (STILL blue, after all these years, thanks to a heavy blue filter that’s supposed to simulate morning light) are trying to continue their old lives after decades of death. Looking like he wandered off a Star Trek: Voyager set, Big Daddy tries to pump gas at the station he still “mans” wearing a zombie prosthetic that doesn’t even cover his nose, while a character narrates, “They used to be us – learning how to be us again. Some germ got those things up and walking, but there’s a big difference between us and them. They’re dead. It’s like they’re pretending to be alive.” The cynical answer is, “Isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?”
And there you have the whole movie in the first minute of dialogue. The inconsistencies are annoying, to say the least. For instance, the hugely geared up, big bad outriders who go for food and supplies head into town. (Seriously? Decades later not only are the Romantic Zombies still holding hands, but the food and antibiotics in a grocery store is still usable? I’ve often wondered how long Hollywood would have us wait after the zombie apocalypse to begin fending for ourselves rather than foraging. A hundred years? Two hundred? Will the survivors drive down to NASA and climb into a waiting space ship and raid other planets when Krogers is empty?) The next big sequence is supposed to show how cold hearted living people have become during the passing years of zombie plague, but all I got out of it was that, even years later, people are still too damned dumb to stay out of a slow moving zombie’s way.
The art direction is crap. Nothing looks even close to what it should years after the fall. In the liquor store featured in the sequence I mentioned, there’s still plenty of booze, and it’s all neatly stacked on the shelves – stacked SIDEWAYS, spaced evenly. It looks like the art department had only enough money to buy ten cases of booze and spread them out on the shelves to make it look like more.
Why are people still fighting over money? Seriously? MONEY? And years later they still have GPS? Maybe they will fly off in that spaceship. Why am I bitching so much about believability? Fantasy only works if it’s connected to things we’re familiar with. Even high fantasy like Maleficant works because we understand the feelings and reasons behind all the characters actions, even if they’re ensconced in a world of faeries and knights in armor. Here in the Land of the Dead everything feels and looks so fake, so unreal (even the zombies), that we can’t get into the story. Years after the zombie apocalypse, would you sit alone in the dark listening to music wearing headphones?
I will say I’ve never seen so many inspired zombie kills. People are gutted and gnawed and ripped to pieces in a master class of innovative zombie eating.
This is a film that isn’t bad if you don’t expect much. If you’re not looking for a good film, but one that understands zombies, is imaginative in some ways and has a big budget, then feel safe watching Land of the Dead. Goodness knows there are plenty of zombie movies that just plain reek of bad movie making, so if you don’t mind the huge inconsistencies and fakiness in Land you’ll probably like it better than I do.
CFR In Addition: I’m sorry Mildred. I know how much you love your Romero zombie movies and I’m sorry this disappointed you so much. Instead of offering you a cookie to cheer you up, would you like some brains?