When people ask me about Land of the Dead I reply, “It’s a good action film with zombies.” The other three Romero zombie films, affectionately known as ‘the trilogy’ all felt like zombie movies with action, but this new film puts the action before the zombies and with such a move comes good and bad results.
After crafting his own niche of zombie films like Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead – Romero returned this summer with a film called Land of the Dead. Originally, the picture was to be titled Dead Reckoning a name that happens to be shared by a key piece of equipment, heavily sought after by the key human characters of this new ‘Dead’ film. While the name change helps connect the film to Romero’s other three zombie films it cannot hide the fact that Land of the Dead strains to make any connection. Neither progressive enough to warrant another chapter in Romero’s zombie franchise, nor memorable enough to get by with its original title, Land of the Dead floats about like an adopted child, loved but somehow different.
I do not fault Romero’s talents for causing Land of the Dead to come up short. Many older directors have a hard time staying fresh in today’s volatile market and Romero, cult icon that he is, comes into the arena as an outsider. Having traditionally worked out of his hometown Pittsburgh, Romero returns once again to the three rivers area. Using the old industrial town and its isolation as a key factor in the story. Add this with zombies and Romero returns to familiar turf. His last horror film, Bruiser, took him to Toronto, but when it opened in the States it went unnoticed by the mainstream. This film looks like it’s shot in Pittsburgh, but it’s really Canada. So Romeroe is sort of back home and this is sort of a zombie film in the spirit of his other three. For the record, Romero has always been more than a zombie director. As with so many of his films Romero’s interest in not in the dead, but the living. His cast for Land of the Dead is not the sort that lights up marquees, but they deliver more than pretty faces and marketable names.
Other than Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo – two character actors that could hardly hold a float a summer blockbuster – Romero patches together a strong assemble of familiar faces with less than noteworthy names. Fronting the Land of the Dead ‘s small band of survivors is Simon Baker, a man who should be rightly familiar with the Pittsburgh area after having spent sometime there while on the television series The Guardian. Hellbent on escaping the small enclave created by Hopper’s tycoon character, Baker looks to the north as a place of freedom from the high priced, security that is afforded to the small band of survivors huddled in and around a luxury apartment building known as Fiddler’s Green. Hopper rules from a top of Fiddler’s Green a rather savvy business slimeball that has his fingers in just about everything that goes on in and around the Green. Romero holds Hopper back and this maybe something he wishes he hadn’t done. You should only cast Hopper if you want someone to chew your scenery – fuckin’ devour it. A scenery chewing Hopper makes a film memorable. A toned down Hopper makes you wonder what the hell is going on inside a director’s mind. Crazy or not, everyone in this film would be happier without Hopper. I’d have been happier if he got more than two moments to let loose and shine. The rest of the cast gives better than expected performances to rather unimaginative characters. Baker’s character dreams of escaping to the Great White North. Leguizamo’s dreams of the buying his way into the luxury of a Fiddler’s Green penthouse. Of course they don’t let pests into plush play palaces. That, of course, gets Leguizamo’s blood boiling. For the most part Leguizamo is Leguizamo. He’s got a sense of humor, attitude, and a dirty Spanish nickname. Robert Joy turns in the best performance as a dim-witted, one-eyed sharpshooter who’s saved Baker’s neck countless times and is the only person Baker even considers taking with him. Their is a brotherly bond between the two something very Steinbeckian, if only sweeter. Finally, there is Asia Argento who gets her first decent role as a tough and spunky hooker looking to free herself from Hopper’s reign. Overall, the performances outshine the special effects, the action sequences, and even the political commentary that comes with all Romero zombie films. Even Eugene Clark gives some humanism to the lead zombie role, though the film itself spends precious little time on these creatures especially in the latter part of the film.
For ninety minutes the cast of characters moves about from one predicament to another, each attempting to achieve their own goals without getting bit by zombies or screwed over by other humans. By the sixty minute mark all the seams start to show and Romero stumbles headlong into action adventure. With clocks ticking and many loose ends flapping in the wind the last third of the film rolls by at an upsetting pace, leaving you to wonder what’s the big rush? Along the way Romero delivers a few scares, lots of gore, a couple laughs, and some present day political commentary. There is no mistaking Hopper’s “We won’t deal with terrorists” line for anything but a jab at President Bush. Nor does it take a wide stretch of the imagination to see the cut off Pittsburgh as an analogy for America, nearly surrounded by water, heavily protected by a high powered military, but still afraid of invasion. Simon Baker’s refusal to do Hopper’s dirty work, to flee north smells like a burning draft card. Though much of this can tie into present day politics the more shocking conclusion is that little has changed since Romero presented the commercialism of Dawn of the Dead or the militarism of Day of the Dead. If anything they now exist happily together in the Land of the Dead.
But what of hope? Were Land of the Dead to be more than just grim reminder that little has changed or that things have gotten worse why the need for Dead Reckoning? Dead Reckoning is not a new hope, it is an old weapon. It does not symbolize the turning of a page towards a new lifestyle, but a continuation of older, more brutal ways. Even though the smartest and most noble of heroes ride off into the sunset, they look not for solutions, but for escape – a return to life B.Z. – Before Zombies. Yes, they must return to simplier time, but I cannot help but see these post-apocalyptic wanna-be Thoreaus as anything more than an extension of self-centered values that plague all of Romero’s characters – except maybe the zombies. Here is where Romero’s commentary falters. Though he pegs Hopper, Leguizamo, and a gaggle of others as being the ills of society he cannot find it in himself to comment on the way that Baker and his band of golden hearted heroes are just looking out for themselves.
By attempting to tie this film into the trilogy Romero – or more likely his influential producers who I suspect were behind many decisions – Romero essentially admits that we/he is treading water. Perhaps, were this film to be an honest extension of his earlier zombie films Romero might give more thought to progressing the story, continuing the use of temporal terms such as Night, Dawn, Day and write something along the lines of Dusk or Twilight of the Dead. Though it should be noted that Twilight of the Dead was a title once attached to this film. However, both dusk and twilight symbolize the coming of a change usually into darkness, but for a series born at night such a change may only be fitting. Here, Romero could have taken the time to show that there is still hope for understanding, knowledge, science, and ultimately a cure to the problems that have ravaged his filmic landscape. Alas, this is not the coming of a new day. No matter what the name, a name is not enough. The film needs to live up to the name. As it presently sits – and there have been no cries of a director’s cut – Land of the Dead feels more like Dead Reckoning, a film based around action and the need for weaponry to blast one’s way to a safer future. Sadly, this is not the reading I would expect from a Romero film, but in a muddled way this is how one has to see things.
As stated before, I get the sense that this is the work of producers, people hoping to cash in on the Romero name and a legion of zombie fans. I do not fault Romero for taking them up on any offer they floated by him. Land of the Dead is one of the better action films I’ll see this year and it has more brains than any I’ve seen in a while. However, it does not deserve to be lifted up their with the original Dead trilogy. Even the re-make of Dawn of the Dead felt more worthy than this action film laced with zombies. In a worst case scenario, I could see this film becoming a forgotten part of Romero’s filmography like Bruiser or Knightriders. However, with it’s title and its use of zombies it may stick around a while or it become like the Puppetmaster or the Leprechaun or the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Romero is already crafting a zombie rock opera. That one is slated to be called Diamond Dead, but how long before it gets changed to George A Romero’s Rock of the Dead? This trend could go on for ever, but the debate should end right here. There was one Dead trilogy and unless Romero comes forth and explicitly says otherwise he is now a genre filmmaker who sometimes casts zombies.