Romero's Land of the Dead

Though heralded as an all-new chapter of horror, “Land of the Dead,” George A. Romero's first new zombie movie in two decades, is just a mildly entertaining pastiche with few original notes that both rehashes and brings up to date elements of his previous films. It's good to see the horror maestro back at the helm, though in this picture, he impresses more as a craftsman and stylist than storyteller.

Loyal to his fans, Romero has made four zombie pictures, beginning with the landmark black-and-white “Night of the Living Dead,” and continuing with “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.” All these films draw their power from an ancient, universal fear: The fear of dead people coming back to life. Working now with a bigger budget and a more recognizable cast, Romero has made a self-conscious horror flick with state-of-the-art special effects and stylish look that's much less scary than the former installments, albeit one with a stronger sense of humor.

Times have changed and what was innovative, experimental, and frightening in 1968, when “Night of the Living Dead” was released, or 1978, when “Dawn of the Dead” was made, is not anymore. Aware of this fact, Romero has decided to make a new movie that, while trying to tell a new story, will still deliver the goods and pay tribute to the older picture that had put him on the map. The gore and gruesome violence are evident in the new movie, but the shocks, the scares, and the fun are missing.

Romero, who's credited with inventing the zombie genre, might have become a victim of his own reputation. By now his body of work rests as much on mythology as on genuine cinematic merits, and though he has made other good horror flicks, such as “The Dark Half,” he seems to be chained by the classicism of his own oeuvre, unwilling or unable to chart new fertile horror grounds.

In Romero's newest vision, the world is merely a memory, so to speak. In its place is the never-ending nightmare existence of the humansthe livingversus them, the “walkers.” What's left of mankind is cordoned off behind the walls of a fortified city, while the walking dead roam the vast surrounding wasteland. New premise is based on a gimmick: No place is safe and protected from the zombies, who might appear out of nowhere and in mass numbers.

“Land of the Dead” brings to the surface in a more explicit way the politics of social class. The few wealthy and powerful try to exert control and maintain an impressionor rather illusion–of life as it was. They dwell high above the city in the exclusive towers of Fiddler's Green, the last bastion of the ruling class, and the last reminder of the good old (white) American Dream.

On the streets, below, however, the remaining majority of the city's inhabitants eke out a hard-scrabbled life, seeking solace in the vices still available, gambling, fresh trade, and drugs, anything that offers even a fleeting respite from their hellish daily lives.
Both the lofty heights of Fiddler's Green and the demoralizing lows of the city below are controlled by a handful of ruthless opportunists, led by Kaufman (perfectly cast Dennis Hopper), who keeps his hands in every enterprise, both legit and illicit, from real estate to sleazier pursuits.

To bring food and other essential supplies to the city's occupants and to allow the Green's well-to-do to acquire the scarce luxury items (to which they were once accustomed), a hardened group of mercenaries, headed by Riley (TV's Simon Baker, rather bland) and his second-in-command Cholo (John Leguizamo, forceful and nasty), run retrieval missions outside the city, protected by their armored vehicle, Dead Reckoning.

Riley and Cholo are not significantly more moral or better than Kaufman, since they are in it for the money, which they hope to use for their own personal pursuits. It's a matter of degree, though: Cholo is greedier, more class-conscious, and nastier. Whereas Riley wants to head North, where there's promise of “a world without fences,” and freedom prevails, Cholo strives for the luxuries of Fiddler's Green, where he can lead a lucrative life, far away from his former violent life.

While Kaufman and his employees concern themselves with commerce, life is changing both within and without the walls of the city. Anarchic unrest is on the rise among the city's disenfranchised, and outside, the army of the dead is evolving, learning how to organize, communicate, and attack.

In the first reel, the narrative is organized around three individual characters: Riley, Cholo, and Kaufman. But then Romero begins to group them, which enlivens the proceedings by introducing a secondary set of characters.

Riley forms a ragtag ethnically diverse group that includes, in addition to Charlie, Slack (Italian Asia Argento), a former prostitute, and other eccentrics and deviants, such as a young obese and a tough but silent fighter.

When Cholo commandeers Dead Reckoning, intent on extorting millions out of Kaufman and his cronies, Riley and his band are called into action to stop Cholo and, in the process, protect the city and its population from the growing army of evolving zombies, who are storming its weakening perimeter.

What unifies Romero's zombie films is their function as a prism through which he explores current-day mores. Each film reflects its era's socio-political climate, but taken together, they represent, for better or for worse, one continuous story.

“Land of the Dead” is set in a devastated world, where there's no electricity, except for places inside the city, where people are trying to live normal lives. With this element, Romero present a critique of contemporary American society, where apathetic citizen ignore terrorism and other social problems, pretending that if they ignore the issues, they'll simply disappear.

The social fabric is disintegrating, and civilization is falling apart, turning into small units that try to function on their own. In this world, the “heroes” are mercenaries who are willing to go out into the dark side to bring back basic supplies, like food.

What elevates this film above the routine is the stellar casting and production values. As Kaufman, the self-appointed leader of Fiddler's Green, the enclave of the privileged class, Dennis Hopper may not be entirely credible. However, watching him in this role brings nice memories of his 1969 seminal film, “Easy Riders”, which, along with Romero's Night of the Living Dead,” is one of the signature movies of the late 1960s anti-Vietnam war generation. Hopper perceives Kaufman as a corporate CEO, a man who has built fences to keep people safe and has hired an army to do the job. Kaufman keeps the citizens on the street busy by giving them games and vices.

Similarly, Asia Argento evokes memories of horror films made by her father, famous Italian director Dario Argento, who himself helped to finance and produce Romero's “Dawn of the Dead.” Asia fits the mold of a Romero heroine, who's tough as anybody else and can fend for herself.

The best performance, possibly due to the writing, is given by Robert Joy, who had appeared in Romero's “The Dark Half.” Nailing each and every of his humorous lines, Gold excels as Charlie's buddy, a man who sees his mission in protecting Riley's life unto death. Their close-knit relationship and mutually fierce loyalty are based on the fact that Riley had saved Charlie's life.

Also impressive is Leguizamo as Cholo, a man full of self-hate and venom, whose ambition is to take over Riley's job and to convince the racist and right-wing Kaufman that he deserves to live in his secluded enclave.

Finally, a note about the changes in the zombie characters over the past three decades. In “Land of the Dead,” their leader is a huge man named Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) who, after witnessing yet another routine slaughter of a “stench” (a synonym for zombie), he begins marching toward the city, signaling the other walkers to join in an ever-expanding army, whose unspoken goal is retribution. In the first film, the zombies were stumbling, somewhat mindless creatures, whereas in the new installment, they possess a slowly dawning consciousness and strong planning and organizational skills.