Jun 23, 2013

IT AIN'T THAT BAD: LAND OF THE DEAD

In this column, movies with less-than-stellar reputations are fairly and objectively defended. Full disclaimer establishes that said movies aren’t perfect, and aren’t close to being such, but contain an undeniable amount of worth that begs you for a second chance. Films chosen are based on their general reception by both critics and audiences, more often than not falling into the negative. Every film, no matter how dismal, has at least one good quality. As they say, it ain’t that bad. 

Spoilers abound. 


The name of George A. Romero will always carry weight with horror fans. That's just the way it is. Colleagues of mine have suggested that he often gets a pass from reviewers who glow about his new films, even if we're talking dreck like Survival of the Dead. The theory is, because he's given the world two bonafide classics with Night of the Living and Dawn of the Dead (and a minor one with Day), his less-than-desireable output will always be celebrated because he's earned it.

I can't really say I agree. While his name will always carry weight, no one gets a pass. We're dealing with the human race, after all - the only species to have both learned and mastered cynicism. 

Perhaps the only other name in the genre with George's amount of clout is John Carpenter, and that man hardly ever gets a pass anymore. His last few efforts (outside of the very good "Masters of Horror" entry Cigarette Burns) have been eviscerated - as far back as 2001 with Ghosts of Mars. People, almost joyfully, lambasted his newest release, The Ward (defended here), as if their harsh criticisms were tantamount to orgasm.

That said (and yes, in a typical IMDB message board disclaimer), I recognize that film is a subjective medium. It's art, after all, and everyone will have their own opinion and approach it in their own way. But I cannot stand idly by and read positive reviews for Diary and Survival of the Dead. Those are not good films, plain and simple. Diary gets by for being at least exciting and never boring, but Survival is so terrible that I'd rather sit through that awful Day of the Dead remake again. 

Positive reviews for Land of the Dead, though? That I can get. What I can't get is the hate. Because it's out there, and who knows why.


Exactly twenty years after 1985's Day of the Dead, Romero's fourth zombie opus stormed its way into theaters in the wake of Resident Evil, Shaun of the Dead, and a remake of Romero's own Day of the Dead, to reclaim its title as King of the Zombies. Romero had done his press, fine-tuned his script for a post-9/11 world, and sucked it up to work with a major studio. He even used Universal's original opening logo as opposed to the current one, in a statement I like to think equated to: "Motherfucker, I've been making this shit since before your father was big." He is the big cheese who created the modern zombie, after all, so I'll allow him the proclamation. 

The excitement in the horror community was palpable. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz's Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright eagerly provided cameos as chained-up zombies. KNB FX worked for a fraction of their usual prices just to be working with Romero again and to help support his project. Someone high-profile, perhaps Eli Roth, equated the new sequel as being a new addition to the Star Wars series for horror fans. And he was right. After twenty years, Romero was doing another zombie film, and this was a big deal.

But the movie was released...and nobody came.

Not realizing horror films don't do big business in the middle of the summer, squished in between all the hundred-million-dollar-budget releases, Universal sadly chose to release Land of the Dead at the end of June, and it simply got lost. (Not by me - I saw it three times.) While I knew Romero had been a revered figure in the horror world, I was shocked to pick up USA Today or the local paper and read positive reviews for this, his newest Dead film. A horror film getting good reviews? About zombies, no less? Isn't that impossible? (Let's not forget one crucial thing: Both Night and Day opened to critical drubbings, and it wouldn't be for years until they were duly appreciated.)

But I had my focus on the wrong place. It wasn't the film critic I had to worry about - it was the film fan. And oftentimes, that's so much worse. So-called fans hated it. "We waited twenty years for this?", etc. It even has the dreaded "WORST MOVIE EVER!" message board post. (Not hyperbole, this chick means it!)

And the fake complaints came rapid-fire, chief among them being "The acting was terrible!" (Sorry, have you not seen Night of the Living Dead?)

Romero's earlier zombie films have always relied on the power of the ensemble (Dawn proved this), and while that's still somewhat applicable to Land, this time the focus really seems to be on Riley Denbo (Simon Baker). Riley is a sort of messenger boy for Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), ruler and ultimate landlord of Fiddler's Green, a posh utopia allegedly free from zombie tyranny, but also divided into social class systems.

Despite Land being part four of an ongoing zombie saga (and though, mercifully, Land would end this particular series), each entry never really carried on anything beyond the zombie problem. No characters returned from one film to another and no events are mentioned - not even in passing. The only thing that was consistent was the worsening of the zombie problem. But in Land, Romero does choose to carry on one particular development established as far back as Dawn: the "walkers" are capable of learning, using tools for simple tasks, and communicating. What was solidified with Bub from Day has been passed onto Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), Romero's requisite strong minority character. (In Night, it was Ben, in Dawn, it was Peter, and in Day, he switched sexes for Sarah.) His trend continues, only now he's not just switching sexes again - he's switching to "the other half." Romero decided it was time to take the idea of this zombie race revolution seriously, and with no better way than his usage of a strong black male lead. 

Romero, working with a big studio again (a rarity), has all sorts of toys to utilize: better actors, better production design, and an abundance of CGI married into KNB's normal wonderment of red stuff. It's not just the producer or the producer's wife talking about cannibalism, but Dennis Hopper, lord of the acid era and all-around cinema legend. Fucking guy who made Easy Rider, people - he's kind of a big deal. Simon Baker as Riley does a fine job keeping a straight face amongst the sea of ghouls surrounding him, but he knows when to have fun, too. For some reason his performance comes off more Sam Spade than John McClane (maybe that's just me), but it works all the same.

By his side is Robert Joy, who also worked with Romero back on his ill-fated adaptation of Stephen King's The Dark Half. He's saddled with uncomfortable looking burn make-up, but in turn receives all the best lines. ("I normally don't need that many.") He provides most of the film's much-needed comic relief and seems to have the biggest heart of anyone, but he also bears the brunt of society's cruelest treatment. As far as realism goes, that sounds about right.


John Leguizamo as Cholo (an actor for whom I don't normally care), likewise, cheeses it up all over the map. He knows what kind of film he's in and he enjoys going off the deep end in his normal John Leguizamo way. I'm actually a little surprised at how enthusiastic he was about being involved in such a project; I often wonder how A-list Hollywood regards not just the horror genre, but the fiercely independent side with which I sometimes think only hardcore horror nutballs are familiar. Speaking of horror nutballs, Asia Argento (daughter of the famed director Dario) shares the majority of the screen time with Riley as Slack, a former soldier and now prostitute forced to work the streets for Kaufman. She does pretty okay, as she was never the strongest actor, but she looks more at home than anyone else swinging weapons into zomb faces and delivering some pretty questionable dialogue. Also, her short skirt and body fishnets aren't the worst thing on Planet Earth.

(Lastly, check out the 0:47 minute mark for a cameo by a three-foot high version of Catherine Keener. Wah-wah!)

The political subtext, without which Romero's films would be admittedly less interesting, is ever present; it was pretty relevant in 2005, but has never been more relevant than right now. The super rich live high and mighty and safe in their golden towers, shielded from the outside threat, while the poor live with barbed-wire-thin security from that same threat. Are they safe? Perhaps. But there's not much between them and total bloody chaos. Romero takes it one step further and says when shit really hits the fan, it doesn't matter how many zeroes are in your bank account: your ass gone get et.

Strictly on a technical level, Land looks great. Romero, who has been making zombie films for nearly FIFTY YEARS, lacks nowhere in enthusiasm. "I love these guys!" he once said about his zombies, and it shows. He's definitely not conservative with the gore gags, even within the stifling confines of a major studio's restrictions. The scope of the film can sometimes feel stunted, as we never get a real feel for the scope of Fiddler's Green, but it looks gorgeous - even the night shoots, which are hard to pull off. And the scene where Big Daddy's zombies slowly emerge from the foggy river waters is the stuff of goosebumps.

Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, whose most recent and amazing score for Cloud Atlas captivated audiences, provide a very percussion-driven anthem for Romero's tapestry of destruction. Gone are the days of Goblin, John Harrison, and library music; Land's music is big and jarring. The stand-out track (called "To Canada" on the official soundtrack release) is so fucking good that it appears three times.

And another thing: Earlier, when I said Romero never carried over older characters from one sequel to another? I lied:

From Monroeville Mall to Fiddler's Green...

Additionally, Romero's ability for black comedy is ever in place: listen during the zombie invasion for the automated voice of Fiddler's Green reassuring its occupants that Kaufman will always be there for them in times of danger...as he flees with his chauffeur to his car, his bags stuffed to the gills with all the cash he could carry.

In the Romero zombie pantheon, he hit the ground running with Night, peaked with Dawn, continued with the less-impressive-by-comparison Day, and went out somewhat unceremoniously but still nicely with Land. Even among those fans who consider Land to be quite strong, methinks they would still rank it last, and that's okay. Being the last in the race doesn't necessarily mean you suck; it just means you're the least good.

If I were to have an issue with Land of the Dead, it's this: from Night through Day, the zombies were always the main threat, and under it played out the mini and man-made conflicts to make the story socially relevant. But in Land, for the first time, the zombies are the back drop. Don't get me wrong, rotting ghoul faces fill the majority of the frames, and their absence is never more than brief. But Cholo's theft of the Dead Reckoning and Riley's vow to get it back in exchange for a one-way ticket out of the city is the main conflict, relegating the zombies to supporting players - as things to be simply dealt with while the fight over Dead Reckoning continues. Because of this, and for the first time, I sometimes wonder to myself as the closing credits play, "What was the point of this film?" I know, I know: Such a confession kinda makes all of the above and below null and void, right? "Except for the film not having a point, I really liked it!" And that's...kind of a problem. That's the last thing you want your audience to wonder as they file out of the theater.

But then again, Romero wanted to make a point about rich vs. poor, and he certainly did. In the process, people were ripped apart, decapitated, blown to crispy critters - all done with a wink and a smile. In the climax, when the zombs storm the Green and eviscerate the high-falootin rich - people, mind you, to whom we have not been introduced - we enjoy seeing them get ripped apart. And not in the "I'm watching a zombie film!" kind of way, but in the way that secretly satisfies the blood lust in us, and scratches that itch we have in terms of the hate we have for the top "1%". In this country, the rich belong to the most exclusive social club in the world, and, like Cholo, we'll try our whole lives trying to get in, only to be denied. They consume most of the country's wealth, so let Romero's army of the undead consume them in kind.

Romero may not be on top of his game anymore, and if Land were to be his last..at least debated-over film (as to its quality), I say fine with me. Twenty years later, his successful trilogy became a successful quadrilogy, and that's pretty fucking cool.

Oh, and one more thing:

One, please.

3 comments:

  1. This is a good (and fair) write-up of Land. My enjoyment of it has faded the more I've watched it, but I would take this film any day over Survival. That film is a piece of shit and I can't imagine anyone trying to defend that the poor quality is intentional.

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    1. Agreed. It's baffling that Dawn and Survival come from the same filmmaker.

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  2. Yeah, I like this one, he definitely should have quit while he was ahead. Talk about a NOSEDIVE with those other two...

    http://www.zombiehall.com/2011/11/land-of-dead.html

    But yeah, great review.

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