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Land of the Dead Review
(Article by Neil Fawcett , added 24-Jun-2005)



On the 21st of June, Universal hosted an preview screening of 'Land of the Dead' at the Arclight cinema in LA. Homepage of the Dead managed to secure a pass for Patrick J. Doody who was then kind enough to provide the following review of the film.


Preface
This review is very much in the format of my favorite reviewer, Roger Ebert. Wait! I'm not saying it's as good as Ebert, only that I follow his format. I find his reviews to have a few spoilers by way of plot details or lines of dialogue, however, I agree with him when he says to review a film you have to talk about it. This review may be more beneficial after you've seen the film. I don't give away any endings or major twists, but I do set up the first act of the story, so for those who want total immersion without any knowledge this Friday (or whenever they are lucky enough to see it), I leave it to you whether you want to read it or not.

Thanks to Neil for the opportunity to put my thoughts on the board and providing me the media pass to get into an advance screening. He is a true stench hater.


Expectations
In order to truly enjoy Land Of The Dead, it is imperative to wipe your mind of expectations. You want this film to be great, but nothing is ever going to live up to your expectations. Keep an open mind instead. It's a completely new film. That's not to say that Romero's fingerprints aren't on the movie, but you're not going to get the starkness of Night Of The Living Dead or the poppy 70's gloss of Dawn Of The Dead. Really force yourself to let go of the old films and enjoy a new one.

I was in 6th grade when I first saw Night Of The Living Dead. My hands trembled nervously as I kept switching the channels back and forth....wait a minute, I ain't no f*cking Harry Knowles. Okay, here's the setup. I love George A. Romero.


The Review
Land Of The Dead is the fourth installment in what can no longer be called the Dead Trilogy. The story begins with a quick setup of the world you are about to see. Using stock footage and some news-styled voiceovers, we quickly learn that the dead have come back to life and eat living people. It's no surprise for anyone who knows the films, but it's a good way to breeze through the credits. Already though, the quick cuts and stylized graphic opening of the film look very different from any other Romero film. Already, I feared that this film has been pasted over with Hollywood's use of graphics and special effects. Happily, this is the only time where there are flash frames, massive uses of 2D graphics, and special effects editing.

We open up on a creepy panning shot of a desolate street. Slowly, shadowy figures emerge and we realize that we are viewing the current life of the zombies. There is no food to be eaten anywhere and it looks as if they have settled into an almost humdrum small town life complete with droll entertainment in the form of a musical trio and a gas station attendant who actually answers to the sound of the pneumatic bell when it's step on it. Only something is "different" as noted by our protagonist Riley (Simon Baker), who we discover is viewing all of this through binoculars. He observes that they are actually trying to live life, to which he glumly says, "just like us".

Without giving away too much plot, the story introduces us to a team of scavengers, headed by Riley with his second in command, Cholo (Leguizamo) who plays hot headed Mercutio type. We learn that this group's goal is to find supplies for the city in which they live in and work for. I don't recall the city is ever named, but is clearly meant to be Pittsburgh. Within this walled city protected by three rivers and electrified fences stands the massive, monolithic building Fiddler's Green (the term used to describe a seamen's heaven where the women and rum are endless).

Fiddler's Green is where upper crust live. It's the world that the rich have created to forget about the troubles that the undead have brought upon their lives. It has a class system between the wealthy inside and the poor outside. Inside are high-end stores and full serviced restaurants. Outside are cheap hot dog stands and zombie shooting galleries to entertain the masses of have-nots. This new society was developed and is ruled by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who could be considered the richest man in the city as well as its dictator. He chooses who lives in the Fiddler's Green and he even runs the slums that surround it, where street corner activists preach anti-Kaufman sentiment and possible uprisings against the wealthy tenants on the inside.

Ultimately, the scavengers who risk their lives to bring the rich such luxuries as booze, cigars, medicine, and new clothes decide they are sick of the way they are treated and hijak the city's greatest weapon, Dead Reckoning -a souped up, well armored RV that houses missiles which Cholo plans to fire at Fiddler's Green unless he is given 5 million dollars. (To give you a reference point in this new economy, a bottle of booze can go for $1200). Kaufman bluntly responds to his threat by saying "we don't negotiate with terrorists." Kaufman then hires Riley, who built Dead Reckoning, to go out and hunt down Cholo. All Riley asks for in return is a car and weapons, so he and his friends can leave the city and find somewhere else to live somewhere there are no people. Riley, like Cholo, is also done with life in the city and this opportunity is now his way out. Meanwhile, we are seeing an uprising in the making by a group of zombies who are lead by an undead former gas attendant, who has a "we're not gonna take this anymore " attitude and his followers are ready to fight alongside him. This zombie is very much a continuation of Bub, the almost human like zombie in Day Of The Dead who learns to fire a gun as well as show emotion.

As in Romero fashion, the allegories and satire about social and class differences, the theme of gross consumerism to validate humanity and the definition of what it means to be alive are all very prevalent in the film. The rich in Fiddler's Green are seen shopping, looking at price tags and doing some fine dining. It does really stand out as Romero's vision of what would happen if the dead came back to life - the upper class create a life that ignores the problems of the world by locking themselves in and maintaining the life they only know opulence and comfort. This time though, Romero can actually show the grand nature of the world he created over thirty years ago and it's quite terrifying. At first, I was a bit desensitized to the zombies themselves having seen so many zombie films in theaters lately. However, as the film went on and the pacing became unrelentless, the zombies became a veritable threat. The film does a good job at making you feel safe but then literally tears down that safety barrier. He's also able to bring the slow moving zombie back in all its glory, which really shows that they can still be really scary. Hooray for the slow moving zombie!

Romero's gift to this film is the pacing. Much like the other films, the culmination of events that lead up to the finale begin to really unnerve you. His use of dramatic irony (the idea that the audience knows something the characters don't know) is brilliant and the solid audio work really helps build up the intercut action. This is not a film where we learn along with the characters. We are ahead of them and there is nothing we can do to help. Many times in horror films, this method can be tedious because you are just waiting for something to happen just to get it over with. However, Romero edits the film in a pace that creates a sense of dread and terror as the story continues and the safety of Fiddler's Green begins to unravel. And when all hell breaks loose, it's done in grand form, though I will have to be honest, I was hoping for some more wild fighting between humans and zombies. Of course, the splatter count is quite high for an R-Rating. There is lots of head violence, finger violence, pretty much every body part violence including some really gratuitous limb tearing shots that are just pure Romero and purely gorgeous. As for other visual effects, any doubling up of zombies using computer enhancement was unnoticeable. There are some bad blue screen effects during one particular scene, but overall, the film was not laden with cartoon like animation. And the zombie make-up and costumes were amazingly unique.

The acting in the film is very slick - these are all pros. Riley is a bit one dimensional in character, but Simon Baker plays a solid hero. Argento is the most believable. She doesn't fall into the category of "tough girl who happens to be hot". Her distinct face and swelling eyes really tell a story of a woman who does what she has to do to survive without being a selfish bitch.

As the credits rolled, I wondered if this was the zombie opus I was hoping for? I didn't feel like it lived up to my expectations. After sitting a while to ponder it, I think the film is really quite fantastic. As a piece of political and social commentary, it can be a bit on the nose sometimes, but maybe that's just to make sure that some audiences will understand it. (Many people who don't read up on Romero may never realize that the update of Dawn of the Dead completely ignores the consumerist comments and that it's a key part of why holding up in a mall is brilliant on several levels.)

My only complaint, and it's the complaint you've seen in several other reviews, is that the film is too short. Now, for the current audiences, I understand why they did it. The film has to play on a commercial level. This isn't the good old days of the NR, 1 million dollar budgeted Dawn Of The Dead. This film had a larger budget and was put out by a major studio. Running time is a factor for wide release. But for the Romero fan, the truest part of his films is spending time with the characters and seeing more of this world. This film follows more story than character and I miss it. I would have loved to see some more of Fiddler's Green more useless banter about clothes or furniture. I wanted more interaction of Kaufman and his kingdom. Romero has a great way of examining human nature under duress and I think he nails it every time when it comes to how society would react. I think his future is quite possible and is already relevant. His observation of our basic needs is a treat and we don't get enough of that in this film. I also felt that the residents living there became fodder for gore. Just because we know they are affluent, I also want to see how vacuous and ignorant they are before we tear them apart. Or even show a human side to them to feel some sympathy. As it is, they are just food. I know there is supposed to be a longer director's cut for DVD, but I don't know if there is more character or just more gore. I hope it's both.

The film does lead us to believe that there could be more stories to tell, but I hope we sit on this one for a while. I would hate to see more of these characters in another film. The other real gift of this series is the introduction of an entirely new society and how they are coping with the problem. I also feel that a sequel to this film undermines the strong ending for these characters. It is self-contained and does put a nice lid to the world of the undead. My hope for Romero is that the film's success could lead to him making something else. He is a gift to horror fans and he's been gone too long but now at last, with Land Of The Dead, Romero has returned to life.


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