Combustible Celluloid
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With: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Dennis Hopper, Eugene Clark, Jennifer Baxter, Boyd Banks, Joanne Boland, Krista Bridges, Pedro Miguel Arce, Phil Fondacaro, Max McCabe, Tony Munch, Tony Nappo, Simon Pegg
Written by: George A. Romero
Directed by: George A. Romero
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use
Running Time: 93
Date: 18/06/2005

Land of the Dead (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Corpse of Action

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Land of the Dead on DVD.

Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) made films about society's social ills and won widespread critical acclaim. George A. Romero also makes films about society's social ills, except that he incorporates zombies, bikers and vampires. As a result, his films and his career have been unfairly marginalized.

With Romero's newest film, Land of the Dead, his first film in five years and the first to receive widespread theatrical distribution in 12 years, a celebration is in order. Romero may now safely join the short list of the great American auteurs.

In his first masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero outlined the decline of the American nuclear family by trapping a band of arguing hotheads in a house together. Dawn of the Dead (1978) poked fun at consumerism, and complicated matters by introducing a third element more destructive than the zombies: bikers. Day of the Dead (1985) reduced life to a series of military manouevers, while humans lived underground and scientists began studying the zombies.

The fourth of Romero's celebrated zombie films, Land of the Dead, takes place, like its two predecessors, long after the zombie menace has been established.

Bands of rebels have worked out military-like routines for getting by. Riley (Simon Baker), a kindly but sad and distant leader, dreams of buying a car and heading north, where fewer people -- and thereby fewer zombies -- live.

He has as his perpetual sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy), a dim but loyal sharpshooter with a massive burn scar up one side of his face. Their relationship resembles the tender and comic one shared between Humphrey Bogart and Walter Brennan in Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944).

Among Riley's team is the hot-headed Cholo (John Leguizamo), who does some work on the side for a high-roller called Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). The entrepreneurial Kaufman has established and lives atop a ritzy community of luxury apartments, safe from the zombies. Cholo hopes to raise enough money to afford one of these units. But unfortunately his lowly caste prohibits him from even having a chance.

Romero has thus set up a cleverly multi-layered treatise on the collapse of the class system in America. The zombies represent the lowest classes, stepped upon and discarded by everyone. Romero unexpectedly sets up a few scenes of squealing, marauding humans swooping in and slaughtering the helpless zombies who are seemingly going about their own business. He thereby earns a certain sympathy for the zombies and establishes them as our equals.

Romero then one-ups the formula by revealing that these zombies are beginning to acquire intelligence. One zombie, a large, African-American gas station attendant becomes the zombie's unwitting leader, teaching them to band together and to use weapons.

Meanwhile, the middle class are stuck in the daily grind, fighting off zombies on one side and angry at the rich on the other side. The rich turn a blind eye to everyone, unaware that they actually need the efforts of the middle class to make their luxury castle operate. (Kaufman has an African-American manservant to juxtapose the zombie leader.)

In other words, each of the classes relies upon the other in some way, but none wants to acknowledge this need; each wants to wipe the others out.

Needless to say, all the characters' plans go awry. Riley's car suddenly disappears, and he enlists the aid of the sexy Slack (Asia Argento), a police trainee forced to work as a prostitute. Then the race is on for possession of a heavily armored truck called Dead Reckoning that has the power to plow through any army of zombies.

Also an entertainer, Romero makes sure we get the highest dose of zombie action available, and as such he surpasses all the recent ripoffs (28 Days Later), remakes (2004's Dawn of the Dead) and spoofs (Shaun of the Dead), proving that he's still the guy who invented it all, and what he says goes. The film whirls in flesh-chewing, flesh-ripping, severed limbs, and other wonders from the Grand Guignol.

Romero's qualities as a veteran screenwriter should also be noted. I've seen dozens of military-like films in which leaders bark orders at followers and the stoic let their stories out in gushes of emotion (Alien vs. Predator and Alone in the Dark come to mind), but Romero handles this potentially awkward dialogue with grace and realism. Not once did the conversation in Land of the Dead sound false or contrived.

Romero's ultimate point here, as in the other zombie films, is that it isn't the zombies' fault. We're perfectly capable through greed and ignorance and violence of destroying our own fragile systems of organization.

Even money in Land of the Dead begins to lose its power. When Kaufman escapes his ivory tower, he carries two leather bags filled with money, though it becomes very clear that there's not much it will buy for him. A subsequent image of burning money floating through the air says perhaps more than a thousand words on the subject.

DVD Details: The criminally neglected "Land of the Dead" (2005, Universal, $29.98), makes its DVD debut just before Halloween. Universal's essential disc presents the "unrated" version with four extra minutes, as well as a Romero commentary track and lots of other extras.

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