Thursday, October 29, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead

I feel like it's not really Halloween season if I don't watch a Romero zombie flick, but I'm rapidly running out of ones that I like. In fact, this is really the last one I'll probably watch for 31 Days. (I didn't much care for Diary of the Dead or Survival of the Dead.) Not to say that I was completely happy with Land of the Dead when it came out - in all honesty I was pretty disappointed.

And yet, I'm now hard pressed to say why. It may have had something to do with the release of the Dawn of the Dead remake the year previous . I enjoyed the hell out of that modernization, even if the film failed to make much use of Romero's deeper themes. I was, perhaps, expecting a little of that edge, that frenzied, more modern pace. Maybe I was expecting a bigger budget - and Land was Romero's only studio-produced Dead film - to create a bigger film than what we got. Maybe... ah, hell, it doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that I was disappointed - but I still liked the movie.

The Medium
I've got the "Unrated Director's Cut" DVD - just never got around to the blu-ray, and I'm not sure it's really necessary. The unrated version adds back in a few choice bits of gore - like a zombie ripping out someone's naval ring - but nothing that adds to the plot or backstory.

The Movie
Set several years after the events of the previous Dead films, the primary action takes place in and around Pittsburgh's "Golden Triangle" - a real feat, since it was shot in and around Toronto, Canada. Protected on two sides by rivers the city provides enough safety from the dead ('stenches' in this film - why does every zombie franchise have to use a different term?) to allow for civilization - of a sort - to reassert itself. The city has stratified into the haves and have-nots with the rich living in a luxury high-rise called Fiddler's Green and everyone else living in abandoned buildings, shacks and tents in your standard post-apocalyptic ghetto.

Top-drawer entertainment, however.

In a lot of ways Land of the Dead feels like an eighties film - a thematic cousin to movies like The Running Man, They Live and Robocop. Romero's always used his films as a way to talk about larger issues - consumer culture, urban alienation, societal nihilism - and with Land he's focused primarily on class struggle and wealth stratification, something those 80's films were also concerned about. It's also pretty simplistic in its concerns - the poor are good, the wealthy are bad, and those who attempt to elevate their station betray both their roots and their own survival. I've got no problem with the message - I just wish there had been a bit more subtlety. Of course when you've got Dennis Hopper as your big bad that may be asking for too much.

"Waterworld 2? Yeah, fuck it, why not."

The biggest addition to Romero's Dead cannon here is actually a logical continuation of Bub, from Day of the Dead. The zombies in this film are starting to remember who they use to be - and they spend much of their time acting out old habits and behaviors. An undead band struggles to carry a tune in the old bandstand, a long-dead couple still holds hands as they stagger around town, and Big Daddy, a former gas station attendant, shambles to the pump as if it was still working. In some ways it's almost an idealistic society - nobody wants, nobody struggles and best of all, nobody dies. Again, that is.

"Hey, Mr. Tambourine man..."

Except the zombie society and the human society end up in conflict. In order to maintain the human community, groups are sent out to raid surrounding towns for resources. Their leader is the clean-cut Riley (Simon Baker) - a man whose do-gooder nature is juuuust this side of saccharin. (I mean, he brings antibiotics for the preachers ill son.) His second in command is the more pragmatic - if not mercenary - Cholo (John Lequizamo), a man for whom death is part of the job description - as long as it's not his. We join the story on the night of Riley's last job. He's bugging out - leaving the rat race (and the rats) for the quieter climes of Canada. All he wants is for things to go smooth on his last job.

And of course it doesn't. Cholo isn't out getting food or medicine for the community - he's getting cigars and liquor for the guy who runs things, Kaufman (Hopper). His inattention leads to the death of a young man, which is bad, but the behavior of the group as a whole - running roughshod through the town, shooting zombies and setting fires - inspires the ire of Big Daddy. And this is one zombie you do not want to mess with.

Lequizamo's Cholo is actually my favorite character, primarily because he's the only one that shows any sort of complexity. I like Baker as an actor, but he's so straight-laced in this I'm surprised he's not wearing a white hat. Hopper is just as bad on the other side of things, but he hams up the sleazy CEO shtick so well I tend to cut him some slack. Cholo, on the other hand, is mercenary and self-centered and ambitious to a fault - but he also tries to help people (Kaufman's neighbor), inspires a twisted sort of devotion in his men, and is genuinely hurt that Kaufman doesn't consider him 'worthy' of the Green. He just wants to live the American dream, man!

*Insert Girl From Ipanema Muzak track here*

With his dreams of "movin' on up" quashed, Cholo steals a military truck called "Dead Reckoning" and threatens to shell Fiddler's Green with missiles unless he gets the money Kaufman owes him. (The whole idea that money still means anything in this wasteland is laughable - but hey.) Riley is drafted to take him out before he can do it - which Riley agrees to only to save his friends.

Meanwhile Big Daddy and his growing army of zombies moves steadily towards the bright lights across the river. And they're learning as they go.

Learning just how cold Lake Ontario is in the winter, primarily.

Things get apocalyptic, of course. It's a Romero zombie film. Though the zombies actually have a bit more agency in how things go down than is usual. (I expected more direct human screw-ups to be the cause of zombies getting in.)

The supporting characters are thin, but well handled by Asia Argento and Robert Joy. Eugene Clark as Big Daddy is also a standout - you don't often see outrage, grief or satisfaction in a zombie, but Clark manages it through an iconic makeup. He's no Bub, but he's still pretty good.

My main complaint about Land of the Dead is in how small everything feels. Even when they're shooting exteriors it all feels... claustrophobic. I don't feel the scope or sense of place - if it wasn't for the occasional establishing shot of the Pittsburgh skyline it could be anywhere. Maybe that's the point, though...

The Bottom Line
Out of the first series of Dead films (Diary serves a sort of re-boot to the series) this is my least favorite. I feels too small for the scope of the story and too broad in its message. There's still plenty to enjoy, however - it's a Romero zombie movie, after all.

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