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DVD Review: Land of the Dead

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Warning: Spoilers

It’s time for George Romero to surrender the keys to the mortuary and find himself another movie franchise. Land of the Dead, his latest trip to the gory well he drilled in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, shows that even with a 20-year layover between sequels — the last go-round, Day of the Dead, came out in 1985 — Romero has trouble coming up with anything fresh. Well . . . maybe “fresh” isn’t the right word for a series of films in which the recently dead get up and start chowing down on the living, but even death, decay and cannibalism start to get dull if you don’t find a way to spruce things up.

As with the previous films, Land of the Dead shows us a world in which the zombies have overrun human civilization and forced humanity into an isolated enclave. The difference is that this time the enclave is a walled city between two rivers, no zombies invited. The well-to-do have set themselves up in a luxurious tower called Fiddler’s Green, while those without the money to buy their way in must make do with glorified shantytowns at street level, with the ravening zombies just on the other side of chain link fences.

You know that any place run by Dennis Hopper just has to be bad news, but Romero reinforces the point with leftie agitprop so heavy-handed that it appears he is trying to make a film version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, only with zombies. He takes it even further by making the zombies into proto-proles led by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a snarling ghoul with stirrings of intelligence and the ability to lead. This conceit doesn’t work particularly well at any point in the movie, and it collapses during the inevitable reckoning, when the zombies invade Fiddler’s Green and start chowing down on the upper crust. It doesn’t work as horror because we’ve built up no sympathy with these people, but it doesn’t work as black comedy because these are, after all, disgusting cannibalistic zombies. And the final shot, in which the bland hero Riley (Simon Baker), seems to reach rapprochment with Big Daddy is one of the flat-out looniest plot notions I’ve ever seen in a film.

Until now, even the weakest sequel, Day of the Dead, acknowledged the psychic toll being exacted from the survivors of the zombie plague, but Land of the Dead exists in an action movie universe where people who see and do dreadful things on a daily basis simply trade deadpan wisecracks. It’s the polar opposite of Dawn of the Dead, the standout film in the series and one of the best horror movies ever made, in which the protagonists are always just this far from losing their minds over what is happening around them. When Fiddler’s Green falls to the rotting hordes, the hero and his buddies seem to think that heading for Canada will solve all their problems. Wait’ll those Quebec zombies get a hold of you, dudes — they even expect you to scream in French.

As the hero, Simon Baker is a big blank and Hopper is on autopilot, though he does get to deliver the movie’s best line: “Stop or you’re dead — oh shit, you are dead!” The supporting actors carry the movie, particularly Robert Joy as Riley’s childhood buddy and John Leguizamo as Cholo, a wannabe player who thinks he can bribe his way into Fiddler’s Green. Leguizamo was given considerable leeway to ad-lib his dialogue, and whenever he appears in a scene, he walks off with it. Too bad he wasn’t allowed to tweak the script — if he had, then stealing Land of the Dead might have seemed like grand larceny, instead of the current petty theft.

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Originally published in The Opinion Mill. ED/PUB:LM

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