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Review: Land of the Dead

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Note: this is a spoiler-free review.

The inventor of the modern zombie movie has come back, to prove nobody else can do it quite the way he does.

It’s arguably true that other horror filmmakers might make their zombies more gross, or more evil, or faster-moving. But all their zombies lack a certain purity of purpose found only in a George Romero zombie.

In Romero’s films, zombies are a natural disaster, no more “evil” than a hurricane or an earthquake. They don’t want to scare or kill anybody. They do plenty of scaring and killing, make no mistake about it, but that’s all accidental. Their one and only goal is to devour the flesh of the living. Their hunger has a terrifying purity, utterly unclouded by malice or apology. They just don’t care how much it’s going to hurt.

When denied the chance to snack on human flesh, these zombies shamble about in a pale imitation of the life they lived before. Clearly they have some awareness, some residual memory of being alive, making them more human than alien. Their aimless eccentric creepiness when left to themselves somehow renders them far more disturbing than they would be if they spent all their time filled with rage and malice.

Romero never makes the mistake of trying to explain his zombies too much. Even the bit of speculation I’ve indulged in here is much more than he ever says in his films about why the zombies exist and what their motivations might be. Sometimes his human characters speculate a bit, but he keeps his narratives aloof from all the attempts to understand the zombies, even back in the original Night of the Living Dead when some scientists try to trace the cause of the disaster to radiation from a satellite.

This George doesn’t muddle matters with anything like midichlorians to explain why the impossible can happen. He doesn’t try to tell us why the dead walk the earth. He just lets them do the voodoo that they do so well.

Land of the Dead is Romero’s fourth zombie movie, and in many ways the best of the four. He clearly had a better budget to work with this time around. So we get to watch several excellent well-known actors take on the zombies, including Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo and Asia Argento in the major roles. The makeup effects are top-notch, and if there are any digital effects they are so seamless as to be practically invisible, another benefit of a decent budget.

However, most of his achievement here is purely to his own credit as both writer and director. This is a tightly scripted, expertly directed action horror story. He draws tense, appropriately understated performances from all his players, both the stars and the lesser known actors.

As with his earlier zombie films, he indulges in quite a bit of social commentary. Here this is woven more deftly into the story of his characters and their troubles, leaving no places where the story slows down too much to make a point. Yet the points are still there for those who enjoy that aspect of his work.

He also still displays his gift for painting vivid and sympathetic characters. The heroes emerge as people worth caring about. The main villains have understandable motives and goals, despicable as their methods may be. He even manages to make some of the zombies elicit a certain twisted and limited sympathy at times. (I won’t ruin any of the twists and turns by explaining what I mean by that.)

Romero’s fans might want me to rate this film against his previous zombie films. It’s difficult to please them, though, partly because his fans differ so much on which of the previous three was the best. Very few select 1985’s Day of the Dead as their favorite. It’s certainly worth seeing once for the sake of completeness, and it has its moments, but it remains the weakest of the four.

Many Romero fans greatly prefer the classic film that started it all in 1968, Night of the Living Dead, and it is surely a masterpiece of low budget horror cinema.

Personally I find it unfair to compare any newer film to that first film. The world has changed so much in recent decades, it is now nearly impossible to duplicate the experience of seeing that movie for the first time in the ’60s, the ’70s, or even the ’80s. If you are looking for something as ground-breaking as your first viewing of Night of the Living Dead, you probably won’t find it in Land of the Dead.

The best comparison, in my view, is to the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, because it is another film that will reward the attentive repeat viewer with its many subtle satirical touches. Land of the Dead comes much closer to the spirit of the 1978 original than the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, a film which derived most of its horror heritage from the very different zombies of Danny Boyle’s 2003 28 Days Later and Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 The Return of the Living Dead. The remake mainly borrowed its setting and its name from Romero.

That remake brings up another detail of the current film which some viewers might misunderstand. Both the remake of Dawn and this new film make heavy use of armored vehicles in the fight against the zombies. Some might think Romero stole this idea from the remakers of Dawn but the truth is more likely the other way around.

Romero has been working on this film for many years now. Years before the remake began filming, the working title for his fourth zombie movie was already Dead Reckoning, the name of the armored vehicle, and I was already reading about the armored vehicle on fans’ web sites. If any stealing occurred, the armored vehicle idea was stolen from Romero.

So let’s leave aside any such accusations. Perhaps both filmmakers came up with the idea independently. The important thing is, Romero has now returned to the quality level last seen in his own Dawn of the Dead.

And that’s high praise indeed.

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About Victor Plenty

  • SFC SKI

    I saw the film last night, and I was very pleased, though I found Simon Baker to be a little too clean cut as the hero. I’d have put someone like Michael Wincott in there. Other than that, I enjoyed it very much, and the walk home late at night through the parking lot and the empty streets was more exciting than usual.

    I like the force of nature analogy, you might as well try to fight a tornado as resist the unending tide of the zombies.

    Dawn of the Dead is still the tops of the four in my book.

  • Nick Jones

    I must bring up, once again, since so many zombie fans (and professional movie critics, who should know better), that the first quick zombies were introduced in The Return of the Living Dead (1985), which was itself a take-off of the Romero premise (and the source of “Brrraaaiiinnnsss!”).

    Nice nondisclosure review. Keep up the good work.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Thanks for the correction, Nick. I’ve changed the necessary sentence to reflect it.

    Oddly enough, I’m more a fan of Romero’s work than a fan of horror or zombie movies in general. That is why I am not quite so up to date on zombie lore as many hardcore horror fans probably are.

    I tend to like most of Romero’s work. His best film overall, of the ones I’ve seen, is Knightriders. Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead are approximately tied for second now, although each is good in a different way.

  • Nick Jones

    I remember seeing Knightriders and liking it (with Stephen King’s hilarious acting debut as a beer-swilling oaf), but I really can’t compare it to my favorite of the zombie films, Dawn of the Dead (I like the remake equally well); they exist in two different universes to me. Incidentally, there was a character, perhaps a bard – it’s been years – played by a Brother Blue. I don’t know how Romero hooked up with him, but he was a street performer and storyteller in the Boston area at the various times I lived there, quite well liked by public and critics alike. I’ll have to do a search to see if he’s still around.

  • Nick Jones
  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Yes, I remember Brother Blue. He did a great Merlin parallel in the Arthurian re-enactment of Knightriders.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    victor, this pleases me no end. the fourth romero zombie number has been such a non-started for years its hard to believe that the damn thing now exists. needless to say i’m beside myself with anticipation. great review.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Ah, Duke, you are more a connoisseur of horror than I could ever hope to be. (Nick and SFC Ski probably are as well, but I haven’t read as many of their film reviews as I have of yours.)

    So your feedback is very helpful to me. Thank you.

    I’ll be keeping an eye peeled for your review of Land of the Dead.

  • http://gonzo-marx.blogspot.com gonzo marx

    thanks for the Review!

    now i can safely put it on my list as something to see at the drive in this summer

    nothing can ever take the place fo the Original, but it is good to hear that this one lives up to it’s heritage

    also good to read is that i am not the only one that knows/loved Knightriders

    this one made my morning, thanks again…

    ..:::bows, hand over fist:::..

    Excelsior!

  • http://trinimansblog.blogspot.com/ Triniman

    2/5

    This movie compares poorly to Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead.

    Look for the brief scene with the zombie who looks exactly like Burton Cummings. I kid you not!

    There are the requisite funny gore scenes, some good one liners, but overall, I was underwhelmed and wouldn’t buy the DVD or see it again. But, if you’re a zombie fan, go see it. Just don’t expect it to be really good.

  • SFC SKI

    Th Burton Cummings zombie you refer to is most like Tom Savini, known as the make up artist who pioneered a lot of the bloody techniques first used in the Dead series.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    If you mean the zombie wearing a leather jacket and carrying a machete, yes, that’s definitely Tom Savini. I recognized him right away and the ending credits confirmed my perception.

    In fact this role of “Machete Zombie” is a sly reprise of his role in Dawn of the Dead. The setting of both films is Pittsburgh, so it’s perfectly natural for him to show up in both of them.

    Well, as natural as anything gets in a movie where the dead walk the earth.

  • http://firstfolio.blogspot.com Matt Schafer

    I saw the movie and I was kind of overwhelmed. And I didn’t really care for the drive off into the sunrise ending

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    So, Matt, if you review a mystery novel, do you give away the ending to that too?

    “I didn’t really care for the end, when it turned out the murderer was actually Professor Plum.”

    Granted, what you’ve done here isn’t quite so cruel as giving away the big surprise in a movie like The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. Still, the general tone of the ending is one of the only surprises you ever get in a horror movie, so it’s not kind to just casually toss around that information when fans in some locations still haven’t had the chance to see it for themselves.

    Especially in a case like this, where it’s a movie many fans have been waiting decades to see.

  • alethinos59

    Vic! Your review was very professional! I am not in any way a horror fan – except for the obligatory Halloween watching of something along these lines… But your review almost makes me want to run over and see it!

    Almost…

    But still, a darn good review!

  • Bo

    I was disappointed.
    Being a fan of the living dead movies (and also Dennis Hopper) I had big hopes for this movie.
    It was just too cookie cutter and the whole ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’ plot just didn’t do it for me.
    Romero will always be the father of the living dead series and I respect him for that.
    In my opinion DAWN OF THE DEAD 2004 is not only the best zombie movie but probably the best horror movie i’ve ever seen.
    Great review Victor- just not my cup of tea.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Thanks, Alethinos. I never really thought of trying to persuade non-horror-fans to see this movie, so it’s a compliment to learn I almost managed to do that anyway.

    Had I known that might happen, I would have spent a few words on warnings about the high level of blood and gore. Most of Romero’s fans demand such fare, but I tend to tune it out, since it’s not really what I watch his films for.

    And Bo, your reaction is not surprising, given your stated preferences. I suspect most people who prefer the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead would not like this movie very much. Those who prefer the original version from 1978 are more likely to get at least some enjoyment out of Land of the Dead.

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