LAND OF THE DEAD (Atmosphere/Universal Pictures) 94 mins. Rated ‘R’.
Director/Screenwriter – George Romero. Producers – Peter Grunwald, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann. Director of Photography – Miroslaw Baszak. Special Makeup Supervisors – Greg Nicotero & Howard Berger. Gore Unit Director – Greg Nicotero. Editor – Michael Doherty.
Featuring: Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark.
Blu-ray/DVD Review by Roy Frumkes
Does it disqualify me from reviewing this film if I’ve played a zombie twice in the ‘Living Dead’ originals and spinoffs? If I’ve known the Writer/Director for 27 years, and made a feature documentary about his work called DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD which has its own cult following thanks to my picking such a cult classic to document? If I’ve just directed a TV special for the Independent Film Channel called DREAM OF THE DEAD, made on the set of this film? If Universal provided me with earlier cuts of the film, so that I’m finding it hard to be at all objective about what the final product is? If I’m currently updating my 27-year-old documentary with the co-operation of all involved in this endeavor?
But it ain’t gonna.
Have you noticed that the advertising campaign for LAND OF THE DEAD - the one sheets, the newspaper ads, even the press screening passes - are autographed by George A. Romero, inviting us to ‘Stay Scared.’ That’s the first time I can recall that a film’s advertising has been personalized by the filmmaker. Who at Universal was canny enough to realize that the vast audience for this film was coming to watch it as much for its creator as for its content, that they have taken Romero to their hearts in a way, possibly, that hasn’t occurred since the audiences of the early silent days embraced Charlie Chaplin.
And it’s mutual. [And I’m not referring to the Chaplin Mutuals] I was there. There was no escaping an awareness of the pressure Romero was under to satisfy his millions of fans.
Horror is an adolescent mainstay, a projection of some common psychic adolescent angst. Beyond that, many of us, whether we’ve outgrown our adolescence or not, still embrace a passionate seminal experience such as the LIVING DEAD franchise which moved us when we originally saw it. Taking that into consideration, the old plus the new, the audience for these films has grown considerably since the 60’s, and this is partially evidenced by the strong profits evinced by even the imitators of Romero’s brainchild.
But Zach Snyder didn’t have the same ghost on his heels that Romero faced. Snyder directed a 2004 remake of 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD. Well, everyone knew that the subtext of the mall culture was no longer an issue, leaving imitation, with a few clever permutations, as his modest goal. With Romero, the expectations were higher. It’s been twenty years. The zombies have been dormant. What modus operandi would account for their reawakening in 2005? And would George wrest back his aesthetic domination of the sub-genre he spawned? There was a lot at stake with this production.
The devaluation of the U.S. dollar in Canada played havoc with the relatively tight budget of LAND, and some serious cutting and rearranging went on, all through the shoot. Crisis can be a fertile ground for creative inspiration – it has to be for indie filmmakers. And the way this one unfolded, despite the involvement of a major studio, it had the intimacy, the fervor, and the difficult crunch, that distinguish indies from their costly Hollywood cousins.
This time around, plot-wise, the humans have lost ground. Despite all the redneck target practice which has clearly been rampant over the few years between narrative timelines, more people have been dying, rising, and joining the ranks of the viral undead than have been permanently put to rest. Barricaded in a sparkling little city, up against the water and surrounded by electrified wire, is a demographic remnant of society as we once knew it – and it’s shamefully recognizable…social class inequalities, racial tensions, greed despite the worthlessness of the once almighty greenback in post-apocalyptic America….it’s the last vestige of a human race that has learned nothing from its misadventures with the living dead, and deserves what it gets on this outing…
…which, only through Romero’s generous humanity, is just short of total annihilation, allowing for yet another chance to rethink things, as a few survivors head into the wilderness at story’s end. In an ensemble cast that is uniformly terrific, Simon Baker is the most successful of all Romero’s blonde male protagonists (and that includes Ed Harris in KNIGHTRIDERS). Robert Joy, as his facially scarred, mentally impaired companion, is effective in a tricky role, his physical appearance nicely suggesting uncomfortable proximity to an undead state. Dennis Hopper is so appropriate to a Romero venture (’68 was a breakthrough off-Hollywood year they shared, just for starters) that you need a moment or two to get past the beauty of it. And Asia Argento, though given the least to do, is another role cast in cinema heaven; after all, her dad co-produced DAWN OF THE DEAD and invited Romero on board TWO EVIL EYES.
Best of all is John Leguizamo, following in a tricky tradition of sympathetic villains dating back, for me, to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA. He brings something special to every scene, whether paranoid about Baker’s motives, or toadying up to Hopper’s mega Landlord. He’s got the best line in a film chock full of good lines…but it’s a spoiler, so I’ve got to keep it to myself for now. (I’ll point it out when I review the unrated DVD).
Equal in importance to the actors, the other stars of the film are the Special Makeup Effects by Greg Nicotero, who also directs the Gore Unit and plays a featured zombie opposite Baker on a bridge during Act three. Nicotero is a protégé of Tom (DAWN OF THE DEAD) Savini. In his cameo in LAND, Savini reminds us that the deluge of exquisite gore makeup in countless films since 1978 is a direct result of his handiwork. He is the most visible makeup artist in film since Lon Chaney (his role model), and he is also inextricably linked with Romero, so it’s a super-nostalgic cinematic moment to see them briefly re-associated during the film’s climax.
But back to Nicotero. An equally talented, equally dedicated artist, his decision to go mainstream has seen him exert his talent over hundreds of films in the past twenty years, ranging from RAY and MULHOLLAND DR., to KILL BILL. His work here is displayed in a plethora of loving zombie portraiture, revealed through both body makeup and animatronics, with an eye for detail that will keep DVD collectors’ fingers poised on the pause button for hours.
The differences between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD were so remarkable, both in visual concept and philosophy (it was as vast a difference as that which existed between DR. STRANGELOVE and 2001), that DAY OF THE DEAD (Romero’s favorite, for reasons more personal than aesthetic) seemed like a baby step forward. LAND OF THE DEAD takes a more deliberate stride. There are many more sets than we are used to getting in this claustrophobic anthology, and the screen is wider than it’s ever been in a Romero film, which is an enjoyable new wrinkle. Where formerly there was a black protagonist in the films, there still is, but he’s on the other side. It’s a clear tilting of the balance of life, not to mention our sympathies, in favor of the zombies, and that rocks our thinking, as does a kind of melancholy and mournfulness that permeates the film. As its creator grows older, so his view of mankind’s future, despite the explosions, fast pacing, and zombie squib hits, is more somber and wistful than ever.
I never found the geography of the city quite…right. And I wish we’d gotten to explore more of the minutia in the Nautilus-like anti-zombie vehicle, ‘Dead Reckoning’. But in balance, I was taken for a ride in a stream-lined rollercoaster, and the engineer at the controls guided me smoothly through all the curves and loops and down the steep, scary hills, and deposited me safely on the other side. It was so much fun, I may have to go back and take it again…
LAND OF THE DEAD is an important event, for reasons of re-appropriation, as well as for its many virtues. Given its budget, the film will do just fine no matter how it performs theatrically; the box office may depend on whether today’s youth market prefers its zombies scampering about in mindless scenarios, or staggering along with the weight of subtext on their 3rd world shoulders. I’ve been teaching for over twenty-five years, and it’s been impossible not to notice a fatalistic lethargy creeping into the student body in recent semesters. Perhaps they won’t want to have their zombies chew on ideas…just human flesh. We shall see. It would be a shame for them not to come out en masse to support one of the beacons of the Independent Film in this country, and a man who has consistently given us the most intelligent genre films of the last forty years.
In 2018, Universal released the Blu-ray of LAND, and one of its supplements was my TV special, co-financed by IFC and THE MONSTER CHANNEL. DREAM OF THE DEAD was a good ‘making of doc,’ stressing Savini’s reunion with George. However, the version of DREAM on the Blu-ray is tightened and polished and is now a very good ‘making of’ doc. For that I have to thank Jason Bylan and Michael Felsher who let me loose on the film two more times.