4 stars (out of four)
Warning: Though this is a laudatory review, it describes a movie that may give audience members unwelcome nightmares. "George A. Romero's Land of the Dead" gives us another great shock to the system. The fourth blood-spattered chapter in writer-director Romero's horrific film saga of America laid waste by an army of marauding zombies, this new film continues the fearsome epic Romero began back in 1968 with his sleeper Z-budget indie hit "Night of the Living Dead."
Here he reaches a grand climax. Deepening and darkening the grim vision that dominates "Night" and its sequels1979's "Dawn of the Dead," 1985's "Day of the Dead" and this oneRomero imagines an America turned into a zombie-dominated wilderness with a few armed fortress cities in between.
That includes the nameless metropolis (shot in Toronto) we see here, ruled by tyrant CEO Kaufman (cannily played by Dennis Hopper), who lives with his super-rich elitist chums in a walled-off paradise patrolled by heavily armed mercenariessuch as good guy Riley (Simon Baker), scarred loyal sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy), tough hooker Slack (Asia Argento) and hot-tempered antagonist Cholo (John Leguizamo)far above barren streets populated by exploited proles leading pointless lives. Outside, surrounding the humans and barely contained by electric fences, barriers and bodies of water, is a world of walking corpses, a mob of the undead who live in the smaller towns and are growing stronger, more conscious and more dangerous by the hour.
The movie follows the violent progress of Riley and Cholo, two main mercenaries employed by Hopper's emotionless nabob Kaufman. Riley tries to play by the rules but the joyously greedy Cholo (wonderfully played by Leguizamo) constantly bends them. Cholo runs Kaufman's secret, viler errands, but he's coldly rebuffed when he expresses a desire to move into Kaufman's neighborhood, the ultra-exclusive Fiddler's Green.
Incensed, Cholo and his buddies strike back, stealing the mercenaries' heavily armed and armored truck (called "Dead Reckoning") and using it to extort the millions he figures he's owed. Kaufman counter-attacks by sending Riley and his team after Cholowith Riley picking up more warriors, including the indomitable Slack, along the way. It's an ultimately cynical duel, pitting two soldiers against each other under the domination of a corrupt overlord trying to manipulate or destroy them.
Meanwhile, outside the fortress, a swelling band of zombiesor as they're also called, "walkers" or "stenches"is marching on the city, led by an increasingly sentient, tough and smart walker, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who's learned how to reason and outwit his persecutors. While most zombies simply want us for a snack, Big Daddy wants revenge. He hates humans because of the callous killing raids the mercenaries have long conducted on zombies, and he's been able to mount a revolt, one that grows increasingly gory and deadly as the walkers get closer to the city and its heart.
"Land" is obviously not for all tastes. Anyone who doesn't want to the see dozens of violent killings, ripped entrails, buckets of fake blood and sporadic ghoul picnics where rotten-looking, blank-eyed zombies chow down on their kill should probably avoid "Land of the Dead." Romero's newest is a horror movie for hard-core fans of the gory and the gruesome and a classic genre film for genre aficionados.
It's also pure Romero, which means it's another hard-edged, funny, playfully perverse and violent exercise in movie fear and loathing, with an increasingly dark take on a world spinning out of control. By now, Romero has become a classicist who uses character and dialogue as much as stomach-turning special effects to achieve his shivers. And "Land" also offers excellent acting (especially from Leguizamo, Hopper and Joy), a larger canvas and heightened production values.
Yet it's not a mindlessly scary like many of the current gorefests, including some recent movies inspired by Romero's "Dead" trilogy (last year's thinlyimagined hit remake of "Dawn of the Dead"). Newcomers might want to know more at first of the now well-established zombie lore; old fans might want more allusions to the past. Even so, in the 37 years that Romero, now 66, has been making these "Dead" pictures, this is easily the most spectacular, expensive and dramatically ambitious of the lot. (But only by comparison to his others; "Land's" budget was a relatively modest $15 million.)
It's not necessarily the scariest. For sheer chill factor, the original "Night of the Living Dead" may never be topped. (Black and white is the best format for a story like this.) But "Land of the Dead" proves the most socially trenchant, irreverent and politically daring of the series, the one with the most food (and gore) for thought.
You can understand why Romeroa maverick frustrated in putting together projects throughout much of the '90s and beyondwanted to return to the genre he virtually invented, especially given the recent box-office hits heavily influenced by the "Dead" trilogy such as "Shaun of the Dead," "28 Days Later" and that "Dawn of the Dead" remake. ("Shaun's" writer-director Edgar Wright and star-writer Simon Pegg pop up in "Land" in grisly cameos.)
But, even if the motives here were heavily commercial, as most movie motives are, Romero quickly shows that he hasn't lost his gory edge or his bloody zest. Not as hip as "28 Days Later," as funny as "Shaun" or as flashily expensive as the remade "Dawn," this is still a movie that no one else could have made or imagined, a dive into darkness and terror that grips us from the first moments. As long as there's a George Romero, the dead still live.
- - - - -
"Land of the Dead"
Directed and written by George A. Romero; photographed by Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Michael Doherty; production designed by Arvinder Grewal; art director Douglas Slater; visual effects supervisor Jeff Campbell; special effects makeup supervisor and second unit director Greg Nicotero; music by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek; produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Peter Grunwald. A Universal release of a Universal Pictures/Atmosphere Entertainment MM presentation; opens Friday. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: R (for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use).
Riley - Simon Baker
Cholo - John Leguizamo
Slack - Asia Argento
Charlie - Robert Joy
Kaufman - Dennis Hopper
Big Daddy - Eugene Clark
No. 9 - Jennifer Baxter