Believe it or not, but George Romero, director of Land of the Dead (Unrated Edition), did not invent the zombie movie. White Zombie, an early sound film starring Bela Lugosi, came out way back in 1932. What Romero did was to bring us the first gruesome, bloody zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, which opened in 1968 and became a cult horror classic.
The setting of Land of the Dead, which was filmed in Toronto, is a post-apocalyptic world where zombies dominate and the living have been confined to a ruined metropolis and its environs. The wealthy reside in Fiddler’s Green, a towering, lit-up luxury high-rise, while the poor scrounge up a living on the outskirts. Fiddler’s Green is owned by Kaufman, played by a relatively restrained Dennis Hopper, a Mr. Big type who portrays himself as a benevolent ruler but is actually a megalomaniacal villain.
The zombies are a varied crew. A comely lass whose cheek has rotted away to reveal her back teeth, two musicians pathetically tooting a trombone and spastically shaking a tambourine, and assorted butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and briefcase-toting professionals. In short, people like you and me, but deader and uglier, who tear the flesh off the living as if they were having lunch at KFC. What’s most alarming is that these zombies are evolving. They’re actually learning to communicate with one-another and to shoot a gun. What's next: a run for the Presidency?
The original title of the film, Dead Reckoning, is also the name of a gigantic motor vehicle central to the story. Commanded by Riley (Aussie Simon Baker), Dead Reckoning looks like a cross between a tank, a missile launcher, and a garbage truck, and its crew's mission is to scavenge supplies for Kaufman, while distracting the zombies with fireworks and blowing their rotting asses away. As the film begins, Riley is fed up with the job and it’s his last night. Cholo (John Leguizamo), Riley’s second-in-command, is also quitting, but has more ambitious plans. Leguizamo plays his character as a one-note, menacing gang-banger type who nonetheless manages to quote Oscar Wilde in a moment of inexplicable brilliance. Riley is just a platitude-spouting bore.
Riley’s faithful sidekick, Charlie (former Rhodes Scholar Robert Joy), has been dealt a few bad cards. He’s mentally retarded, scarred-up from a fire, and has lost one eye, but what an eye he's been left with! A crack shot, he’s a marksman idiot savant. Other characters include Slack (Asia Argento), a former prostitute who, after narrowly escaping being torn apart by two “stenches”, joins up with the good guys to kick some putrid butt, and Eugene Clark as Big Daddy, the huge, roaring head zombie.
Whatever originality the film may lay claim to is not to be found in the plot, which is DOA, but in the ingenious and sometimes humorous manner in which the zombies kill and are killed. Dead bodies, we learn, can do very interesting things. A deadster whose head is attached by a sliver of skin and hangs down his back flips his noggin upright to kill someone, then flips it back like a blonde tossing her mane. A man being chomped to death makes pressed ham of his face against a plate glass window, a subtle reference to mooning that was not lost on this reviewer. There is more blood and guts here than on the floor of a slaughterhouse.
Bottom line: none of the characters are the least bit interesting. Someone once said that character is plot, or was it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. The film flops on both counts like a freshly-landed fish. Oh, wait, I almost forgot. Land is apparently intended to have a message. Or, actually, several. There are attempts at a post-9/11 sensibility, as Cholo threatens a “jihad” and someone else says, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” I guess there’s also meant to be something here about exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the nobility of being dead and half-rotten but still outraged by rampant capitalism and raging condo prices. Er, George, the genre police called: this is a zombie movie…
The pluses: some beautiful, moving shots as the walking dead gather on a riverbank by moonlight. These zombies take an evolutionary lurch forward; one would think that they would be drained of body fluids at their stage of the game, but they manage to spout gushers of gore when shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned. Thus, they retain some of their humanity, and, in the end, the one thing that gives Land of the Deadany life is, paradoxically, the ubiquitous presence of the dead.
Let me be blunt. The Special Features section is largely an asskissfest, George Romero’s being the keister in question. You’d think this was the Oscars, and that he was being given some kind of lifetime achievement award.
The Special Features include: Undead Again, The Making of Land of the Dead, When Shaun Met George, and Bringing Storyboards to Life. There’s a lot of footage of George, with his gray stubble, ponytail, and huge Swifty Lazar eyeglasses, apparently enjoying himself. I’m a modest guy with modest ambitions, he seems to be saying, “A guy who bets at the $2 window and has a good time.” Everyone involved has something glowing to burble about dear George: awesome, great guy, deaf in one ear but hears everything with the other, brilliant, a man of absolute love and dedication, incredibly funny. Robert Joy, the guy who plays the half-blind retard, shows his Rhodes Scholar stuff when it’s his turn to browse at the Romero tush: “His ideas are like jewels.”
“I’ve had so much fun. And this isn’t just bullshit for the DVD,” someone says. Yeah, and I mean that sincerely, man! And now for the clincher, the proof that something very special and un-Hollywoodlike happened up there in Toronto. “Everybody was there for George, nobody was out for personal gratification…” Where’d they get these people, anyway? From the Mother Teresa Academy of Selflessness? As if we hadn’t had enough Cholo macho in the film itself, John Leguizamo stays tiresomely in character through most of the special features, but stops short of actually stabbing anyone.
When Shaun Met George is the stultifying story of how Edgar Wright, the director and co-writer of the modestly successful British zombie flick, Shaun of the Dead, and collaborator Simon Pegg, met George Romero and ended up as zombies in his film. Here’s where the ass-kissing stops and the arse-kissing begins. Now, I’m as charmed as the next guy by a British accent, but Wright sounds like he’s talking through a mouthful of mutton. “We are gaoing tew Tawrontaow tew meet Geawge.” The meeting is forced, overlong, and deadly dull. The Brits fawn over Geawge, Geawge fawns over Shaun. Nobody’s left out. We get to visit food services on the set and learn what everybody eats or doesn’t. Like I give a zombie’s ass. If you care to know, George apparently survives on nicotine, caffeine, and ego booster shots.
And finally, the only non-asskissy Special Feature, “Bringing Storyboards to Life”. Watching it, I learned that movie scenes start out as drawings on a board. Who knew? By the tenth board, my own ass was starting to go numb. The twentieth brought back a facial tic I thought I had gotten rid of through Scientology. By the thirtieth I was begging for a zombie to lurch into the room, reach into my skull, and pull my spinal cord out the top of my head.
My advice? Skip the Special Features, and, if you’re not totally zombied-out, rent a decent walking-dead flick, such as, well, Night of the Living Dead (the original, not the 1990 remake), directed by a guy named George A. Romero, long before he became an overinflated, self-styled Prince of the Putrid.