Saturday, June 25, 2005

Review: Land of the Dead

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.

(Also posted at, where much fine reading can be found.)