Friday, August 19, 2005

Land of the Dead (Romero, 2005)

Rich men sit on their wealth in a gigantic tower, while the middle class enjoy a bevy of shopping opportunites and entertainment designed to offer vicarious thrills. Both groups are largely oblivious to the enormous hoards who go through the tedium of their daily routine and struggle to find enough food to survive. Meanwhile, soldiers fight a perpetual war, locking down the borders and ensuring that those on the outside will never be allowed to penetrate and disrupt the statis quo. Wait a minute ... this is a zombie flick?

Such is the multi-layered joy of watching George Romero's Land of the Dead. Combining high-minded political commentary with gross-out gore effects might seem like an unusual combination, but, as film buffs will know, Romero has been down this road before with Dawn of the Dead's satire of American consumer culture. Updating the zombie film for the post-9/11 generation, Romero has painted a wickedly clever alternate America that is nearly as cutthroat and bizarre as the one some of us currently inhabit. The script for Land of the Dead is probably many times more intelligent than it has to be. Indeed, one of the speechless zombie characters (a kind of undead Che Guevera) even has a character arc more plausible and satisfying than Anakin Skywalker's in Revenge of the Sith. But Romero's genius is not that he has made an overly academic horror film. On the contrary, with his dialogue and witty use of stock characters representing various ethnic stereotypes, Romero has created a film that honors its B-movie roots. Romero rides a very fine line and does so masterfully. The cast has a sufficient amount of fun with the material, particularly Dennis Hopper, in an amusing supporting turn as a wealthy politician. Or maybe he was a businessman. Ah, what's the difference anymore? Asia Argento's character probably draws a little too much attention, because a) Asia is freaking hot -- I will entertain no argument on this point -- and b) nobody seems to have told Asia that she is not a lead in this film. At any rate, at least we are spared the mandatory forced romance that seems to be a part of virtually every film, even in situations where the leads are otherwise busy gunning down human beings.

I do not wish to diminish the many pleasures to be found in Land of the Dead by describing too much, but suffice to say that those going in expecting nothing more than splatter and gore will be surprised by the film's humor and use of metaphor. Land of the Dead is not just a film about people getting killed (although much of that does happen) -- notice who survives and imagine where they will be in the weeks and months after the film's story ends. For a man who has visited the zombie picture so many times before and is releasing his film a year after being wickedly skewered in the hilarious British comedy Shaun of the Dead, George Romero refuses to allow Land of the Dead to feel like a tired retread. He breaks my own rule of thumb that says the fourth film in a series doesn't stand a chance of being any good and delivers a film that will please both those who live for the genre and those (like me) who only like to visit occasionally. We're midway through the year, and dare I say it, Land of the Dead is the most satisfying 2005 film I have seen thus far.



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