Land of the Dead

2005, US, Directed by George A Romero

Colour, Running Time: 93 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Universal; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD 5.1

In the aftermath of an apocalyptic worldwide rising of the dead, groups of human survivors have taken to walling themselves into cities where they’re protected from the ravenous nature of hungry corpses whilst approximating some semblance of a normal life. One such city, dubbed Fiddler’s Green, is considered a desirable residential location but controlled by despotic leader Kaufman - with significant reward to himself he’s manufactured a place where privileged life continues in a materialistic fashion similar to how one might have lived before the change. Having served Kaufman for some time, the rough and ready Cholo believes that his time has come to relinquish the life-threatening daily routine of retrieving supplies from outside the city’s perimeter, putting forward his argument for moving into his own place within the city. Kaufman is not so obliging and basically rejects Cholo’s request for a better life, thus bent on mass destruction Cholo steals a heavily armed truck labelled Dead Reckoning with the intention of blowing Kaufman out of his pristine tower of protection if a sum of several million dollars is not paid up. Kaufman hires good boy Riley to retrieve the truck and put Cholo out of the picture - not especially concerned about Kaufman’s welfare Riley agrees on condition that he can take his friends with a vehicle plus some weapons, and get out of the place for good, heading north where there is less to cause his stress levels to fluctuate. Making use of his friends and a small team of soldiers Riley heads out to reacquire Dead Reckoning thereby eliminating the threat of a missile attack on the more innocent inhabitants of the city. Meanwhile it seems that one of the rotting dead is beginning to think in a constructive fashion, proceeding to lead an army of corpses to attempt infiltration of Fiddler’s Green.

Get off, you're hurting me!

Romero’s fourth film in his long running ‘Dead’ series caused great anticipation for me - the previous entry, Day of the Dead, had been completed twenty years earlier and whilst initially a source of disappointment for many (not helped by the fact that Romero’s ambitions were famously scaled down by lack of financial backing) the film itself eventually became hugely appreciated by some, including myself (though there are still detractors to this day). Day… is one of my favourites of the genre (along with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead of course) for many reasons that can happily be saved for another review on a rainy day. Suffice to say I could barely wait when Land of the Dead was green-lit. The film really has everything going for it: amazingly slick special effects (and extremely gory they are in places), sharp cinematography, a budget that exceeds that of all preceding films in the series combined (i.e. $15 million as opposed to around $5.1 million), some decent actors to choose from, a twenty year gestation period, etc. Admittedly one might lament the absence of Tom Savini (in a special effects capacity at least - he appears in a cheeky onscreen cameo), but I don’t think anybody can realistically complain about the quality of make-up and bloodshed on display here. There’s even a connection to Dawn…’s crew in the employment of Asia Argento’s thespian services (her dad, Dario, helped produce, finance and distribute the 1978 hit). However, there are issues that continue to bug me despite giving the film several viewings over four years. First but not really foremost, the score is utterly generic, with nothing to distinguish it from any other reasonable budget Hollywood movie out there. Okay, Night… was scored with stock music but it was generally memorable and appropriately selected stock music; Dawn… had the might of Goblin behind it to create a soundtrack like nothing before or since, and I even like the less distinctive but highly catchy music created for Day…, a score that perceptively alternates between careful optimism and melancholic hopelessness. Land…‘s composer team of Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil provide little outside of the mundane. The actors themselves do their job but Romero is unable to draw out anything special - John Leguizamo, so frightening under Brian De Palma’s control in Carlito’s Way, is simply functional here, whereas main man Simon Baker as Riley is a pretty boy with no sense of urgency. Even Dennis Hopper rarely rises above apathy as Kaufman. I always felt Romero worked very well with unknown actors from the sixties through to the eighties, eliciting gripping performances on occasions, but perhaps that innate talent has evaporated through age or lack of practice? The script is peppered with unappealing smart-alecky comments from various quarters and evident almost as a prerequisite is the staple social/political commentary that has earned Romero some acknowledgement from mainstream movie reviewers over the years, here summarising tired ideas on class divides and terrorism in a rather heavy handed manner. As a development from Bub (Day…) the creatures here are beginning to display signs of almost evolving in their ability to communicate and employ tools for various purposes. Nice idea (and very well executed in Day…) but the regular paroxysmal cries of Big Daddy in Land… start to get on the nerves a little bit. To be honest the characters littered throughout this film are not that far from plain boring, Riley‘s irritating disfigured winger included. On to more positive notes, as the army of dead crosses the river on their vengeful journey to the city there’s quite a nifty scene where they all emerge silently from the waters, although even this is a regurgitated idea from Zombie Creeping Flesh (itself a rip-off of Dawn of the Dead ironically) or even Carnival of Souls long before it. The climactic attack on Fiddler’s Green is one of the few events in the film to remotely drag the viewer out of their apathetic state, with plenty of gore and a little action, though it’s clear by this point Romero’s edge and cinematic aggression have all but gone and a once great name in the genre is now merely the producer of mediocre (albeit competent) material. Aside from some viewers out there really digging this film, I just can’t get into it and feel disappointed every time.

 

The theatrical version was available on DVD in the US along with an unrated cut featuring a bit more gore plus one or two extra scenes. This latter version made it to UK shores with the good old ‘Director’s Cut’ slogan across the cover - I find it strange that such a term is so frequently used these days as the directors that are being referred to rarely actually edit their films. Regardless, anyone wanting to see the film may as well go for the harder version. It’s also available on an improved Blu-ray Disc. My absence of pleasure watching Land of the Dead has resulted in the fact that it took me a long time to bother getting around to its follow-up of sorts, Diary of the Dead. Romero has also since put the finishing touches on yet another sequel (previously known under the superior title of Island of the Dead, it was eventually retitled Survival of the Dead). As much as I adore the first three films in the series I definitely think it’s time for the man to hang up his oversized specs.

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