Saturday, June 25, 2005

Review: Land of the Dead

First off, to quote Quentin Tarantino's take on Land of the Dead: "It fucking rocked!"
Secondly, I didn't cry during the movie, but if I had, I wouldn't be surprised. It feels really good to have Romero back among the living (dead) after 20 years.
Thirdly, the film is action-paked and very gory, but it's also the most trenchant satire of post-911 America yet made by an American filmmaker. Seriously, Romero has guts... so to speak.

The film begins with the old Universal Pictures logo, which confused some reviewers, but us nerds know is Romero's tip of the hat to the Universal Monster films that he grew up on. Then we get a clever stock-footage montage letting us know that "some time ago" the dead started inexplicably coming back to life. Nature is mysterious and bloody in Romero pictures.

Suddenly, we're dropped into Romero country. The zombies have taken over and since they're just not dying, have started to learn a few things and "evolve". The heros are mercenaries who round up supplies from the abandoned suburbs for the remaining humans in a walled-off city. The city has developed social divisions- most of the poor live outside the gates of a luxury complex called Fiddler's Green and watch bloodsports provided to placate them, while the rich live inside the exclusive complex and pretend as if nothing is happening outside. Meanwhile, their hired soldiers have surrounded the city with electric fences and checkpoints to keep the zombies out and the living trapped inside. See what I mean about social satire?

At the top of this is Dennis Hopper as the plutocrat Kaufman, giving an understated performance. John Leguizamo is Cholo, who wants into Fiddler's Green (Yes, it's obviously a gag on "Fiddling while Rome burns" but, so what?) but who just isn't the right type. Simon Baker does a very good job as the hero Riley and Asia Argento is equally good as the heroine Slack. Nerds will remember that Romero is great friends with her father, legendary Italian horror-filmmaker Dario Argento; the two of them made Two Evil Eyes together and Argento produced Dawn of the Dead. Anyway, Kaufman denies Cholo access to the yuppie paradise and tries to have him killed, so Cholo steals the bad-ass military vehicle known as "Dead Reckoning" in order to fire missles on the tower if his demands are not met. Kaufman's response "We don't negotiate with terrorists" got a big laugh from the audience. Riley is sent to capture Cholo, but he just wants to go "up North, to Canada, where there aren't any people". Also a big laugh from the Toronto audience.

Meanwhile, the zombies, led by a huge zombie named "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark) are approaching the city in order to eat the rich. There is a fantastically creepy scene in which they jump in the river (A few blocks from out house actually) to emerge on the other side from under the water. Finally, when the humans want to escape, they really can't because of the electrified fences. Things collapse, civilization crumbles, all the regular Romero plot twists.

Was it as good as Dawn of the Dead? Well, no, but it didn't have to be. I wish it was a bit longer and had a bit more dread than it does. Basically, it's an action picture with a starkly satirical aspect. The ending is also a bit flat. But, look- it's a lot better than 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead (whose makers have cameos here) were. Also, there's something thrilling about seeing a filmmaker like Romero do whatever the hell he wants. The movie just keeps the pace up for an hour and a half. The jokes were surprisingly clever and the effects were state-of-the-art. This movie has the spirit of 70s independent filmmaking, which Romero clearly retained while he was out in the wild.

As we left the theatre into the mobs on Queen Street, I thought to myself: "Yuppies baracading themselves from the rest of the world? Downtown Toronto filled with zombies? Nah, couldn't happen..."

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