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May 13, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 13, 2006 |

George Romero’s trilogy of zombie films stands among the most seminal work in all of horror. Besides single-handedly breaking down the conventional concepts of gore and violence, Romero also tinged his films with biting social commentary on American culture — something his legions of imitators have never quite been able to reproduce. By tackling racism, consumerism, and a bloated military-industrial complex, the Dead trilogy has managed to maintain its appeal in spite of being long-antiquated in style and special effects. In Land of the Dead, George has stepped up to helm his first zombie movie in 20 years. Is it because he has something new to add to the genre of his making, or has he got another socio-political bone to pick?

Rather than striking off again into new territory, this newest addition to the zombie universe is a picture-perfect extension of the original trilogy’s cycle of motion. Throughout Night, Dawn, and Day of the Dead, we saw the line between living and dead — assumed by both characters and audience to be “good” and “evil”, respectively — become progressive blurrier as the living protagonists were frequently endangered by treachery and in-fighting as much as they were by undead ghouls. By Land, this paradox has come full circle.

The nominal hero, Riley (Simon Baker), is a jaded warrior who commands a group of scavenging soldiers that gather supplies for an urban outpost. Riley’s second-in-command is the sneering opportunist Cholo (John Leguizamo), who uses these raids as a means to garner personal profit. The city in question has been reduced to a dilapidated war zone bordered on three sides by a river; the only entrance walled by electric fences and soldiers. At its center is the towering skyscraper known as Fiddler’s Green, where those who are able to buy their way in live a life of relative luxury. Lording over this “haven” is the businessman-like warlord Kaufman, played with relish by Dennis Hopper. The rest of the city consists of tenements where the huddled masses live in squalor thanks to Kaufman’s decadence.

While Cholo endeavors to bribe his way into Fiddler’s Green, Riley is noticing a disturbing new development amid the zombies who live in the surrounding landscape. Besides going through the everyday motions of their past-lives, the undead are beginning to show a knack for cognitive skills. One zombie in particular (Eugene Clark) seems especially precocious; he utilizes tools and communicates with the others. Eventually, he becomes a veritable zombie-Che Guavara, and organizes the undead horde to assault the urban enclave.

In terms of style, Romero has clearly been unfazed by the recent trend of fast-moving zombies in 28 Days Later and the Dawn remake. Romero’s undead continue to lumber and moan, dangerous only when massing in numbers or catching their victims off guard. What’s different is that now Romero has a decent budget at his fingertips, and he makes glorious use of it; rotting flesh has seldom looked so evocative.

Land of the Dead also showcases Romero at his metaphorically richest. The plutocracy of Kaufman and the proletariat he feeds off of doesn’t exactly make for the most subtle of allegories, but when it becomes the zombie forces that eventually overwhelm and overthrow this hierarchy, rather than the living inhabitants, Romero finally achieves his symbolic inversion. Throughout the Dead films, the living people have progressively lost touch with of their humanity, while the intrinsically human nature of the undead has been further illustrated. It’s seriously unsettling stuff.

Regrettably, Romero’s heavy emphasis on metaphor creates a deficit in both the actual story of Land of the Dead and its characters. The action is never as thrilling or engaging as it has been in the past because the film relies on a feeling of slow dread rather than visceral excitement. The protagonists are all likable, but they just never get enough context to truly connect with the audience. Romero has also fallen into a trap of his own making; most people just aren’t as grossed-out by exploding heads as they used to be. The gore finds a middle ground between camp and repulsiveness, but it just doesn’t have the dark edge it did in the zombie heyday.

But if these faults leave non-Romero fans or average moviegoers a tad diffident, it’s a very small price to pay for this perfectly-pitched addition to the hallowed trilogy. Romero has excellently reproduced the trademarked mix of gore and allegory that gave him his legacy as the master of horror.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Film | May 13, 2006 |

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