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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005
Ain't no way to kill the dead
Horror movies nowadays are so awash in gore and viscera that it's hard to remember the time when they weren't. If you wanted to put your finger on one seminal splatter flick, you'd probably have to choose "Night of the Living Dead," the classic 1968 zombie movie directed by George A. Romero.
Shot for only $114,000 by Romero at age 28, "Night of the Living Dead" betrays its measly budget at times, but its shadowy black and white cinematography and great use of locations succeed in creating an eerie, claustrophobic effect. Romero really crossed the line in what he chose to show: The slavering, rabid, animal-like behavior of the zombies was disturbing enough, but a scene where they scrabbled over flowing intestines and dripping organs crossed every line that existed back then.
The film gathered critical attention at the time, partly in support for a director who was pushing the boundaries with transgressive film, partly due to the way it was a distorted mirror of the times. The flowing gore reflected the televised carnage from Vietnam, the death of the film's black hero at the hands of trigger-happy rednecks echoed the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the daughter-turned-zombie who gnaws on her own father's arm was a generalized nightmare of the generational revolt roiling the nation. (The Manson family would make real the nightmare shortly thereafter.)
"Night of the Living Dead," which hardly set the box office on fire at first, became a cult classic on the midnight circuit. Romero eventually managed a sequel in 1978, the even more disturbing and bleakly amusing "Dawn of the Dead," which had Me-Generation, consumer-culture zombies flocking to a shopping mall where they dismembered the living to the sounds of piped-in Muzak. Another sequel followed -- 1985's "Day of the Dead" -- but it felt like Romero had reached his peak in "Dawn." (That didn't stop Danny Boyle from stealing wildly from "Day of the Dead" in "28 Days Later.")
Now, amid a resurgence in zombie flicks -- including inferior remakes of Romero's own "Night" and "Dawn" -- the initiator of the genre continues his series with "Land Of The Dead," his biggest-budgeted episode yet. (Although it's interesting to note he's still mostly eschewing computer graphics in favor of inspired makeup effects). The scenario follows the same rules as the earlier films: corpses emerge from the grave, cause unknown, and feed on the living. The zombies are immune to pain and injury, and only fire or a well-placed head shot can bring them down. Humans bitten or killed soon return as zombies themselves. Society has largely collapsed and the living attempt to create enclaves of safety from the undead. As shown in all the films so far, though, the humans usually have just as much to fear from each other.
In "Land of the Dead," the wealthy live in an exclusive tower called Fiddler's Green, protected on three sides by a river, and an electric fence on the landward side. The less fortunate live below on the streets of this half-deserted city, serving as factotums, guards or prostitutes. Still, it's better than being out among the walking dead.
This fiefdom is run by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), a kind of Donald Trump of the post-apocalypse. Central to his rule is a team of raiders led by Riley (Simon Baker). They sally forth in a mammoth armored van -- half high-tech missile launcher, half garbage truck -- called Dead Reckoning, and they plunder nearby ghost-towns for foodstuffs, fuel and alcohol. They've got this down to a fine art, blowing away everything that moves like the U.S. Rangers in Somalia. Still, Riley is pissed when the antics of his lieutenant, Cholo (John Leguizamo), result in needless casualties.
More troubling is that the zombies seem to be adapting. While they still look like senseless, brain-dead shufflers, a few of them are remembering things, like how to think, use tools and weapons, or vote Republican. Led by the hulking Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), they amass an inhuman wave for vengeance upon Fiddler's Green. Things get even worse when Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and trains its missiles on Kaufman's high-rise, seeking a pay-off. Kaufman, however, refuses, saying "we don't negotiate with terrorists."
The social parody continues, as the film's entire world seems intentionally close to the "gated communities" on the rise in the United States, where the affluent use electric fences and rent-a-cops to isolate themselves from the great unwashed. Leguizamo's Cholo, not accidentally, is a Hispanic who gets to truck Kaufman's trash outside the gates. The wealthy live in blissful remove from the war going on around them, while those who protest are dealt with mercilessly, like when a hooker -- played by Asia Argento, clad in black leather and fishnets and looking extremely like Lydia Lunch circa 1981 -- gets thrown into a caged ring with two zombies whom she has to battle for her life. Given behavior like this among the humans, it doesn't feel particularly odd when you notice that Romero seems to be rooting for the zombies.
One shouldn't let the social critique obscure the fact that this is good, solid B-movie entertainment, although not necessarily for the squeamish. Heads are severed, fingers are gnawed on, and much, much worse. Romero is an expert in creating a real sense of dread, and gives us some excruciatingly tense situations.
Unlike "Night," however, "Land of the Dead" will hardly revolutionize cinema. "Night" benefited from a realist, present-day approach to the material with limited use of special effects that, in the end, served to make the material more plausible, and more terrifying. "Land," like almost all films today, makes full use of exaggerated makeup and pyrotechnics, and its post-apocalypse society is comfortably removed from our own. Nevertheless, this is a welcome addition to the genre that Romero pretty much owns.