Friday, February 8, 2008
There have only been a handful of films in my life that I anticipated more than George A. Romero’s Land Of The Dead when it premiered back in June of 05. With a shared fevered excitement, my friend David and I went to it opening night and we were both fairly blown away by it. In that first viewing with a packed house, Romero’s film seemed to work as both a great zombie film and a concise social commentary on post 9/11 America.
After that initial viewing I went back and saw it later that same weekend. This time the crowds had almost already disappeared and the film felt nowhere near as good as it had that opening night. Somehow in the span of just a couple of days it seemed like the film had run out of steam and the subversive excitement it had supplied had all but vanished.
Of course Land Of The Dead really did run out of steam almost immediately and the lack of support it got from horror fans back in theaters in the summer of 05 still baffles me. I saw it one more time at the theater just a couple of weeks after it opened at an afternoon showing and the theater was completely empty. I remember asking my friend David, “Where is everybody” and he couldn’t offer up an answer.
So now that a couple of years have gone by and Land Of The Dead has had some time to digest, I must say that I am still quite fond of the film although I think it is an extremely flawed production that could have been much better. To be as vague as possible, certain aspects of the film really work to me, while others really don’t. It’s the least of Romero’s Dead films but, that said, I think the fact that it is as good as it is in spots makes it worth celebrating.
The film works best, at least for me, as a pretty sharp satire on how the lower classes and outsiders are treated in this country. Dennis Hopper’s character can certainly be viewed as a stand in for George Bush, at one point he even says “We don’t negotiate with terrorists”, but I think even more precisely he should be looked upon as a stand in for every greedy rich bastard who has ever run over anyone who happens to need understanding and help. His chilling fortress like oasis away from the zombies, Fiddler’s Green, is America at its sickest and Land Of The Dead distinguishes itself from the other films in that the zombies here do finally become the heroes of the piece. For all of its failings as a visceral horror film, Land Of The Dead is at least a striking film of ideas that can and should be discussed that goes way beyond the question of liberal or conservative.
Romero’s film needed to work as a kick ass horror film as well as a social statement and it does at least part of the time. Hampered by some obvious CGI but still fairly gory, the film does at least try to recall the glorious excesses of Dawn and Day Of The Dead. At its best it does have more of an impact than most modern horror films but it lacks that gritty almost documentary like realism that Romero’s early works possessed. The first three Dead films felt like the work of a mad maverick whereas Land Of The Dead feels like a slick, albeit good, Hollywood production.
When the film works, it does so exceedingly well. After a disappointing opening credits montage that feels more like the Dawn Of The Dead remake rather than classic Romero, we are treated to an ingenious opening scene featuring a literal band of zombies. As Romero’s camera pans around the gruesome decaying group a fan can’t help but feel a major lump in their throat. The final half hour or so of the film also has a lot of impact even though many of the scares are let down by a way too telegraphed score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. The film’s Pittsburgh setting is also very welcome as is the set design by Arv Grewal, who really did a lot with a limited budget here.
The cast is a mixed bag and for the most part make me at least miss the more unknown faces that populated the first three Dead films. I have always thought Asia Argento should have been the lone lead of the film without a male next to her. Now this isn’t just because of my love for Argento but I think it would have been a nice bookend to the important casting of an African American in Night Of The Living Dead. Obviously we are kind of overrun with female action horror leads, but I have always suspected that Romero and Argento could have come up with something that could have seemed wildly subversive had they chosen to. Instead Argento is forced to play second fiddle to the much less effective and less exciting Simon Baker. Much better is John Leguizamo, who gives the film’s best and most sincere performance.
The much talked about Kaufman character is played well by Dennis Hopper but there isn’t ever really a moment where Hopper totally disappears in the role. I wish the film would have been shot on half the budget with no name actors and no CGI but distribution and any type of funding would have probably been impossible with that set up.
The biggest disappointment of the film is Eugene Clark’s Big Daddy zombie. Clark is a talented actor but the role never gets the iconic feel that Sherman Howard’s incredible Bub in Day Of The Dead did and it really needs it. Land Of The Dead needed to have that same kind of eye opening, mind-expanding feel but unfortunately it never quite achieves it.
The un-rated DVD of the film ironically improves and hurts it in spots. The inclusion of a great vintage Romero moment with Leguizamo is very welcome but on the small screen the film’s overly digitized look becomes even more noticeable and distracting. The disc isn’t helped either by its extras, which save for a fun featurette on Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, are all oddly muted and at times downright uninteresting. I suspect a future release that hopefully looks at some of the film’s failings will prove to be much more interesting.
I don’t mean to be too hard on the film as I do like it and am still thankful that Romero got the chance to make it. I will be most curious to see what time does with it, as it should be remembered that the now classic Day Of The Dead felt similarly disappointing to many people back in 1985. I think the best time to seriously discuss Land Of The Dead in George Romero’s filmography will be in about ten or fifteen years, as almost all of his films seem to improve with age. I hope that goes for Land Of The Dead as well but right now it is just too soon to tell.