When it comes to zombie flicks, George A. Romero proves it's good to be the king. Having defined the modern zombie movie as we know it with his 1968 creeper Night of the Living Dead, then continuing the combination of social commentary and flesh-eating ghouls in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), Romero took a break from filming the exploits of the undead to try his hand at various other projects.
However, when time goes by and the last big thing you've done turns out to be The Dark Half, one realizes it's time to revisit old stomping grounds. Twenty years after his last opus of the living dead, Romero returns to the house he built and teaches these whipper-snappers behind House of the Dead and Resident Evil: Apocalypse how a real zombie movie is made. For horror fans, Land of the Dead has been a long time coming, but it's worth it, in all its gory glory.
As a title card informs the audience, "some time" has passed since the dead have returned to life, seeking flesh to consume and turning those victims who survive into members of the walking dead themselves. Humans still live in fear of the zombies, but not so for those lucky enough to take up residence in Fiddler's Green, a skyscraper in the heart of Pittsburgh lorded over by a rich sleazebag named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). In order to keep the building's inhabitants happy with their designer clothing and cigars, all the grunt work of going into zombie-infested cities is left to working-class schmoes like Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo).
While Riley just wants to do his job so he can get a car to head out of town and someplace safer, Cholo desires the good life with a passion. That's why he steals Dead Reckoning, a huge armored vehicle designed as the ultimate zombie-killing machine, and threatens to blow up Fiddler's Green after Kaufman denies him a place in the tower. To make matters worse, a particularly bright zombie known by his nametag as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is rallying his undead comrades for an assault against the city, slowly moving en masse for one helluva feast.
With its watered-down haunted house movies (Boogeyman), half-hearted teen slashers (House of Wax), and crushing disappointments (High Tension), 2005 doesn't seem like a banner year for horror. Sure, The Ring Two was an underrated picture, but more enjoyable on a dramatic level than as an out-and-out horror movie. Thanks to Land of the Dead, viewers are finally treated to a good horror movie this year.
Although I haven't seen the first two of Romero's "holy trinity" (just Day of the Dead, which felt like a community theater production with extra gore), Land of the Dead showcases this filmmaker's art of mixing the thrills of a regular horror picture with an intelligent look at contemporary times --the same combination that established him as a master of the genre in the first place. Realizing there's more to the story than simply throwing out as many creative deaths and buckets of blood as an "R" rating will allow, Romero briskly but effectively sets up the plight of all characters living and living dead. The human survivors are either living a life seemingly blissfully unaware of the bleak carnage just outside their doorstep in Fiddler's Green, fighting for their own lives in the slums outside, or forced to risk their own skins to make sure Kaufman and his buddies get their cognac.
Sure, the characters are a little predictable and one-dimensional, but I cared for them more than I did, say, the aimless teens in House of Wax. Consider the burnt-out hero Riley, the hothead Cholo, a street-smart hooker named Slack (Asia Argento), slow but likable sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy), and, at the top, Kaufman, a character who needs more time to develop even more unlikeability but is nevertheless given enough life and sleaziness by the timeless Dennis Hopper. All of the actors in Land of the Dead seem to have a choice between one task or another (either be munched or shoot up those doing the munching), but they all help the viewer become engaged in the action, giving the audience front-row seats to a chilling view of human life after a zombie holocaust.
Just because Romero provides some decent characters and good actors to play them, don't think that he skimps on the zombie action. Romero fans and horror buffs in general will be pleased with what's served up in Land of the Dead. A couple of the bits are too surprising to give away, but it won't hur to mention that the most choice moments include an arm torn in half from the middle of the hand, a "headless" zombie attack, and, in a goreless but very creepy shot, a horde of zombies rising up out of a river as they press on toward Fiddler's Green. And these aren't just your dad's undead ghouls anymore; Romero tweaks their minds a bit, causing them to start thinking, evolving, and becoming smarter than their predecessors.
Though a little short on time and, in the end, plot, Land of the Dead works. At a time when mediocre horror flicks are outweighing the gems, Land of the Dead is a dark, creepy, and gore-soaked feast.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for pervasive strong violence and gore, brief sexuality and drug use.)
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.