Land of the Dead (Canada/France/United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

George A. Romero may have been the originator of the modern zombie movie, but, at least with Land of the Dead, he hasn't done much to refine it. The zombies are creepier looking than in the past, and the gore is more hard-core, but the story still boils down to the same old, same old: humans running away from hoards of slow-moving zombies. In a strange way, the film feels like a hybrid of last year's Dawn of the Dead remake crossed with Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. There's a sense that Romero has run out of ideas and is recycling. (I felt the same way about the third installment of this four-movie series, Day of the Dead.) The title, although appropriate, breaks the cycle. First, we had Night of the Living Dead. Then, it was Dawn of the Dead. Next, Day of the Dead. Shouldn't this have been Twilight of the Dead?

In an attempt to add a little variety to things, Romero splits his focus between the dead stalking humans and humans screwing each other. This aspect of the movie reminds me of Ripley's quote from Aliens: "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage!" This time around, the dead are starting to show signs of cooperation and low-level thought. Their leader, a burly black zombie (Eugene Clark), employs a gun and a jackhammer. But the real villain of the piece is a Trump-like opportunist, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who has used the zombie takeover to amass wealth and power. He rules a zombie-free Pittsburgh from the top of a high-rise called Fiddler's Green. Privileged humans live there. Everyone else dwells in slums and shantytowns in the streets. The city is protected from the dead by water on three sides and an electrified fence on the fourth.

Among Kaufman's henchmen are scavengers Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo). Their reasons for working for the boss are different. Riley wants to help people. Cholo is in it for the money. He hopes to buy his way into Fiddler's Green. Together, these two go on raids of nearby cities and towns in an indestructible armored vehicle, looking for supplies to bring home. For Riley, canned goods and medicine are top of the list. For Cholo, it's liquor than he can sell in the streets. During the course of the movie, both men have a falling out with their boss. Riley runs afoul of Kaufman when he saves a condemned woman (Asia Argento) from being mauled in a cage match with two zombies. Cholo loses his position when his social climbing aspirations mark him as a liability. Riley ends up hunting Cholo, who's blackmailing Kaufman, while the dead close in.

Surprisingly, there's little tension. The movie has a straightforward feel, and you have a sense from the beginning who's going to live and who's going to die. There are a couple of good, visceral scares, but the relentlessness of the previous films has been replaced by a series of "boo!" moments. At least there's one iconic scene: the dead gradually rising from the river after they have discovered that water isn't a barrier. This is one of those scenes meant for posters and nightmares, and it's one of only a few instances when Land of the Dead strikes exactly the right chord.

Dennis Hopper is well cast as the scheming Kaufman - the sadistic coward who isn't in as much control as he thinks he is. Simon Baker, recently seen as the reporter in The Ring 2, is fine as Riley, although the character comes across as a little too much of a do-gooder. John Leguizamo cuts back on his tendency to go over the top and become irritating. The result is a nicely controlled performance of a character who is more believable and less likeable than Riley. Asia Argento, who may have been hired because of her name and reputation (she's the daughter of Italian horror master Dario Argento), gives a portrayal that's half tough-as-nails and half spacey. It's odd, but it works. Eugene Clark doesn't get to do much other than look mean and make a lot of bellowing noises, but he accomplishes that with aplomb.

In the final analysis, Land of the Dead comes across as generic. Despite being steeped in darkness, it lacks the taut pacing and nerve-jangling suspense of 28 Days Later, and doesn't have the tongue-in-cheek approach evident in Shaun of the Dead. It's got great makeup, though. Credit Gregory Nicotero (who replaces Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead's Tom Savini) for making the zombies more frightening than campy. Ultimately, however, copious gore and rotting flesh can only do so much for a movie, and the lack of ambition in Romero's storyline is where Land of the Dead fails. The movie will appeal to those with a penchant for zombie flicks, but is unlikely to reach further - not even to the broader "general horror" market. It's not startling or frightening enough.

Land of the Dead (Canada/France/United States, 2005)

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Dennis Hopper, Eugene Clark
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Cinematography: Miroslaw Baszak
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2005-06-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1