Land of the Dead (2005)

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*. On the DVD commentary to Dawn of the Dead, George Romero makes the rather bold confession that he only cares about the concepts behind his films, he doesn’t care about the story or the characters. As I see it, this cuts two ways.
*. In the first place: what concepts! Romero’s zombie movies are always interesting because of his ability to channel broader cultural and political concerns. That’s certainly the case here as he gives us an early taste of the Occupy Movement camped out at the foot of Wall Street, whose towers are inhabited by the 1%. Riley is “looking for a world where there are no fences,” and there’s even a line where the groundlings point to the tower of Fiddler’s Green and say  that Kaufman “didn’t build that.” Did Elizabeth Warren see this film?

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*. The governing board of Fiddler’s Green was, in turn, inspired by the Bush II administration, with Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman apparently modeled after Donald Rumsfeld.
*. The theme of widening social inequality meshes perfectly with the siege mentality that pervades so many of Romero’s zombie films. The city here (it’s never named, but we’re meant to assume it’s Pittsburgh) is a giant gated community, appearing a bit like a twenty-first century Constantinople surrounded by barbarians in the digital diagrams. Just make sure to keep juice in those fences!

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*. As an aside, it’s interesting how Riley’s getaway destination of choice is Canada. This is actually a common safe haven in American dystopian films (even Barb Wire!). And there’s an irony in the fact that Canada is the land of the dead here, as it was filmed in Toronto (as was Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead).
*. But if Romero has a firm finger on the pulse of national anxieties, and is spot-on with his sense of satire, his characters here are flat and uninteresting, and the script just clomps along.
*. Take a couple of fairly big plot points that don’t make sense. In the first place, there’s the business with leaving Mouse (the kid with the skateboard) alone to wait for the cash delivery. Why is the weakest member of the team given this job? Why doesn’t he find a good place to hide out where he can keep an eye on the location and watch for zombies instead of sneaking around a suspiciously unlocked building where there are lots of places the zombies can jump out at you? And then why does he put on headphones blaring rock music while he’s waiting, so that he can’t hear either a boat approaching or any zombies sneaking up on him? The whole situation is idiotic.
*. A larger problem, however, has to do with everyone’s financial motivations. What use is cash in this economy? Why does anyone care about it? What would Cholo do with his five million dollars? What is Kaufman going to do with those bags of bills he’s lugging around?

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*. Romero makes an interesting point on the commentary about how he gets nagged for not playing up the romantic interests between his leads. He doesn’t think it’s realistic or necessary. I agree with him somewhat, but it does make you think about how little goes on between the men and the women in his zombie films. Barbara is of course catatonic throughout most of Night of the Living Dead. In Dawn of the Dead Francine is pregnant, though how she got that way isn’t clear since she only has the one candlelit dinner scene with her boyfriend Steve to even hint at their relationship, or even suggest some mutual attraction. In Day of the Dead Sarah’s presumed lover Miguel is totally dysfunctional and, surprisingly, nobody else seems interested in her. Here Riley and Slack are an obvious couple, and they do like each other, but not in that way. Not at all.
*. This was the first film in Romero’s second Dead Trilogy, and it had the biggest budget he ever got to work with (the next two films, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, were much smaller affairs). There are decent production values throughout and some name actors like Hopper. And it did good box office as well. But despite the strength of the concept, I don’t think it’s that successful a film. At least I never felt that involved in any of the plot threads.
*. Simon Baker seems a little bland in the lead. But as I said earlier, he’s playing a flat character, not a tortured post-apocalyptic soul.
*. Perhaps zombies had by this time become banal. The gore effects here are well done and even include a couple of more imaginative bits (the tongue being pulled out of one victim’s mouth, and the face being torn off another), but mostly we have the staples: in particular, the bites (usually to the neck) pulling away stretchy hunks of tissue and skin, and the disembowellings with ropes of intestines being withdrawn from stomach cavities.

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*. I wondered at one point why all the zombies have such bloody face wounds. The short, practical answer is that this is what identifies them immediately to us as zombies. But I don’t think it’s realistic.
*. It’s obvious that the zombies are evolving, communicating with each other and beginning to use tools. In this regard the film seems less like a zombie movie to me than it does another instalment in the Planet of the Apes series. We can imagine a time when they’ll take over entirely, while the humans fight among themselves and generally behave in a self-destructive way. As the undead get smarter, the living appear to be getting less intelligent.
*. At the beginning they offer up a rationale for why the living go scavenging at night (so that the fireworks can be used to distract the zombies), but this didn’t convince me. I’d still rather be out and about in the daylight. And boy does it make for a dark film. Almost every scene is shot at night except I think for one brief street scene near the beginning. After a while I found this got to be depressing and monotonous.
*. Here’s something that’s bugged me since the first time I saw this film: Whatever happened to the hanged man’s son? He’s bitten in the neck by his dad and appears to be dead or at least in very bad shape, but we never see or hear of him again after a final sinister shot of his wound. I kept thinking they were going to bring him back and work him into the plot somehow but they never did. Then again, seeing as this whole sequence was apparently cut from the theatrical release I guess there was no point. Still, I like to imagine he’s still up there in Fiddler’s Green somewhere, having taken over from Kaufman when the revolution hit.

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