The Macabre Brothers share an affinity for bargain-bin horror films. It’s actually more like an addiction – hardly a month goes by without one of us wasting $5 on some dubious DVD title. Such impulse buys may not deserve a full review, but like porn, they’re worth a quick and shameful glance. In Basement Ramblings, we answer your most meaningful question: Is this month’s piece of crap worth the price of a Big Mac?
The premise: In case Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) came across as hopeful for humanity’s future in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, director George A. Romero completes his undead trifecta by showing just how fucked things would be for people and zombies alike.
Land of the Dead’s timeline is a bit wonky – well, it was released nearly three decades after its predecessor – but it picks up a few years after zombies first left the worms for plumper, more brainy prey. John Leguizamo (that guy from that thing, Carlito’s Way) and Simon Baker (that other guy from that other thing, “The Mentalist”) star as rival scavengers living in a fortified New York City. They work for Dennis Hopper, a sort of CEO/kingpin/bastard who runs the city from his upper-class paradise in Pittsburgh, dubbed Fiddler’s Green. The result is a zombified take on “A Tale of Two Cities,” or “The Merchant of Venice,” or the whole Occupy movement – anything in which the haves and have-nots clash in bloody fashion. Plus zombies.
Speaking of, Land of the Dead’s particular brand of zombie is easily distracted by gunfire, fireworks and most shiny things, except for one former man: an undead behemoth played by Eugene Clark. He knows something is wrong, and for the first time, Romero shows zombies as characters, not simply channels for social commentary. It’s a neat trick, particularly when the undead horde begins to evolve and creep closer to the city. That’s when shit gets real.
Where I found it: In the $5 bin at Walmart, packaged with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. I won’t get into that film now, but people should give poor Snyder a break. The guy makes good, fun, dumb entertainment — he’s by far one of the better Tarantino prodigies/copycats.
Why it caught my eye: Land of the Dead was written and directed by Romero, so duh. His first two Dead films are near-masterpieces, and it has been fascinating to watch the director search for new stories and allegories in the genre he essentially created. Also, the cover was shiny and sparkly. I’m zombie-like that way.
What works: Damn near everything. In my time as a horror geek, I’ve learned to expect several elements in a Romero zombie flick: compelling characters, tense action scenes, gore galore and some sort of overarching theme. Land of the Dead delivers on each, from Leguizamo’s rough-hewn “Cholo” character to a zombie marching band fruitlessly playing their instruments. Like Sam Riami and John Carpenter, Romero has knack for injecting verve into genres that beg to be cold, barren and stale. Compare his lush, almost carnival-esque aesthetic to the dead-seriousness of The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later: All have zombies, but Land of the Dead is more of a midnight movie than a sombre tale of apocalypse. As the genre godfather, it’s reassuring to know he can breathe new-yet-familiar life into the same old zombie flesh.
As part of Romero’s unofficial Dead trilogy, Land of the Dead is also a natural conclusion, showing how the scope of a zombie infestation has grown organically from film to film. What started with several people in a secluded farmhouse is now much grander, and encompasses entire cities and at least three sets of characters. Romero has since gone on to expand the series by not one, but two films – the found-footage experiment Diary of the Dead (2007) and the tense, low-key Survival of the Dead (2009) – yet Land of the Dead feels like the logical conclusion of a single narrative, while the other two entries are more like B plots.
And I’m not just straining for cute comparisons. The zombies here make all the difference, and Romero purposely shows the same four or five “stenches” (to use Leguizamo’s brilliant term) throughout the film. By the time Pittsburgh is within sight, we have a sense of their personalities, or at least what special skills they bring to the inevitable attack (ex. the butcher zombie cleaves through a fence, while the cute girl zombie learns how to fire a gun). Clark’s ringleader zombie is undeniably the most compelling, especially when he reacts to never-ending human raids. During an early excursion into the suburbs, Leguizamo’s zombie-killing plays out as an uncomfortable retelling of My Lai, all thanks to distinct characterization and emotion. Clark – whom I dubbed “Big Black” and is legitimately credited as “Big Daddy,” so I’ll pat myself on the back for that one – shows hints of sorrow, confusion and rage, few of which I’ve seen on a rotted, corpsy face before.
What sucks: For all his strengths as a writer and director, Romero is occasionally hamfisted. His characters are clearly delineated (Baker: good, Hopper: Bad, Leguizamo: good/bad), and the dialogue is a bit stilted at times. Take this example from Baker, uttered shortly after he and Leguizamo’s crews mow down a town full of zombies while searching for supplies: “This isn’t a battle. It’s a massacre.” The line gets the point across – it even introduces new concepts, like genuine sympathy for the undead – but there’s no subtlety whatsoever.
Land of the Dead’s real shortcoming, though, is what typically sets Romero apart from his many imitators: social commentary. The director has long used zombies to highlight the complacency, homogeneity and insanity of modern society, but this film has too many layers for its own good. Zombies make near-perfect have-nots already – I mean, people hate them so much, we the jubilant bloodbath leading up to Baker’s “massacre” line. Showing the same class-based tension within the walls of Pittsburgh feels heavy-handed, and although it doesn’t quite weaken the power of Romero’s message, it does weaken the film as a piece of storytelling. When metaphors become too literal, they cease to be metaphors.
Hopper is partly to blame for the blandness of the human vs. human plotline. The occasional clunky line aside, his performance feels phoned in, and his kingpin’s eventual reward for running the world like that dude in Waterworld feels more like a mandatory plot point than the triumphant, catalytic moment it should be. It’s disappointing – I respect Hopper, and through my love affair with B-movies, I’ve discovered how enjoyable even big-name actors can be in somewhat trashy fare. Hopper comes across as a weary union worker, sick of his dreary profession and dutiful loyalty to the film industry at large. And there we go, now I’m adding layers – we get it, the class system sucks.
Verdict: A superior zombie flick weighed down by a few too many on-the-nose metaphors. Romero will never find a mass market for his continuing zombie saga, but as the consummate horror-as-social-commentary filmmaker, his fanbase will always be strong and willing to check in on occasion. Keep the undead coming, George.
Beginning with this post, I’m trying something new by printing my notes after the article, presented in unedited, uncensored fashion. A word of warning: I can’t be held responsible for my illiteracy – this is the rambling part.
Only time the seams show: Opening and closing credits. They pretty much phone those in, and at least for the opening, they literally did just rattle off clips from previous “of the Dead” flicks
Even the zombie bone-crunching FX on the DVD menu are pretty sweet — Romero doesn’t put his name on no junk
Like the old-school universal intro w model planet and plane flying by on strings
Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo biggest names — continuing this theme of
Is it weird that I can’t quite place why John Leguizamo is famous, but I can spell his last name on the first try?
I’m not surprised the production, design, costuming, what have you is more professional than your average direct-to-DVD bullshit — Romero makes good films, but I’m not quite sure there’s a market for his continuing pet project, especially 30 odd years after Dawn of the Dead
There we go, some classic Romero — tuba player in undead marching band is still honking away while the conducter motions. People are stuck in their habits, no matter what
– there we go — guys talk about zombies “trying to be us” “preteniding to be alive” “learning to be us” — these zombies are getting smarter
These humans have adapted to their times — militaristic, etc — and it’s kind of a trope nowadays for sci-fi, horror, but this makes sense
Leguizamo’s characters name is “Cholo” — kinda funny
I’m kinda digging the Mad Max ibe of thesezombie hunters, mobbing around on motorcycles and modified cars with flagsticks and clubs and chains and junk
Big Black zombie — that’s my nickname for him, like the linebacker I knew in college — is a smart mother fucker. Also, he doesn’t like his own kind (stomps on head)
– AND has one fucked-up grill
Ok, the humans are still scavanging, living off meds they can find and food they snag off store shelves — makes me wonder a little bit about the timing. I know the beginning said “some time ago,” but i just can’t help see this as part of Romero’s overall trilogy — timing is important
“This isn’t a battle, it’s a fucking massacre” — kinda cheesy, even though it gets the point across (zombies that begin to act human might be seen as such by some survivors)
Nice zombie kill Cholo — spear through the head, “fucking cowboy”
These zombies still do like flesh, even if it looks like they haven’t eaten in a long time
Kid kills himself — I’m trying to think about any zombie films (or Walking Dead for that matter) when a newly infected person commites suicide so readily and suddenly —
I like how you almost feel bad for Big Black — he see these people in their cars and motorcycles with machine guns, and he can’t defend himself
– UNTIL HE GETS A FUCKING GUUUUUUUUUUN
********THis has got to be the first zombie film I’ve ever seen where the characters become zombies, and not because we knew them as humans before — Romero actually does a great job of showing the same zombies, over and over, so that we learn to recognize them as they learn (POSSIBLE exception: Fido, that great fucking film)
Heh….the modern “haves” spot is found in Fiddler’s Green, has all the amenities (malls, escalators, suits, shopping, fine dining — continuing with theme of PEOPLE AS CREATURES OF HABIT, even when they aren’t zombies. Some can enjoy amenities, while the rest fight to survive)
*******Romero’s zombie metaphors are getting a bit literal (physical place separating the haves and have nots) — although, it is interesting that this predates the current Occupy movement
Cholo bashing the rich zombie’s skull in with modernist art — another great kill
Again, humans creatures of habit — they wanna gamble, cause trouble
I was gonna say, I wonder when we get the introduction of a female other than a frightened housewife
– and she’s kicking some zombie ass — don’t all the hot chicks wearing leather kick ass?
Heh…midget Mexican cowboy looks like a tiny Randy Savage
Is that Vin Diesel’s chick from XXX? Looks like it, but she got rid of the accent
– OH DAMN YES it definitely is her
– I mean, I won’t lie — she’s pretty hot
– maybe Asia Argento naturally has baggy eyes, looks like a hooker/drug addict
*********Held in modern New York City, or at least several blocks of it
Not only do these zombies keep showing up, they have special skills related to their creepy setpieces (butcher hacks through wall with cleaver)
– shit…imagine being a zombie and seeing all your buddies strung up by their feet, with targets on their chests, still squirming and kicking. Kinda makes you CONNECT
“What’s that” “Shooting practice” scream from zombie attack “And what the hell’s that? Screaming practice?” I laughed
Oh, guess I forgot about the blonde chick with ponytails who drives — not sure how that happened, except for she’s kind of a hardcore stereotype and token tough chick
Nice — zombie bites and eyeball out, while the other gnoshes on a finger like a chicken wing
Huh…Cholo has saved $5 million
– For a smart, tough fucker, he’s woefully still attached to institutions like money
Name of large truck is “Dead Reckoning” — what was the name from Dawn?
– Designed by the guy in charge, Dembo (that fool, Simon Baker, from The Mentalist and Guardian)
Well that seems like a genuinely retarded and/or coldhearted idea, to leave one dude on the outskirts of town when zombies run rampant, waiting for your boat and money that will never appear. Cholo, ya bastard moron
– i mean, he was doomed from the start, but that zombie clown and little zombie schoolboy really lay into the guy
*****Heh…I love this old-school introduction of crew members, rattling them off by their nicknames as they walk ominously into the frame (very B-movie, James Bond-ish — like Romero knows he can do better and more subtle, but he just can’t help himself. They’re just too fun.)
– that’s just the sort of film this is, but it’s done in such a gleefully assertive manner, I respect it
Meh….Dennis Hopper’s character is a bit bland — little more than the “Man in a Tower,” with no personality aside from ruthless snake-oil charm
You gotta love that signature Romero gore — most zombie films show the zombies eating, but this one shows them fucking indulging, actually getting flesh into mouth and pulling shit apart like it’s full of tendons
– props to the FX crew
What the hell was up with the bobblehead zombie?
I’m digging the station wagon-turn-zombie rig
Yeah, Dennis Hopper is where the metaphorical, sociological, anthropological, analytical side of this films gets a literal mouthpiece, and that’s why he hardly feels like a character
– Saying something like “I gave the people games and vices to keep them occupied” is ridiculous
That’s very New Yorker of Asia Argento — she had never left the city, even before the zombie attack
Cholo’s plan is to launch rockets from Mt Washington overlooking the city, scare the shit out of Dennis Hopper, who stole his money and denied him a home in the city, and between it all do-gooder with history wants to steal truck back to get a farm somewhere
I remember that from zombie survival guide — zombies can’t drown because, duh, they’re already dead. Makes sense they’d just walk through the river
– pretty tight shot of a literal world of zombies crawling through water to take revenge on humans at night
Dennis Hopper is tied to institutions also — packing suitcases full of money, right before leaving the city to hid out for years. I’d probably go with food and bullets
*****Heh…obligatory lesbian scene interrupted by zombies
I don’t quite understand what happened when Pilsbury knocked out the military chick — what’s going on there?
Cholo got shot! Bummer brah…if he doesn’t get some medical care soon, dead, then zombie
*******Does Cholo call zombies “stenches?” that’s a good one….pretty creative, even though I like geeks the most
Zombies with guns, knives, etc — pret-ty scary, and it kinda showcases how outmatched we are at every turn
Well that’s a bit on the nose — “what was built to keep people safe is going to keep them inside” (talking about fences and rivers around city)
Cholo talking about turning into zombie “i also wanted to see how the other half lives” DOUBLE MEANING, WHAT UP
Oh damn — Big Black has himself a jackhammer
******I’m unreasonably stoked for the final attack, when the zombies get to chow-down on well-fed rich people
– ok, so I’m kind of a socialist, rage against the system type….
Watching these zombies relearn to use tools, figure shit out, go from basic to complex tasks is like watching evolution all over again….and watching the “civilized” humans run around like a bunch of morons is like watching the reverse
Zombie pulls out bellybutton ring with teeth….maybe Romero wasn’t happy about a young daughter’s choice of piercing?
SHOOTING GALLERY TIME — chick takes a minigun mountain on the massive semi to destroy some zombies. Is that like required by law these days?
I like the scale of this film — you have a good core of characters (Cholo and that other dude, chick, retard guy), but you can sense the size of this world they tried to build
– compare it to, i don’t know, the small, confined groups from Night of the Living Dead and Dawn
Even Big Black knows Dennis Hopper is a useless mouthpiece that needs to be killed. Heh.
– BUUUUUUUUT he’s gonna do it in the coolest way possible, by filling his booze-laden limo with gas and LIGHTING IT THE FUCK ON FIRE
– Ah shoot…that never actually happened. Big Black just walked away
TO LEAVE HOPPER FOR CHOLO
– or, “fucking spick bastard” as he would say
OH NO NO NO NO NO Big Black was just going to get the grenade made of a propane tank
– you cheeky zombie you….
Tabkles are turned — survivors see their human brethren massacred once more (but, then again, they did the same until the evolving Big Black types took charge)
Really? The final goal is canada? Fuckin sucks when that’s all you have left to hope for…
Also, kind cheeky, fun final scene of driving away under a sky lit by fireworks cuz “we’re not gonna need them anymore”