Most humans reside in cities barricaded by guards and electrified fences. In one area, the rich reside in a tower called Fiddler’s Green but everyone else is forced to live in the streets, with only the false hope of being able to attain high-class status. One of these people, Cholo, has been Kaufman the Mayor’s lackey for three years, but is still refused, whereupon he threatens to destroy Fiddler’s Green with his armoured vehicle Dead Reckoning. As Kaufman sends some soldiers to get Dead Reckoning back, the zombies are getting closer to the city…….
Land Of The Dead, which was Romero’s first Dead film in 20 years, is certainly enjoyable, but is a notch or two down from Day Of The Dead which itself was a notch down from Dawn Of The Dead. It’s a highly entertaining film, but afterwards one realises it’s very flawed indeed. After Day Of The Dead, which itself wasn’t the film Romero wanted it to be, the director had a lot of bad luck with films, with many projects terminated or compromised, and for a while he almost stopped making films altogether. The film he wanted to make most was the next Dead film, and after years of trying he was eventually allowed in 2005 because 28 Days Later and the surprisingly good remake of Dawn Of The Dead were big hits. Backed by a major studio, Universal, and with some well known cast members, Romero returned partially to his original unfilmed Day Of The Dead script. The budget though was still not high enough to film some of his more ambitious ideas, and the studio overruled Romero on many occasions, such as making him film in Toronto instead of his usual location of Pittsburgh, where the locals usually found themselves employed as zombies.
Horror fans such as myself got incredibly excited the weeks prior to the release of Land Of The Dead, especially as I’d never seen any Romero film on the big screen! After it had come out, the general feeling was that of disappointment, with the whole thing feeling compromised. Perhaps the big studio thing was not such a good idea after all? It was a commercial failure, and many people unaware of the previous Romero films just thought it a rip off of the Dawn Of The Dead remake. How ironic. Me? I enjoyed Land Of The Dead for what it was, a solid, enjoyable action/horror movie, but remember feeling slightly saddened at what could have been.
In some ways the film of the series it is closest to is [the original] Dawn Of The Dead, especially at first, with Cholo and his mates riding round in Dead Reckoning dispatching loads of zombies in creative ways. The social comment aspect is really upfront again, with lots of stuff about the exploiting of the poor by the rich, but after a while it’s clear that Romero hasn’t thought a lot of things through. For example, money clearly has little or no value, but why does Cholo demand money and why are the rich folk shopping there? If Dead Reckoning is so powerful, why don’t its crew just destroy all the zombies instead of just having the odd raid? Characters seem to behave stupidly and just to serve the commentary, and Romero even seems to have lost his knack for writing good characters. The main woman, Slack, has the most cliched back story ever and another character just says “I’m not into back stories”!
There’s a great deal of really bad writing in this movie, but it’s mostly bearable because the pace is kept fast and there’s the usual amount of gore. Although there are some glaring instances where CG is used, and perhaps nothing quite as gruesome as the climax of Day Of The Dead, the film does not disappoint in this aspect. Flesh ripping, gut munching, head lopping-it’s all present and correct especially in the last twenty minutes of zombie rampaging, and there are some great new gory ideas,such as having a guy’s flesh peeled back off him. I was surprised that this got a ’15’ rating in the UK, even in its slightly gorier director’s cut. Once again the zombies look a little different, and this movie continues the idea began with Bub in Day Of The Dead, with more intelligence amongst the zombies, with one of them in particular using his brain to lead them to the city. With greater cinematography than the previous three films, we are treated to really atmospheric shots of the zombie army shuffling through a forest and coming out of the water [really impressive this, if a little illogical], but the human characters don’t really treat the Dead as much of a threat. Obviously Romero wanted to show how humanity was adapting but it weakens the tension considerably. Once again, things weren’t really thought through.
The bigger budget does work in some respects for this film but it really feels as if Universal lent on Romero far more than he would admit, the script as it stands feeling incredibly rushed which it shouldn’t have been, considering the time Romero had to write it! I sound very harsh on this movie, but Romero’s skills as a director, especially in terms of action, do hold back many of the flaws while one is watching it, and it is pretty good fun throughout. It’s just that afterwards the film’s problems are more apparent. The idea of a more positive ending does go with the increasingly positive endings of the previous three films, but do we really need to see fireworks? Yes, I know it’s the resolving of a plot point but it seems cheesy and out of place. Maybe Romero intended to make a far more positive movie all along though and fair play to him I suppose.
Unsurprisingly, this is the best acted of all the films with Dennis Hopper making, as usual, a credible and detailed villain [apparently he based Mayor Kaufman on Donald Rumsfield], though Asia Argento in my view seems to struggle with her badly written role and John Leguizumo just plays the same tough, streetwise, foul mouthed role he usually does. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright make cameos as zombies and I was happy to see Tom Savini, perhaps playing his biker character from Dawn Of The Dead as a zombie, going on the rampage. Dead Reckoning is a pretty cool piece of kit-what a toy that would make!-though it reminded a great deal of the title vehicle in the early 80s Mad Max variant Battletruck. There’s much to enjoy in Land Of The Dead, it looks good, keeps moving and does have the odd interesting detail, such as zombies being made to fight in arenas. However, and I hate to say this, the Dawn Of The Dead remake is better, and when a remake of a Romero film turns out to be better than the real deal, disappointment is obvious. Perhaps, after so long, Romero had lost some of his edge? It seems to me that, when finally given the chance to make the fourth Dead film, it was a little too late.