George Romero's Land of the Dead, an excellent freakout of a movie, the living no longer have the advantage or our full sympathies. The fourth installment of Romero's vaunted zombie cycle (which began with his 1968 masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead), the new film is also the latest chapter in what increasingly seems like an extended riff on Dante's Inferno.
In the earlier Dead films, Romero guided us through circles of hell that, despite the flesh-eating ghouls, looked a lot like the exurban world outside our windows. With this new movie, we jump straight to the ninth circle, where Satan is a guy in a suit and tie who feasts on the misery of others, much as the dead feast on the living.
It's a sign of both Romero's waggish humor and control as a director that the guy in the suit and tie is played by the cult-movie icon Dennis Hopper, an often unrestrained performer who here is right on the money. Hopper plays Kaufman, the absolute ruler of a haven called Fiddler's Green, a tower of steel and glass at the center of a city with more than a passing resemblance to Manhattan. The tower, which appears to have been modeled on a Vegas hotel, complete with the usual feedlots, luxury stores and glassy-eyed shoppers, rises above the devastated metropolis like a threat and a promise. Outside its locked doors, amid atmospheric squalor, the huddling masses distract themselves with bread and circuses, while one man agitates for revolution.
Although they've always had a strong political subtext, Romero's zombie movies, which also include Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), have emphasized praxis over philosophy. To that end, the living hero of this film isn't the agitator, but a no-nonsense tough, Riley, played by the fine young Australian actor Simon Baker. Best known for the television show The Guardian, he has done exceptional work in both LA Confidential and Ride With the Devil, and in this film he holds the center with an attractive lack of fuss. His character is one of those burned-out warriors who says he wants to pack it in, only to be coerced back into action.
Land of the Dead
Written and directed by: George Romero
Starring: Simon Baker (Riley), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie),
Eugene Clark (Big Daddy) and John Leguizamo (Cholo)
Running time: 94 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
There aren't a lot of people in Land of the Dead whom the director likes as much as he does Riley, or for that matter, his zombie alter ego, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark). We meet Riley and Big Daddy after an attention-seeking credit sequence that recaps the zombie situation to date ("They kill for one reason. They kill for food.") and brings us straight to "Today." Here, in a wasteland called Uniontown, next to a diner sign emblazoned with the word "EATS," Riley and his sidekick, Charlie (Robert Joy), watch as Big Daddy, dressed in a gas-station attendant's uniform, tries to go through the work motions. Riley is struck by the zombie's commitment to its old rituals; but what gets his attention is that this itinerant corpse seems to be communicating with other zombies.
A pioneer in the slow-zombie movement (think of him as the Alice Waters of contemporary horror), Romero has not joined the recent fad for zippy corpses, as seen in both 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Romero's monsters still move at a relatively lethargic pace, dragging their dead weight as if they were made of lead, not putrefying flesh. What has changed since corpses roamed the cemetery in Night of the Living Dead crudely pockmarked with sores and dripping movie blood is the special-effects makeup, which in the new film is alternately frightfully real and obscenely beautiful. Here, Romero, whose striking parking-lot exteriors in Dawn of the Dead looked like they were designed by Ed Ruscha, creates gruesome demons right out of Hieronymous Bosch and Francisco Goya.