Friday, June 13, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 7

Occasionally you get attached to something finite and when it ends you spend a good deal of time pining for it to continue. I know a good many people who've been dying for a fifth Phantasm film, par example. The same can be said for the living dead films. Considering that it took 18 years for the first three films to come out it was no surprise to learn that after twenty years of waiting for another George Romero zombie film, another one was finally in production. Naturally I was excited, until I read the synopsis in an Italian Fangoria while on vacation. I guess it's fitting that I should have been in Italy when I found this out as Greg Nicotero, the makeup artist on Land of the Dead met Romero while vacationing in Italy with his family in the late 70s. The synopsis incidentally isn't as stupid as it sounded in the magazine, but I wish to christ he had let someone else write this film. He finally has all the money he could ever ask for and the results are ten times as tepid as if he had none.

Land of the Dead
by George A. Romero

It's the future now and the zombies are now a fact of life. We're never told how much time is supposed to have past between this and any of the other films, but the costumes and everything are definitely modern. I do wish that there was a more clear connection between these movies so it was possible to tell how long this has been going on. I get the feeling that Dawn is supposed to be the logical continuation of Night and that Day is supposed to be a little while after Dawn. Land I don't knowm because Romero treated it like a sequel but the only thing that's ever been carried over from any of these movies was actor Jon Polito from film 2 to film 3, but that doesn't really mean anything. I guess what he's trying to say maybe is that crisis transcends time, or that maybe it's been a problem for the last 40 years, or that there was no gap between any of the films. Anyway, it's very much 2005 and the last people in America have sequestered themselves in a city, the center of which is a lavish apartment building called Fiddler's Green. The poor folk, gypsies and the like all live in the streets while the rich control Fiddler's Green, running it like a vicious bureaucracy. Missions are sent out constantly to look for supplies and survivors in the surrounding zombie-filled towns. Running these missions is a man called Riley who's had it up to here with the whole operation. We join him on his last foray into the land of the dead and he's particularly antsy for a few reasons. One reason is that his second in command Cholo is a cocky dickweed who seems to have other things on his mind. These ulterior motives lead him into a liquor store with a rookie who gets killed because Cholo refuses to give up his search for booze (we'll learn who it's for very shortly). The other thing getting Riley all riled up is the fact that the zombies who populate the town seem to be behaving like people once again (they're pretending to pump gas, play music, and even seem to be using their guttural moans to communicate with each other). Were it not for his impending retirement, he'd be a lot more distressed than he already is. Things are, inevitably, not going to go as planned for Riley, Cholo, and any other human being in the city.

When the troops pull out of town, a large crew of zombies, led by a gas station attendant zombie with a stolen machine gun, head for the city. Riley goes in search of a car to drive him and his sidekick Charlie, only to learn his dealer is a crook who never intended to sell him the car in the first place. He and Charlie spend the first part of the night in prison after killing the crooked dealer (the man they murder is inexplicably a dwarf in a pimp costume). Cholo goes looking for his retirement gift, an apartment in the green. When he delivers the booze to the man who runs lavish fiddler's green, Kaufman, his plans hit a snag. As Riley puts it "they won't let you in there, they won't let me in there. We're the wrong kind." Kaufman lets Cholo down easy and sends him off with an armed escort. Cholo manages to escape with his life and decides to take matters into his own hands. With his team, Cholo seizes the giant armed Road-Warrior-type truck that gets taken out on all the supply excursions, escapes from the city, points a missile at Fiddler's Green and starts making demands. Kaufman, knowing that the only man who can track Cholo and the large car is the man who designed it, as luck would have it, Riley. Kaufman tells Riley that everything he was searching for prior to his arrest is as good as his so long as he gets the tank back to town. And so, with the clock ticking, Riley, Charlie, a hooker with a heart of gold named Slack, and three armed guards race to find Cholo before it's too late. But let's not forget the large group of super smart zombies headed into town.
Well this was a lot of promise gone way fucking south, now wasn't it? There were any number of hungry young kids with brilliant zombie movie ideas who would have walked over hot coals for the chance to work with George A. Romero, but, as with most aging bearded filmmakers, he trusts no one but himself. This worked a lot better in the 70s. Now what it means is that there's a very specific world populated by very dumb stereotypes. The heroes are quite insipid, the sensitive idealist, the dumb sidekick, the soft-spoken hardass female, the big, fat mercenary even the hero zombie feels tired. The villains are even worse: Dennis Hopper's Kaufman is funny, to be sure, but is not a real person, nor for that matter is John Leguizamo's Cholo. First of all, how in the world did Simon Baker and Dennis Hopper get the word "Cholo" out of their mouths without afterwards shaking their heads so vigorously they dislodge a tooth. Not to mention that the character Leguizamo plays is maybe the most despicable hispanic stereotype in recent memory. From a man known for his positive portrayal of African Americans, this just seems senile. Asia Argento and Robert Joy don't do much more than murmur the whole time, casting an even greater light on Romero's apparent lack of direction. His script is filled with some pretty inexcusable dialogue. We have slang that sounds silly, even for a dystopian film; liberal use of phrases like "stenches" and "sky-flowers" just makes me want to tear my hair out (to say nothing of the appalling nicknames of everyone in Cholo's gang). Asia Argento is here, not doing a whole lot with her character; one last favor to friend Dario Argento (her father) for funding Dawn of the Dead all those years ago.
Making this movie without scare one was Romero's prerogative considering he invented the zombie-action film, but right out of the gate he makes it clear that he's not interested in frightening people; it's politics he's after, which means that the Greg Nicotero gore is the most shocking thing in the film, which after a few seconds gets old pretty quickly. We have Kaufman's use of clumsy George W. Bush-type dialogue, an uprising led by a poor, rebellious Irishman and the idea of the dead returning to eat the rich couldn't be any less subtle. Not that I mind this kind of symbolism (does something so frank count as symbolic?) I just wish he had taken his time writing a better script. It's paced well, to be sure, like all action films should be, but this isn't what I wanted from what should have been the zombie film to end all zombie films. I wanted an apocalypse I could smell on the breeze. The zombies have no menace whatsoever, and the killing just feels arbitrary. Romero carries his learned zombies over from Day of the Dead, now allowing all of them to carry and operate firearms. What he's saying with this, I'll be honest, I don't know. I didn't really get it in Day either (other than gunplay being an American's birthright, I guess). It's an uprising of sorts, but the first people who suffer are the poor. This film, its message, its zombies, its people has nothing of the character of Romero's first zombie movies and has nothing resembling the gravity or effect of those films. What I wanted was a movie that made even the 2004 Dawn of the Dead look soft. Instead this film just takes cues from that one, which took its cues from 28 Days Later (which was a tribute to both the original Dawn and Day). All in all, I have as hard a time liking this film as I do believing a zombie with emotions (the whole subplot involving the super smart emotional zombie is just silly and I don't anyone who would think of it any differently). Luckily, he seems to have a few more in him.

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