Review of the Dead - Land of the Dead (2005)
After Day of the Dead, it would be almost exactly 20 years [I’m not going to do the research and match up opening dates…so, yeah, essentially 20 years. – Ed.] before Romero would once again wrangle up some undead for a civic-minded tale of how screwed we all are. [Wow. Day really broke you, didn’t it? – Ed.] With 2005’s Land of the Dead, George Romero puts about as much of an ending on his Pittsburgh-centric films up to this point as well as serving as a bit of an ending to the subsequent two films he had yet to make at this point. I’ll discuss this a bit later on. The movie proves to be a bit of a trade-off though…funded by Universal and allowing for the best make-up and effects for the series as well as bigger name actors such as Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo, it feels like there may have been a bit of studio interference when it comes to the social commentary…or, perhaps George was slowing down a bit with this one. Still, what he chose to tackle here is kind of a big one, as we now take a look at how one handles class warfare…but with zombies.
Plot synopsis time: The location is Fiddler’s Green, an outpost protected on two sides by three rivers within the “Golden Triangle” portion of downtown Pittsburgh. And while the entire location is protected by either river or by electrified fences, the social strata are VERY clear: only the wealthiest can buy their way into the main tower/complex, while everyone else is confined to the streets below and is encouraged to partake of the numerous vices and distractions contained therein…taking their minds of the looming issues and dangers all around them and taking their remaining money and funneling it back to those in the tower, particularly the man in charge of the whole thing, Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman. We’re introduced to two leaders of scouting parties that go out and search for supplies to bring back to the enclosed city, Riley and Cholo. Riley has been gradually saving up and has just bought a car that he plans to take up north to Canada (where Romero himself would end up) to get away from everything and everyone, while Cholo has been doing Kaufman’s dirty work for three years now and is expecting to take his place within the towers of Fiddler’s Green. There’s one last thing to add to the mix: on their last scouting mission, Riley notices something different about the “walkers” or “stenches” this time around…they’re learning.
I want to start off with something that only occurred to me with this viewing. Let me describe the film’s opening to you…but in the vaguest of terms possible. A small, but heavily armed, force rides into town, raiding the place for supplies all the while killing random citizens of this relatively peaceful village. Having what they came for, the raiders move off while the townsfolk pick themselves up, brush themselves off and return to their daily routine as if nothing happened. But this time, one of these townspeople is fed up. He rallies the citizens to stand up for themselves, teaches them how to resist and then, finally, leads them to take care of business on the raiders’ turf. This sounds like 75% of every western you’ve seen, doesn’t it? Now here’s the zing…these townspeople? They’re zombies. This, of course, plays out in the remainder of the film (as I hinted at). Unlike his past films, Romero here doesn’t hit you with multiple social commentaries, instead opting for the same social commentary but at multiple levels…with this being the first, most simplistic. You can almost hear him saying to you directly “C’mon man, even ZOMBIES wouldn’t put up with this bullshit.” Next, I want to revisit Bub from Day. Remember how I pointed out there that Bub was not only a frightening prospect, but a dangerous one as well? Romero explores this further with Big Daddy, the aforementioned lone villager who rallies his fellow townsfolk to push back on those that have been pushing them. Big Daddy, like Bub, is able to recall more complicated actions from his living days…but takes it couple of steps further. First, he can communicate with his fellow zombies. Sure, it’s all basic grunts and gestures, but that’s light years from what we’ve seen of the zombies in Romero’s previous films. And with that gift of communication, that opens up step two: teaching. Big Daddy is able to show an undead butcher what exactly that cleaver in his hand can do…just for one example. To his credit, Riley’s the only one who picks up on this…and he figures it out pretty early on. Nearly everyone else in the film, however, clings to the newly outdated status quo…that the zombies are just mindless shambling husks of flesh. Lastly, let’s look at the final zombie attack in the film. As has been the case so far with nearly every film of the series, it’s roots are in the Pittsburgh area and even though this one has Hollywood studio funding behind it, surprisingly this one is no different. Kaufman gives a name to the town Riley and Cholo raided in the opening scene: Uniontown. Uniontown, PA is about 46 miles SSE of Pittsburgh and home to just under 10,000 people. Just a quick peek at Google Maps will show you that there are a number of towns that these shambling discontents would make their way through…allowing Big Daddy to increase his numbers and resulting in an overwhelming force that, given their reliance on old information and not what Riley has reported, the defense forces of Fiddler’s Green just simply is not prepared for. What does that mean for zombie fans everywhere? Well…what do you think?
Now let’s complicate things by bringing the humans into it. We’re shown Fiddler’s Green from two wildly divergent perspectives: Riley, who sees the place for what it is…a way for the rich to remain in control and get even richer in a world where money ultimately means nothing…while Cholo buys into the illusion whole-heartedly and looks forward to his time to climb the new social ladder in a way his father never could. It should not be overlooked that Riley is white and Cholo is Hispanic [Duh. – Ed.]…because George never overlooks the chance to play on race (as it continues to be the first and most often used mechanic used to divide people). With that detail in place, let’s take a look at their tactics. Riley is a loner that, in his effort to help those in the community (for example getting antibiotics for Mulligan’s son), ends up attracting others to him. All he wants to do is get a car and head north…making a fresh start in the Great White North. [COO-LOO-KOO-KOO-KOO-KOO-KOO-KOO! – Ed.] Cholo on the other hand does all of Kaufman’s dirty work, which includes murder and disposal of said targets, all in the hopes of earning enough money and respect to be embraced by those in power and welcomed as one of their own. The faults in this kind of thinking are obvious…but most telling is that Cholo only has one person that sticks by his side, Foxy. Anyone else ends up getting killed…as we see in Cholo’s version of the opening raid. And as one would expect, Cholo is ultimately denied for no other reason than he’s…well, not white. Okay, and the fact that Kaufman doesn’t want to lose his lackey or address him as an equal.
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about Kaufman himself. Any interview he gave on the film, George was quick to inform that Kaufman and the Fiddler’s Green ilk were based on “Bush, Rumsfeld and all those guys”. [Bush being George W. Bush or as he’s affectionately called around here, ‘Bush part 2: The Revenge’. – Ed.] And it’s easy to see why, given the administration of the 43rd President swept away a fair number of regulations that allowed large corporations and banks to indulge their greedier tendencies…paving the way for a financial crisis toward the end of his term and the beginning of his successor’s that would nearly claim the American automotive industry, rock the real estate market and bring into question whether or not banks were “too big to fail” and what exactly that meant. It’s this period of time that heightened awareness of “The 1%” and brought to light the problem of the rapidly dwindling middle class…issues that, like all the others that George has pointed out, remain with us to this day. And, like always, George is quick to show us what happens when Americans, like Cholo, buy into the illusion instead of doing something about it: for most of the inhabitants of Fiddler’s Green, the movie doesn’t end well.
That being said, there are more survivors of Land of the Dead, character-wise, than any of other George’s films combined! And that kind of turn-around was DEFINITELY needed given the almost pure darkness presented in Day. One better than that, as a viewer it’s hard to not root for the zombies, particularly toward the end of the film as they dine on what I would think would be the zombie equivalent to veal: blue-blooded 1%-ers.
One last thing to point out is the improved effects, both in make-up and in special effects…as this is Romero’s first foray into the realm of digitally created or enhanced effects. While Tom Savini does make a cameo in the film (and might have helped out behind the scenes…it’s hard to tell), the 20 years that passed between Day and Land is readily evident in how the zombies look. Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero (two-thirds of the lauded KNB) provide most, if not all, of the zombie effects and for modern zombie enthusiasts looking at the grandmaster’s work for the first time, this will be the film that starts to feel familiar for them…and rightly so as this is the look of zombies that the modern era has found to become commonplace, from the latest zombie film-du-jour to the old standby that the Walking Dead has become on TV. [And by standby, we mean that you standby for like 10 episodes waiting for something to happen…amirite? – Ed.] Anyway, not a single blue zombie to be found here…and that alone merits a hearty thumbs up.
Oh, I nearly forgot, slight spoilers here in this paragraph, but as I said near the opening of this review, Land serves not only as a coda to the three films that came before, but it’s also an end cap to the two that would come next. With Diary (which we’ll look at next) being almost a reboot and Survival being its direct-ish sequel…the common thread linking these two films is a National Guardsman played by Alan Van Sprang. And if you’re paying attention, Mr. Van Sprang shows up here in Land too…and is killed. Given that his last appearance in Survival is hopping a ferry, perhaps it’s not too farfetched to think this ferry might be taking him toward Fiddler’s Green? Now, there is one flaw in this little theory…and that’s the fact that Van Sprang’s characters are all named differently in each film: ‘Colonel’ in Diary, ‘Sgt. Crockett’ in Survival and Brubaker in Land. But since when has little details like that ever stopped a crazy internet theory, huh?
Wrapping up, this is certainly the best looking Romero film out of the lot, thanks to the Hollywood money he had access to. But this would be short lived as his next two features would return him to his independent roots. And while the points that it has to make are not as weighty as in his previous works, there’s a more equal blend of social commentary and zombie horror action at work here too. One might even say that this is the ‘light beer’ of Romero’s films. But after a film as dark as Day, sometimes a light beer is exactly what you need.
Exiting the LAND…we crack open the DIARY to see what’s next…