George A. Romero shows 'em how it's done in "Land of the Dead," resurrecting his legendary franchise with top-flight visuals, terrific genre smarts and tantalizing layers of implication. Nerve-shredding fourth installment may not fully reclaim the visceral or satirical impact of the writer-director's 1978 masterpiece "Dawn of the Dead," but it's still a satisfyingly splattery feast of guts and ideas. Though Universal isn't flogging it half as aggressively as last year's "Dawn" remake, pic should grope its way to killer B.O. with no small help from Romero cultists, whose devotion will be nothing short of zombielike.

George A. Romero shows ‘em how it’s done in “Land of the Dead,” resurrecting his legendary franchise with top-flight visuals, terrific genre smarts and tantalizing layers of implication. Nerve-shredding fourth installment may not fully reclaim the visceral or satirical impact of the writer-director’s 1978 masterpiece “Dawn of the Dead,” but it’s still a satisfyingly splattery feast of guts and ideas. Though Universal isn’t flogging it half as aggressively as last year’s “Dawn” remake, pic should grope its way to killer B.O. with no small help from Romero cultists, whose devotion will be nothing short of zombielike.

The horror maestro has come a long way since the third film in the cycle, 1985’s “Day of the Dead,” and an even longer way since his seminal 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead.” This time around, Romero is playing with bigger stars and a higher (though still modest) budget of about $15 million, as well as a new shooting location (Toronto, instead of his native Pittsburgh).

That said, “Land” is a tour de force of not only independent filmmaking but independent thinking, rigorously worked out on all craft and technical levels yet enlivened by its twisted engagement with the real world.

Romero’s apocalyptic vision of an earth beset by endlessly self-perpetuating flesh-eaters remains as relevant and resonant as ever, and this time he’s even injected some not-so-subtle political invective into the proceedings. At one point Kaufman, a corrupt, gray-haired city official, declares, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” making this the second actioner in recent months, after “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” to lob a grenade in the direction of the White House.

The city in question is one of humankind’s last remaining holdouts, an island metropolis surrounded by water and electric fences that keep out the walking undead. Perched in a high tower that dominates the skyline, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, his brow furrowed with self-entitlement) owns everything and everyone in the exclusive community of Fiddler’s Green, advertised as the place “where life goes on,” and where upper-class citizens are admitted only via waiting list. Those still outside on the streets, meanwhile, are in the early stages of revolution.

Cholo, one of several soldiers sent out on rescue missions to bring back food and supplies, sets things in motion when Kaufman refuses to let him move into Fiddler’s Green. The disgruntled mercenary (a hot-headed John Leguizamo) promptly hijacks Dead Reckoning, an armored military vehicle that holds enough firepower to bomb out the city, which he threatens to do unless Kaufman meets his demands.

In response, Kaufman commissions Cholo’s superior Riley (Simon Baker) to recover the stolen tank, accompanied by sharpshooter sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy) and gold-hearted hooker Slack (Asia Argento, putting a tough-talking spin on a familiar role).

Tension between Riley and Cholo, effectively fleshed out by Baker and especially Leguizamo, reps only one of the story’s intriguing contrasts. Both guys want out of a nightmare situation, but where Riley hopes to start over away from civilization, social-climbing Cholo wants to retreat inside, into the ranks of the city’s elite.

Romero clearly has a lot on his mind, working through issues of class, segregation, individualism and personal responsibility. As always, the scenario eerily and amusingly mirrors the times: Astute viewers will laugh at how the undead phenomenon has already become commercial fodder in the form of theme-park-style attractions and bloodsports. More chillingly, the gleaming facade of Fiddler’s Green implies an entire nation struggling and failing to lead normal lives in a war zone, turning against itself in the process.

Most suggestive of all are the zombies themselves, who have become frighteningly resourceful and smart, having learned to communicate as well as use tools and weapons. Unlike the trendy, fast-moving denizens of the recent “Dawn” redux and “28 Days Later,” Romero’s walkers still shamble along slowly, yet with an increasingly purposeful gait that makes them seem all the more human. They also look more realistically undead than ever, thanks to pic’s ace makeup team (led by Greg Nicotero) and special contact lenses that lend their eyes a bluish, otherworldly glaze.

Pic’s ideas about continual evolution and advancement extend equally to the carnage, which for most auds will be “Land’s” ultimate test. And Romero rises to the occasion with a mastery, discipline and gleeful sense of invention that shows just how far a slim budget can go given the right sensibility. Fans of the trademark spewing, sausage-like intestines will be quite appeased; few will be prepared for the semi-decapitated zombie (emphasis on semi) or the ugly disadvantages of having a pierced navel (you’ve been warned).

Romero has a way of at once honoring and updating modern horror-pic conventions, relying more here on shock cuts (with super-sharp editing by Michael Doherty) and surprise zombie ambushes than the queasy claustrophobia that pervaded “Night” and “Dawn.” The upshot, happily, is a similarly blissful sense of unease.

Miroslaw Baszak’s nuanced lensing, finding endless varieties in a predominantly gray palette, accentuates Arvinder Grewal’s chilly production design at every turn. Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek’s score is serviceably grim, with repeated patterns that evoke the restless walk of the damned.

George A. Romero's Land of the Dead

Production

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures/Atmosphere Entertainment MM presentation of a Mark Canton-Bernie Goldmann and Romero-Grunwald production in association with Wild Bunch. Produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Peter Grunwald. Executive producers, Steve Barnett, Dennis E. Jones, Ryan Kavanaugh, Lynwood Spinks. Co-producer, Neil Canton. Directed, written by George A. Romero.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Miroslaw Baszak; editor, Michael Doherty; music, Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek; production designer, Arvinder Grewal; art director, Douglas Slater; set decorator, Marlene Puritt; costume designer, Alex Kavanagh; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Robert Fletcher; visual effects supervisor, Jeff Campbell; special effects supervisor, Brock Jolliffe; special effects makeup supervisor, Greg Nicotero; second unit director, Nicotero; stunt coordinator, Matt Birman; associate producers, Silenn Thomas, David Resnick; line producer, Dennis E. Jones; assistant director, Martin Walters; casting, Marci Liroff. Reviewed at CineVegas Film Festival (closer), June 18, 2005. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Riley - Simon Baker Cholo - John Leguizamo Slack - Asia Argento Charlie - Robert Joy Kaufman - Dennis Hopper Big Daddy - Eugene Clark No. 9 - Jennifer Baxter Butcher - Boyd Banks Pretty Boy - Joanne Boland Teahouse - Krista Bridges Pillsbury - Pedro Miguel Arce

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