Wednesday, October 26, 2005

MOVIES: Zombie-Rama Part 4, the grand finale -
"Land of the Dead"

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And so, appropriately enough just in time for Halloween, we come to the conclusion of our Zombie-Rama! To recap, a few months back I, a humble zombie virgin, embarked on a noble quest to see all of George Romero's classic "Living Dead" movies, one by one, and blog my novice's thoughts on them. First, I went back to the starting board, 1968's influential "Night of the Living Dead." Then I woke up for 1978's "Dawn of the Dead." Next, I had a fine old visit to 1985's "Day of the Dead.". Now, it's time to wrap it all up with "Land of the Dead"!

It has been an education. I have learned that being bitten by a zombie is unpleasant, that the human body can be torn into all kinds of gruesome pieces, what happens when a zombie meets a helicopter blade, and that a zombie with a machine gun is really not someone you want to encounter.

But all good brains must come to an end, and so this weekend I checked out the DVD of last spring's fourth and final (for now?) chapter, "Land of the Dead." Coming 20 years after the previous installment was released, it's a very different movie than the previous three -- a much higher budget, with actual Hollywood stars like Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo in featured roles. At the same time, it carries through on the social themes Romero has explored in the previous movies, with some interesting new twists.

It's some time after the "undead plague" broke out, and society as we know it is gone. The dead rule the Earth, except for isolated, barricaded refuges for normal humans. One of these societies is Fiddler's Green, a city where a rich businessman (Hopper) and fellow well-off folks live in privilege, safe and protected from the zombie menace. People will pay a great deal of money to get in Fiddler's Green, and there's a lot of tension between the rich, the poor scrounging on the outsides, and the military men who do the dirty work. Meanwhile, the zombies are starting to evolve, under the leadership of "Big Daddy," a zombie who has the disturbing ability to learn and even use tools.

"Dead" rushes by a bit fast, and while it's a fun zombie flick, it doesn't quite measure up to the 20-year gap -- I kind of wish Romero had gone all out, widened his canvas and really told an epic tale. There's glimpses of that epic here, but it's still a bit small (half the movie is about the chase for a truck, for cryin' out loud), and kind of a conventional action movie, lacking the darker edges of the previous three.

The evolution of the zombies may have offended some fans. Yet it's one of the things I admire about Romero, is that his zombie films aren't content to just stand still, that he's not merely interested in freaking us out and grossing us out. He keeps from rooting for either the humans or the zombies, showing us how warped both are. (Humans caging up zombies for amusement, or using them for "target practice," for instance.) The zombies here pine for and dimly remember their "normal lives," making their degrading feeding that much more forlorn an ending to come to.

The characters in "Land," as in most of the movies, are all fairly generic stereotypes, with Leguizamo probably giving the best performance. (But you have to love oddball Dennis Hopper, intoning lines like "Zombies, man. They give me the creeps.") The actor playing "Big Daddy," Eugene Clark, overacts a lot, but heck, it works for me (no man will ever win an Academy Award for playing a zombie, anyway).

Still, I have to admit, I liked a lot of "Land of the Dead" – I'd actually rate it as my second favorite of the group, after "Dawn of the Dead." It's fast-moving and delivers on the brain-chomping action with an apocalyptic finale as the dead have their vengeance on Fiddler's Green. As returns go, "Land" isn't a terrible sequel. If Romero ever makes a fifth "Dead" visit, I'm down for checking it out.

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