Saturday, February 04, 2006

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead (3.5/5)

Horror movies almost always make money. It's an easy formula: create a monster, cast attractive people, and then have the monster kill them. All you really have to do is make people jump once or twice and your job's finished. It's also why most horror films are terrible. Land of the Dead, while not perfect, manages to be a unique horror film, because it believes horror movies can do something other than make people jump in their seat, although it does that too.

Land of the Dead is the fourth film in George A. Romero's Dead series. While the previous films involved the eventual decline of civilization, this film revolves around the last remnants of humanity trying to create a new civilization. The only problem is that the new civilization looks a lot like the old. In fact, it looks a lot like ours. Land of the Dead is a straight ahead allegory. It's not quite a mirror image of today's political climate, but it's awfully close. This is both a strength and weakness of Land of the Dead.

The plot revolves around a group of raiders who make a living going into the outlining suburbs and ransacking them for supplies. After a night of raiding, Cholo (John Leguizamo) decides that it's his last. He wants to buy his way into Fiddler's Green, a high rise building where all of the affluent live surrounded by the poor throngs, like Cholo, who work for them. When the owner of Fiddler's Green, Kaufman (Dennis Hoffman), makes it clear isn'tt Cholo isn't the kind of person who can live at Fiddler's Green (as Kaufman will say later on, a "spick bastard"), Cholo steals Kaufman's specialized armor vehicle Dead Reckoning. Cholo threatens to fire off Dead Reckoning's missiles at Fiddler's Green if he isn't paid five-million by midnight. Riley, one of Cholo's fellow raiders, is enlisted by Kaufman to find Cholo and stop him before the midnight deadline.

Oh, and there's a side plot about the zombies (often called stenchers) starting to gain the ability to think.

The analogy is there for anyone looking. Cholo starkly states that he's performing "jihad," and when he hears the demands Kaufman says he doesn't "negotiate with terrorists." Romero is examining how marginalizing certain groups causes dissatisfaction and anger to boil over into violence. There are many examples of this around the world, and one of the most recent were the riots in France. While Romero never asks us to like Cholo, he does expect us to understand why he's doing what he's doing.

I enjoy it when escapist fair tackles more serious subject matter. While they can never truly probe the problems as deeply as a more dramatic piece, the effect of recontextualizing real world problems in a fantasy setting can help us see things in a new light. It may never give us answers, but may help us tackle a problem from the flank rather than head on. There's a certain amount of catharcis in seeing such serious issues cut to their essence and treated as escapism. Such a blatantly political theme in a horror movie is brave to say the least.

The problem with the film is also its strength. At times the allegory becomes stretched. A ready example is when Riley chooses not to fire on a band of zombies because they're just trying to "find their way." I know the zombies are there to symbolize the marginalized people outside of our boarders, but c'mon, they're fucking zombies! Hell, they were just eating people! Maybe Romero feels that his message is too urgent not to shove it in our face, and while I can understand this proposition I feel it hurts his art. Romero was able to insert his political message into Dawn of the Dead in a less labored manner.

That being said, Romero does a fine job of creating a world out of a tiny budget. Seeing how much people can do with a small budget used to be one of the highlights of horror films. Would The Evil Dead be as good if you didn't know that it was filmed in a few months with virtually no budget and no experienced filmmakers? Now that horror movies are becoming less ambitious and special effects cheaper, I haven't seen a movie try and stretch a budget anymore. Romero does a fine job and adds a few details here and there that show you why he's so good in the first place. The first shot in the film is a diner sign spelling "eats." It's a clever bit of dark humor in a film about flesh-eating zombies. This may seem like an odd thing to say, but the gore is gleeful in its excess. When an army officer tries to throw a grenade, a zombie chops off his arm causing him to fall onto his own explosive and blow up. It's deliciously twisted. There are several scenes of gore that are painful to watch not because of the amoung of blood, but because they focus on things you could imagine actually hurting. You'll know them when you see them. Romero goes out of his way to show us things we've never seen in a zombie movie before.

While not on the level of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead should satisfy Romero fans. It's almost enough for me to forget the awful Dawn of the Dead remake. If Romero is back in the game, then hopefully other horror movies will try and keep up.

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