At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Land of the Dead “05”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/Stars: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark, Joanne Boland, Tony Nappo, Jennifer Baxter, Boyd Banks, Jasmin Geljo, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Tony Munch, Shawn Roberts, Pedro Miguel Arce, Sasha Roiz, Krista Bridges, Bruce McFee, Phil Fondacaro, Alan van Sprang, Earl Pastko, Peter Outerbridge, Gene Mack, Devon Bostick, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, Tom Savini, Gregory Nicotero/ Runtime: 97 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review by pointing out how, equipped with a bigger budget than the first three movies in his legendary ….of the Dead series could have ever dreamed of seeing, iconic film helmer George A. Romero’s eagerly awaited 4th chapter, which came our way 2 decades after Day of the Dead in 1985, was a slice of cinematic pie that was looked at with pretty high expectations and even higher eager borderline ravenous anticipation by those who loved the first three. I mean it’s not that hard to see why dear reader: after all Romero had managed to prove he was absolutely brilliant in making every dollar that was given to the first 3 movies work to the film’s benefit whilst also placing the riveting narrative before any other considerations. To that end, it should be noted that whilst Day of the Dead would easily prove to be the weak link in the first three movies, it did do at least 2 things right. Indeed not only did give us a riveting look at mankind trying to make its way in this world filled with the undead, but it continued the excellent social commentary provided by the first 2 in its showcasing of the human-caused anarchy and chaos to say nothing of the degrading of sanity and/or common sense in the face of a wide-scale tragedy.  Suffice it to say that whilst in this movie those riveting concepts are still at play, Romero makes the brilliant decision to go even more in-depth on the previous movies’ lore, give several actors of some renown fairly big roles to play, and present us with a world now trying to move on whilst in a city that looks more like a federal prison as the undead do the loop de loo outside its walls. Thus I guess the question really does become: does the addition of play money, actors you might know, riveting as always work in the special effects department, and significantly updated set work make for a better entry than even the first 2 in this iconic saga? Welllll….in some ways yes, but in a lot of other (and more integral) ways no. Is this a bad movie though? Not even close. Indeed Land of the Dead might not be on the same level as Night of the Living Dead from ’68 or Dawn of the Dead in ’78, but this is also in no way a disappointment. Rather it is actually an engaging and riveting ride that manages to earn its place in this celebrated legacy whilst also being by and large its own thing.

The plot is as follows: Land of the Dead takes us back to a world where the dead have come back to make our lives a living nightmare. Yet although it has been quite a while since the undead began menacing humanity, it seems that we have in the interim actually made an attempt to try and get past it and in the process create a world for ourselves that, despite being more secure, looks and feels more like willing imprisonment due to our attempts to keep out the masses of undead who would love nothing more than to have us for one of their 3 square meals a day. To that end, it would appear that with the look and feel of a modern day Alcatraz the “city” of Fiddler’s Green really is the safest locale in this world for anyone who is still human to reside. Tragically, it would appear that how it looks isn’t all that it’s cracked to be since the real nemesis to mankind’s continual survival might just be in the city at this very moment. To that end, we see such a renegade emerge in the form of a guy with extreme delusions self-importance by the name of Cholo as he manages to take over a state-of-the-art survival vehicle known as the Dead Reckoning, and threaten to take down a good chunk of the town including the estate of town “mayor” one Mr. Kaufman if he is not given proper financial compensation. To that end, we see that a desperate and anxious Kaufman is quick to enlist the aid of the creator of the vehicle, a guy by the name of Riley, to help him in getting ahold of both Cholo and the vehicle before the hordes of undead residing outside the city are able to get in and overrun it. Yet whilst all of this is going on, we see that undead outside the city seem to be gaining in intelligence as they, whilst being led by one zombie in particular known as Big Daddy, begin to formulate a plan of their own to unleash a strike on Fiddler’s Green that could prove decisive: not just for the town, but for the fate of mankind as well….

Now it should be noted that Land of the Dead really is a quite organic step forward in just how society would progress in the event of the dead rising again. Indeed, as shown in the film, those who are still human have to depend on basic yet potent tech in order to ensure their survival including living in a, for all intents and purposes, fort surrounded by a perimeter made of electric fencing. I mean don’t get me wrong: the people in this film are residing in a combat zone and if this slice of cinematic pie has taught me anything it’s that even during combat against hordes of a mindless foe who just wants to eat you more than anything, the ability to think things through is not as much an ace in the hole as people would like it to be. This is because people far too often would much rather think about not just surviving, but also because we would rather serve ourselves rather than stand with others against a relentless foe. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: this series of zombie flicks has always dealt with showcasing both the good and the bad of the human condition and this slice of cinematic pie is no exception as well those still human have chosen to concentrate their efforts on being rich in a world where that really doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Plus, we are also treated to moments where we see people trying to get back to as normal of a life as possible and deny that there is combat going on outside the city due to a numerous and brutal foe wanting to get in and utterly annihilate everyone still human. Thus, more than anything, I think that this entry in the Dead films is really trying to suggest that if we as people wish to survive in this topsy-turvy world then we need to abandon our senses of complacency and greed. Otherwise it might mean doom and not just for us, but potentially for everyone else as well…

It is also worth noting that in this slice of cinematic pie, iconic film helmer George Romero has even managed to squeeze in the continual evolution of the undead in a manner that is actually fairly well-thought out. What I mean by this is if you are among those who have seen the first three movies, the undead actually manage to go through evolution quite like any other species on this planet. Suffice it to say that in this slice of cinematic pie then the growth the undead goes through not only sees them actually operate with a fair degree of intelligence, but it is also able to insert itself perfectly as the next step in the chain that has unfolded up to that point in time. Indeed in Dawn of the Dead, we were witnesses to the undead congregating at the mall with hints thrown out that, despite being dead, these creatures still were able to retain memories from when they were alive hence them gathering at the mall. Day of the Dead meanwhile saw us introduced to a member of the undead known as “Bub” who was able to astonish us, and the human characters, due to being able to remember how to do a proper salute alongside the utilization of a gun, a phone, and even headphones. To that end, we see that Land of the Dead keeps this trek up the chain of evolution alive courtesy of moments where we get to witness the undead being able to not only use objects as weapons, but also be able to fire a gun, pump gas, or even work in a unit to overcome a challenge.

Now despite having quite an eclectic cast that were far and away bigger names than any of the other films in this series had to date, the cast is also intriguing in that they are all over the place in regards to how development they are given and how well their arcs will resonate with you, the viewer. Indeed in arguably the lead role of Riley, Simon Baker is a decent protagonist who is sadly stricken with no real narrative path through this slice of cinematic pie. I mean yes his role in this integral to the narrative, but other than contributing a cool and collected individual in a moment of crisis and also contributing his tech knowledge that proves to come in handy, he just seems like an ordinary guy. Yet in all fairness, I guess I shouldn’t gripe that much about him seeing as his character is more realistic than a Stallone or Norris type who just comes in, mows all the dead down with a mini-gun, says some quippy one-liner, and then flies off into the sunset on a helicopter. With that being noted then, I guess it’s odd for me to say this, but I thought that the character in this portrayed by John Leguizamo was actually the most intriguing of the bunch. Yes his motives throughout are rooted in both greed and moving on up in the world, but it really is difficult for me not to full on despise a guy who is as skilled as he is at shooting the undead right in the head. That and it really is fun seeing someone actually get under the skin and royally irritate the heck out of a character played by Dennis Hopper for once. Speaking of…..much in the same vein as Leguizamo’s character in this, Hopper’s Kaufman is a character that is rooted in both financial riches and his iron fist in a world where these things aren’t that important as they used to be. Suffice it to say then that where both Hopper and Leguizamo wind up in this film really is an intriguing and riveting cautionary tale about the peril of being so single-minded especially when dealing with a foe whose single-minded obsession is no more and no less than making you into an entrée.

All in all it should be noted that Land of the Dead, despite being more financially endowed than the films in this “series” that came before it, is not the best this “series” has sought fit to give us. That is an honor which now, and most likely always, will stay entrenched with the one-two punch that is Night of the Living Dead in ’68 and Dawn of the Dead in  ’78 respectively. Yet that doesn’t mean this film is terrible; actually I would say this is a wonderful addition to this iconic group of films. Indeed not only does it feature a surprisingly logical evolution of the world that was set up in the first 3, but it also brings a fairly decent narrative and amount of visceral gore to the table as well. To that end, it should be noted that this slice of cinematic pie will work at its best if you are among those who have seen the other zombie movies that Romero helmed since you above all will be able to appreciate just where this narrative is in the larger expanse of the franchise. Yet even if you have never seen a “….of the Dead” film helmed by Romero before this one, I think it is safe to say that you will find quite a bit to relish here also. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: Land of the Dead truly is at the end of the day a wonderful little slice of horror cinema with enough guts, buckets of blood, and gonzo action to keep you riveted and entertained time and time again. On a scale of 1-5 I give Land of the Dead “05” a solid 3.5 out of 5.