Following the successful revival of the big budget zombie film with recent hit and misses such as the (unwelcome but watchable) 'Dawn of the Dead' remake and the (immensely entertaining) 'Shaun of the Dead', it was with the news that Universal had signed up with undead filmmaking legend George A Romero to deliver the hotly anticipated latest instalment of his zombie series that genre fans rightly went into overexcited mode.
Myself, since the launch of home video I've been a massive fan of Romero's output. 'Night of the Living Dead' was a revelation - I never dreamed that what I perceived would simply be a creaking old black and white drive-in ghoul movie would in fact on first viewing be an exercise in gory atmospheric terror. With 'Dawn of the Dead' I found a film that both excited me with it's fast bloody action and ability to send viewers into a believably all consuming apocalyptic world that would have you leaving it's viewing experience with a sense of having just viewed a true 'classic' movie (and that's even without going into the detail of how this was the first time for me as a young viewer I discovered that even horror movies could have a 'meaning' with its social commentary). 'Dawn' was quickly to become my all-time favourite genre movie (and deservedly so). By the time 'Day of the Dead' appeared I was front of the queue on it's theatrical release watching it enthralled in a dark hushed cinema, again consumed by the visceral escapism of Romero's undead world.
So after years of waiting, and in honesty believing that another Romero 'Living Dead' movie ever being made to be the stuff of dreams, I entered the Edinburgh International Festival press screening of 'Land of the Dead' full of nervous excitement and self assuredness that at long last Romero was about to take me back once again to his fantastic all consuming undead world. How crushingly wrong I was.
With 'Land of the Dead', George Romero has joined the growing list of once great genre directors who look now to have fallen by the wayside. In fact, with 'Land of the Dead' we get a film that is so uninspired and derivative of so much that has gone before and delivered in such a slap dash manner that fans like myself must question just how much more loyalty can we be expected to place in a once great filmmaker.
The basic scenario is that a two tiered society of human 'survivors' have barricaded themselves in an small city (cannily cut off by a surrounding river); the wealthy half of the survivors are holed up in the 'Fiddler's Green' tower block mall/apartments under the corporate (baddy) leadership of Dennis Hopper, the poorer downtrodden half of society live a poor mans Mad Max type existence in the ghetto area outwith the opulent corporate tower block. The supplies needed to continue feeding all comes from sporadic raids on the outlying zombie infested cities by a team of crack troops in their 'Dead Reckoning' super tank. Cue unrest from the less fortunate citizens, much clichéd corporate cackling from Hopper and sporadic zombie action from the intermittent raid set pieces.
Whilst this basic premise may seem on paper to have the capabilities to deliver the goods it's with the sad fact that on every level its delivery fails that will ultimately have genre fans questioning just how Romero could get it so wrong?
The writing is on the wall from the very opening sequences; following a slap dash opening titles that is filled with vox pops informing us that "by the way, the dead have come back to life" the first shot shows the camera panning through a park to show us that zombies come in every form. Compare this to the opening shots of each previous Romero 'Living Dead' movies; 'Night' had the eerie graveyard sequence, 'Dawn' had the apocalyptic TV studio chaos and 'Day' had the chilling setting of the dead having won the monopoly of population overload - 'Land' has a zombie playing a tambourine!?
The film then goes on to plagiarise a variety of previous middling genre fare; the ghetto scenario of the human survivors, particularly so in the scene where we are first introduced to Asia Argento's character, resembles something from a poor man's Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome; the larger scenario of both the 'Dead Reckoning's super tank and it's theft and then sought return plays like a inverse take on fare like 'Damnation Alley' and more so 'Escape From New York'. But 'Land of the Dead' doesn't even stand up to those inevitably superior (and more original) genre movies.
The acting throughout is extremely wooden and poorly delivered by all involved (at times you think the actors are reading dialogue from cue cards that they hadn't seen before); in fact as the film progresses you start to wonder whether Romero specifically wanted his cast to act their parts in a truly hammy comic book stylee - but this is obviously not the case. I suppose it doesn't help when the scripted dialogue is so truly woeful; at times Hopper and others are asked to deliver lines that should never have got past the script editing stages ("We do not negotiate with terrorists!" Well what about with zombies?) and if plot wise we are supposed to find some sort of social commentary then it's as well delivered as someone throwing a half brick through a shop window. At times, the so called subtle commentaries play like some sort of gung ho God Bless America jingoistic nonsense (in light of recent real life terrorist activity "I'll get all Jihad on his ass!") and in the closing section of the film you'll find yourself appalled by dreadful imagery that looks to be making links between the human slaughter by zombies to the real horrifying slaughter of Jews in nazi concentration camps during World War 2 (take note of the scene of the humans waiting to be slaughtered against the barbed fences to see exactly what I mean - a scene that I was expecting to be followed by a chorus of 'We Are The World' or some other vomit inducing schmaltz). Worst of all (for sheer cringe inducing terror) witness the scene where the films hero stops a colleague from blowing up a slew of zombies decrying "they're just looking for somewhere to go like us" - terrible, just terrible.
Splatter fans are perhaps the only few who will be able to find any wish to view this car crash of a movie, but even they may inevitably disappointed too. The 'lead' zombie Big Daddy whilst giving us some moments of undead interest just plays like a slightly savvier black version of the legendary Bub from 'Day' - but plays (again like the rest of the ensemble cast) like a simplified cartoon version of his much more superior (and classier) predecessor. There are a few nice touches of splattery fun throughout but surprisingly nothing that we haven't seem before in every other undead movie in recent years. Hopefully something that may be enhanced with the impending 'unrated' DVD release.
Ultimately, 'Land of the Dead' is perhaps the film that should not have been made. Romero's Living Dead 'trilogy' should have remained just that. Whilst some corners of the genre community may be much more forgiving (well hey, I suppose it's only a damn zombie movie after all), in the big picture 'Land of the Dead' does not deserve to share the same glory that its vastly superior predecessors justly deserve. The film has no soul, no originality and just enough gore to keep your interest but inevitably as the end credits roll you'll feel like you've just watched a failed TV pilot movie or a half assed multiplex teen filler that's primed for all the quick buck franchising it can get it's hands on (the computer game is already in the works). A return to form for Romero? Sadly not, yet another example of the demise of another of the so-called 'Masters of Horror'. For long time fans like myself, 'Land of the Dead' is woefully lacklustre and crushingy disappointing. Avoid the stampede to theatrical screenings and wait (if you must) for the 'unrated' DVD release instead.
Review by Alan Simpson
|Directed by George A Romero|
|Released by Universal|