Monday, October 31, 2011
How The Other Half Lives
Coming a full twenty years after his last directorial excursion in zomebiedom with DAY OF THE DEAD and just over one year after the Zack Snyder helmed redo of his 1978 classic DAWN OF THE DEAD, George A. Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD was released at the end of June 2005, a film clearly inspired by the post-9/11 world that was then still taking shape. Just a few months after its release the events of Katrina seemed to give the film added potency and now over six years later the film has acquired yet another extra level of meaning with the events surrounding the Occupy Wall Street protests taking place. Watching this film at the time of Halloween 2011 in which both the living and the undead are seen to be existing under the thumb of those living high up in a glass tower led by Dennis Hopper (RIP) it was almost hard to think of anything else. A nice thought and one that certainly adds resonance to how it plays now but it still makes me wish that there was more to dig into the film to help support such a reading. It’s a shame that Romero’s career seemed to stall as much as it did during the 90s but as time goes on I wonder if his creative voice seemed most at home in the late 60s-70s anyway with the ever-popular CREEPSHOW (intentionally aping a comic style from an earlier era which in a way helped to make the movie timeless) the obvious exception. I recently saw KNIGHTRIDERS for the first time and was struck, almost moved, by how that film almost plays now as a defiant resistance towards moving on into the next decade when an unstoppable change to society was going to come for that film’s characters, a more drastic journey off into the void than wherever Ken Foree and Gaylen Ross are headed in that helicopter at the end of DAWN OF THE DEAD. In some ways, DAWN really is the ultimate Romero statement on zombies and the world they stagger through so any followup, whether 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD (which I like, but haven’t seen recently) or this film or any other spinoff could almost be seen as superfluous going over material that has already been covered thoroughly. Considering how long it took to happen LAND OF THE DEAD could be considered a sort of GODFATHER III or PHANTOM MENACE of the horror game but it didn’t have a pressing narrative to continue so what was really at stake was what it was going to say about how Romero looks at the world now. Overall, the film is a nice way to spend 90-plus minutes and though I think it gets better as it goes on my feelings about it aren’t that strong. I don’t know if it’s that crucial Romero made this film, or either of his other subsequent zombie films for that matter, but it’s nice that it’s there. Plus it has Asia Argento, always a big plus for me.
Some years after the rise of the walking dead many of the remaining humans are living in an encampment in Pittsburgh, protected on all sides by the rivers and electrified fences. Some of the wealthy live in a high rise known as Fiddler’s Green, which is run by the powerful Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) who is in charge of everything, including the life down below where the rest of the people are left to live in squalor. One of his employees Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) is also the designer of the Dead Reckoning a huge armored vehicle that can move through zombie-infested areas with ease so what remains in the outer world can still be looted and the residents of Fiddler’s Green can continue their high-toned lifestyles. Riley, along with buddy Charlie (Robert Joy) stays on Kaufman’s good side but also spends time dealing with those down below. Cholo (John Leguizamo), one of Riley’s men, has higher aspirations that his hard work will get him a spot in Fiddler’s Green but when Kaufman immediately spurns such an idea Cholo hijacks Dead Reckoning holding it for ransom, threatening to destroy the encampment. Kaufman enlists a reluctant Riley, who just wants to get out and get away, to get the vehicle back. Riley sets out with Charlie and Slack (Asia Argento) a woman he rescued from being torn apart by zombies in one of Kaufman’s pleasure palaces, but meanwhile a zombie known only as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is somehow finding a way to learn about what’s going on around him and is finding a way to mobilize his fellow zombies which soon enough leads them to the river surrounding Pittsburgh getting ever closer to the sanctuary that is Fiddler’s Green as Riley begins to put his own plan for escape into effect.
There are so many favorable things I could say about LAND OF THE DEAD from the punchy vividness of the characterizations to its display of Romero’s own thematic goals in its views of homelessness, post-9/11 fears and even comments on the U.S. inserting itself into other territories via shock & awe actions. And, it’s probably important to say, there’s some pretty decent zombie action and gore all through the film with a fair amount of disarming humor—like a brief shot of Spam being prepared seems like a nice callback to a certain dialogue exchange way back in DAWN and some particularly good dialogue throughout, especially Hopper’s “In a world where the dead are returning to life the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.” Which makes me wish all the more that the film, on which Romero has sole screenplay credit, had a stronger story—I guess Dead Reckoning is a cool vehicle but does so much of the movie have to be about it? The degree that the actual plot feels minor is one way that LAND OF THE DEAD feels like only one chapter in an ongoing story and I’m not even specifically referring to the other Romero films in the series but it still feels like it could use more resonance, more things happening that could really focus on the characters as they deal with the continued threat. The post-zombie apocalypse world presented is intriguing but the way so much of is set out in some kind of wasteland in the dead of night isn’t all that visually interesting with maybe too much of an emphasis on a ROAD WARRIOR-heavy metal feel in Kaufman’s slums. Fiddler’s Green is never really established as much as it should be to become a character itself and not much is ever done to display Kaufman’s power over the place and its surroundings—Hopper isn’t even introduced until around the half-hour mark and much of his screentime is spent up in his luxury suite anyway.
LAND OF THE DEAD is compact in its plotting and no complaints about that—there’s no federal law that says a Romero zombie film has to be an epic the length of DAWN—but unfortunately that leaves no time to really get to know the characters and that alone makes it feel like kind of a comedown after what’s come before. And set during such a tight timeframe—it’s almost easy for me to forget that it doesn’t all take place over one night—it really doesn’t allow for much in the way of fleshed-out characterizations anyway. Fitting for a film which begins with an old-school Universal logo, LAND OF THE DEAD feels like the most traditional ‘Hollywood’ film that Romero has ever made with its ragtag group that we follow feeling more a product of the Howard Hawks school than he’s ever done before. The effect is enjoyable but it still feels like something is missing, maybe how Romero was truly able to do something unique with the unknowns in Pittsburgh he was directing once up on a time. Here, as enjoyable as they might be at times, they seem like actors in a movie.
Much of the film is certainly put together in an efficient fashion with a frame that is always active—I believe it’s the only time Romero has ever shot in Scope which in itself seems unlike him since he’s always come off as a director more interested in the process of montage than in paying attention to such precise framing that Scope brings to the table. In comparison this film contains several scenes that seem to start and end abruptly which makes the pacing problematic so the over all effect at times is maybe a little too colorless with a certain feel of disengagement evident. As would be expected for him, Romero seems genuinely interested in observing the characters working together which makes me wonder how much the scale of all this didn’t interest him as much as he thought it might, what with it requiring all sorts of coverage of action, close-up inserts of things like hands shifting gears and maybe more gunplay than I wish it had. It is slick, yes (I’m not sure how you can make a movie in today’s world and not have it be slick to some extent), but I’m not sure anyone ever was attracted to Romero’s films because of how slick they were. On a storytelling level it feels a little lopsided, spending maybe more time than necessary on its opening sequence out in the real world with the team being sent off on what’s basically the mission of the movie at approximately the halfway mark of a ninety-odd minute running time so it plays more than a little like a movie that starts, moves almost immediately to the climax and then it ends. (Note: I saw the film on opening night but the version on DVD I’ve known since is the unrated cut which adds some gore, has one full additional sequence involving Leguizamo’s character and makes some minor editorial changes as well. There’s a listed difference of four minutes in the running time but the two versions can’t be said to be drastically different from one another.)
In spite of the large cast of humans it still feels like Romero is most interested in Big Daddy as he leads his ever-growing throngs across the River towards Fiddler’s Green, rising from the water in CARNIVAL OF SOULS style in some of the film’s most powerful imagery and when they crashing through the windows of the glass tower as Kaufman screams, “You have no right!” the moment means something now more than ever. It’s clear that’s where the director’s sympathies lie even more than the good guys and it is a potent array of imagery of these walking corpses joining forces and gathering weapons while the guys in suits way up high pick their noses but the actual setting of Fiddler’s Green isn’t established much one way or another beyond a vague awareness that these people are still dining in a lifestyle of luxury while the world smolders in the ashes around them. It makes sense—all Kaufman cares about is the profits, not bothering to consider what an antiquated concept this is and presumably he’ll be in power as long as that still means something. Those not let into the Green are counted on to simply spend their money to keep this meager shred of capitalism going and the ‘stenches’ are just ignored as a nuisance. Either way, the strategy is just to keep them outside. Fuck ‘em. Who cares. Which all makes sense. There just needs to be more.
But like I said, the film does improve as it goes along—the pacing is tight even if I sometimes wish that the focus could be on other things and while the ultimate statement the film makes about its individuals and their relationship to the zombies is nowhere near as willfully incendiary on the subject as Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” episode for the MASTERS OF HORROR series the argument could be made that’s not the film Romero is trying to make anyway. It’s an efficiently told genre piece with a political and personal bent that is undeniably admirable but I wish it had a few of those odd touches which would make it into more than it is, the guy at the beginning of DAWN awkwardly declaring “Our responsibility is finished,” or the eternal argument from NIGHT over whether they should stay upstairs and fight or lock themselves down in the basement. I like it, but maybe those touches which are such a large part of why those movies have in a way become such acclaimed classics and maybe that’s what LAND OF THE DEAD is missing more than anything. One other thing that sticks out now is the desire of some of the characters to make their way up north to Canada away to get away from all this madness. (“There’s nothing up north.” “That’s the idea.”). It’s a little odd considering the film was actually shot in Canada, not Pittsburgh where it’s set and where Romero had become famous for making these movies. It manages to become part of the subtext, of Romero by necessity abandoning the world where he was king in favor of something else in order to keep going, to finally make another film after so many years out of the game. The end sort of makes sense that way, as expressing the belief of a filmmaker who, much as his characters are, is still looking for a place to go, for movies that he hopefully can still make. As they drive off in Dead Reckoning the characters have some kind of hope and it feels like that optimism has been earned.
Part of my fondness for the film admittedly has to do with seeing Dennis Hopper in the audience at the Arclight on opening night. His presence carries a definite weight with it from various points of his iconic status—while doing press for the film he was fully aware how both NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and EASY RIDER were key films of the late-60s zeitgeist and his latter day political leanings affect how it plays as well, with his portrayal of Kaufman apparently modeled on Donald Rumsfeld. He deliberately seems to underplay things until his last moments (and, really, everything about his final sequence works great) and his very presence carries a great deal of weight to it, just from him quietly smiling at a few points although I still wish he wasn’t locked up in his suite most of the time. Simon Baker seems engaged with the material and he does come off as likable but still feels too clean cut to be this guy in this world. John Leguizamo’s wiry energy fits in somewhat better and he’s just more fun to watch, making me imagine a massive rewrite combining the two male leads to make Cholo the focus. Baker does work well with his costars including Asia Argento who is pretty great in a role that seems designed to just be along for the ride and not much else. She may be The Girl but she brings her undeniable presence to the part all the way through and besides, isn't Asia Argento supposed to be in this movie anyway? Her acting style adds to all the shorthand so the unspoken chemistry she shares with Baker plays right from when they first look at each other and seem to know immediately they’re going to be a couple, a Hawksian beat which is all we need to be told about their relationship. I could write several more paragraphs on what I think about her but I’ve probably done that before anyway. The underrated Robert Joy also plays well off both of them as Charlie, bringing a needed likable quality to much of the film and selling his unstable confidence when he insists on what guns are the ones he needs. Eugene Clark is extremely imposing during both loud and quiet moments as Big Daddy. As zombie characterizations go I’m not sure how it could work better although I still think his makeup looks a little too much like obvious zombie makeup. Actually, a number of the bit actors and zombie extras are given small moments here and there to make an impression—also in there are Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright who cameo as zombies as does Tom Savini turning up quickly as his biker from DAWN OF THE DEAD, in surprisingly good condition after all this time.
The writer-director credit for Romero over the three zombies still defiantly playing instruments in a town square gazebo may be an indication that he’s fully aware of how long he’s been doing this sort of thing, but maybe also that it’s become such a part of who he is as a filmmaker that there’s nothing he can do to change that. He doesn’t seem to mind it either. The two films he’s made since, DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, are more obviously a stab at going back to the low budget roots he came from and that doesn’t necessarily make them automatically better but it does seem like that approach is something he’s more comfortable with. Regardless, I still like LAND OF THE DEAD, even if some of its problems are still there even when I try to will them away, but enough of the movie has a power of the sort that only Romero still knows how to do, continuing the ongoing narrative of humans going up against the walking dead that has now lasted for decades. Plus it has Asia Argento. Which will always be a plus for me. I sat down to write about LAND OF THE DEAD because it’s Halloween but I also knew that some of what was drawing me to it had to do with other things going on out there in the real world. So maybe I wound up focusing on parts of it that didn’t simply have to do with being just a horror film, no matter how impressive some of those gore effects as the zombies rip people apart might be. Of course, focusing on some of those other things is one of the reasons why we have horror films anyway.