Outstreched arm

Friday, June 24, 2005

Home Of the Grave, Land of The Dead

First you're introduced to The Skeleton Key, a voodoo-based horror set in Louisiana's Terrebonne county, where monsters of epistemology lurk ("if you believe it, it's real.") Then, as if Romania wasn't scary enough in itself, you find out that there's a monster in The Cave before you can chuckle at the word "spelunking." At the end of this trailer there's a post-title "zinger" with the monster jumping out for a milisecond. The woman sitting next to me in the theater didn't see it coming - I don't really understand how - and literally started to sob from fright.

She should have saved it for when the Man gets the screen for himself - George "A." Romero (not to be confused with George Jebediah Romero.) Before even seeing Land of The Dead, before I even had to worry about whether it would be a Bruiser-style train wreck (hey, Truffaut had his Fahrenheit 451), I had no doubts about the outrage one should feel at the fact that no one would finance Romero's work today. A lousy $15 million he ended up with - for a post-apocalyptic action flick. Boo.

And yes, it's an action flick. While the premise is that the zombies have started either waking up to some of their pre-death abilities or perhaps the really dumb ones have been weeded out first, the humans are also much more prepared now. As in Day of The Dead, they've made a daily practice of taking care of the "stenches", as they call them. It doesn't hurt that this time, they have on their side a gargantuan "truck" called Dead Reckoning; it makes the pimped ride from the Dawn remake look like a Matchbox toy. It's piloted by Riley, a man with a conscience, and Cholo (John Leguizamo in, thankfully, anti-Spawn mode) who aspires to join the white fatcats living inside Fiddler's Green, which is something like the mall from Dawn if it had first been stumpled upon by Donald Trump. This mini-Manhattan is run by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper in, thankfully, anti-Waterworld mode.)

There are two main ideas here: the basic struggle between the surviving haves and havenots, a Lord of The Flies-like observation that no matter how you restart humanity, you end up with the same 1980s' USA. This is complicated by the growing danger of the outsiders, the zombies - as always with Romero, the conflicting human factions don't unite against the common enemy. The political allegory is not multi-faceted or insightful, but it doesn't need to be. This is an Undead flick: it's enough that Hopper gets to say, "we don't negotiate with terrorists." The more personal lines are also more original - when Cholo is bitten and offered to be shot before he zombifies, he replies, "No, I've always wanted to see how the other half lives."

The special effects are easily the best of any Dead film; there is some CGI, but it's very, very subtle. Romero can still think up the most messed-up wounds, bites, disfigurations, and zombie attacks. At one point, an arm is torn in half starting between the index and middle finger on the hand; absolutely goddamn awful. Yay. The scares are mostly visceral, but the overall situation in which the humans find themselves is also very unsettling if you can empathize. Simon Baker (Riley) helps with this. When he mentions that he's shot his undead brother, Asia Argento (hey, she's in this - what am I thinking??) remarks, "I thought you said nothing bad happened to you."

"No, that happened to my brother." Simple, but it works.

Several things will happen among the "fans" (i.e. alt.nerd.obsessive): they will bemoan the polished look, as if Romero should now do what people wanted of I. M. Pei: a pastiche that denies all technological and aesthetic development since the original work; they will also groan over the smarter zombies, as if this wasn't a crucial part of the original design.

The one major complaint I have is about the film length - at 93 minutes, it feels like a 3" sub. I'm sure this was a studio requirement, so I won't blame Romero. I like his writing; heck, even, Bruiser had great little elements - and I'd like to see him try another Martin. The showing of Land I went to see was sold out; maybe George can finally try a real production, or at least a comfortably financed one. He deserves it.

Added: Just watched Night again, and there's a particular type of criticism I'd like to direct at Day and Land: they end on odd, sequel-baiting notes. Night was absolutely shocking in its promise of global salvation and utter destruction of personal hope; Dawn was initially supposed to end with the hero's suicide, but even as currently given, it provides only a pathetic, desperate kind of rescue, as the helicopter glides over endless zombie-covered terrain. In Land, our protagonists may or may not find safe ground, but we've been here before. This is where another 15-20 minutes really could have helped. That said, it's still a fabulously enjoyable horror flick, and given the choice between a profitable but simple movie, and a ballsy but financially risky one, I'd opt for one that made Romero some dough - l'art pour l'argent for once.

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