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george a romero

For all the zombie movies released over the years, George A. Romero’s “Dead” series has always been held in high acclaim. Night of the Living Dead gave birth to this new genre, and horror staple, of the dead, returning to live seeking the living for sustenance. As grotesque as the subject matter is, it caught on and spawned dozens and dozens of sequels, rip-offs, and re-imaginings. To be fair, it’s hard to top the architect of anything. The stigma of sequels never living up to their predecessors has stuck around for a very long time, and only in the pas few years has that claim been seriously challenged with great films like Spider-Man 2, and Batman Begins. Romero did it twice after the original Night of the Living Dead with the masterpiece Dawn of the Dead and follow-up Day of the Dead.

When films like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead bring new elements (zombies at full speed) and new genre-crossovers can the father of the zombie movie still shine in the world he helped create? Well, sort of.

Land of the Dead, the fourth film in the series, brings along everything we have come to expect from a Romero film. The gore factor is certainly there, especially still using old movie-making techniques and resisting the urge to go CGI-happy. Sure, CGI is a great complimentary element to be added into a film, but no one does gore like Romero and fake blood.

What is missing, however, is the character development which brought Dawn of the Dead to life in the late 1970’s. That film, which featured four survivors in a shopping mall, had plenty of time to introduce characters to us, show how they interact with each other, who-likes-who, who-doesn’t-like-who, and these were all elements of characterization that brought the film to life and separated it from the schlock. Land does an admirable job of showing us a variety of characters, but they’re all ones we’ve seen before. With characters like the leader looking to escape from his current job and move on, the opportunistic guy who’ll never be accepted, the streetwalker looking to do something more, and the maniacal ruler of the land. Add them together with some sloppy dialog and you have yourself a good zombie film, but one that doesn’t feel as complete or whole as Romero’s previous work.

The last surviving humans have taken refuge on a peninsula of sorts, bordered by water on two sides, and heavily fortified land on the other, these remnants of the human race feel safe. Overseen by the creepy Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the rich live in an extravagant skyscraper with all the finest luxuries while the poor suffer on the streets turning tricks and calling for an uprising. Riley (Simon Baker from CBS’s The Guardian) sees his last night acquiring supplies turn deadly as a man takes his own life after being bitten by the zombies, how have taken over most of the country. Taking over the job of commanding Dead Reckoning, a massive tank-like vehicle built by Riley, is Cholo (John Leguizamo) who ends up stealing the vehicle and holding the city ransom. On the other end of the spectrum is the zombie element who are “led” by a service station attendant who appears to be able to communicate with the mindless drones shuffling about. He brings them to the fortified city in hopes of a fresh, warm meal.

While I’ll buy the stupid human tricks that still prevail even at times of adversity, I simply cannot fully grasp the change in the zombie nomenclature by having them communicate, learn to shoot guns, and coordinate a massive attack. We’ve seen the fast zombies of 28 Days Later, and while those in Land of the Dead remain at half-speed, the points mentioned above just don’t work for me. I remember almost wanting to laugh out loud at the grunts and such that would pass off as a zombie language. This, coupled with the happy, sunshine-time ending, rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as The Matrix Revolutions revolting ending, but it certainly didn’t feel as though a man content with killing off main character after main character in his movies had directed this one.

Overall I thought Land of the Dead was a well constructed zombie movie with almost none of the spark that made Romero famous. The nods to his earlier works are funny, and the script has a certain amount of humor to it but the changing of the zombie dynamics and the film’s ending leave it slightly above average when it had a chance to be truly great.