Also, as a fan I had met Romero on a few occasions and found him to be a pretty open and friendly guy.
So I went into the theater SOO wanting to love this movie. Having been sorely disappointed by crap like RESIDENT EVIL and it's eventual afterbirth, I wanted to see a movie where the master returned to smack all the young turks upside the head and show them how to do it right! The tagline for the movie even read: The Legendary Filmmaker Brings You His Ultimate Zombie Masterpiece. This wasn't meant to be anything other than the supreme Dead film!
LAND OF THE DEAD opens with an abandoned gas station. Two people are watching the place carefully. A man walks out and, due to his stilted nature of walking, you can see that he's a zombie before you even get a good look at his face. The zombie goes up to one of the gas pumps, removes the handle and hose, and attempts to use it. There is no gas, and he's not near a vehicle. But he's still going through the motions. Remember, the zombies we saw from earlier movies were absolutely clueless as to what a gun was: holding it without the slightest knowledge of what it could do. This zombie is remembering. The zombies are changing. One of the two people in hiding make this remark to the other one, but says it a little loud. The gas station zombie hears them, sees them, and roars/barks/growls at some other zombies stumbling by. Those zombies, seemingly mindless just seconds before, pay attention to the gas station zombie, turn and focus their attention on the two people, and alter their course.
As was shown in DAY OF THE DEAD, some zombies (like Bub) can be trained. What George shows us now is that zombies are also capable of learning on their own. The zombies are changing.
The two people want to alert the rest of their party, a raider group of humans who go foraging in the evening (why the evening when daylight offers better light for vision? I mean, as we saw in all of the previous Dead movies, the zombies have no need for light. They come after you in the dark of night. In the dark of a man made cave even!). The leader of the group, Riley (Simon Baker: THE RING TWO), tries to explain things to his second in command, Cholo (John Leguizamo: SPAWN), but his number two isn't interested in zombies any more. As far as Cholo is concerned, tonight is his last night among the raiders and worrying about zombies. Cholo feels he's earned his place among those who live in the high towers of Fiddler's Green.
The raiders return to their city with the foraged goods, but not before they off a few zombies in the process. In doing so, we see the gas station zombie again, clearly the smartest of the others: The Einstein of dumbasses. Though he is never mentioned by name, his character is called Big Daddy (Eugene Clark: TekWar) and he angrily, but sympathetically, roars at the death of every zombie (whereby they go from the Living dead to the Really Dead!) as the raiders pass. Understand that the raiders are dispatching zombies because the zombies want to kill and eat them. It's the only thing zombies want to do. At this point, what I couldn't understand is why the raiders were merely foraging for cans of food and other material goods. Why on earth weren't they destroying the monsters?
But I wanted to like this movie so I suspended my questions. They would all be answered later I was sure.
Everybody who wasn't killed in the raid gets back through the walls, barriers, and checkpoints to Fiddler's Green. The weapons are all packed up and accounted for and the crew rides the rails back into the city.
Now we see commercials for Fiddler's Green Towers. The city of Fiddler's Green as a whole is poverty stricken. People beg on the streets for food and even the raiders, who are the ones who actually go out every night and get the food, have to surrender their food and then buy it back from street vendors.
At this point the 'huh's? started popping up in my mind. The raiders are the people who bring everything into the city. And they have all of the biggest weapons. In every way shape and form of human history, the people who control the pipeline and the arms control their own lives and often the lives of those around them: But not here. At Fiddler's Green, the raiders give all of their treasures to the leader of Fiddler's Green, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2). Kaufmann lives in the top penthouse of the Fiddler's Green tower, enjoys as lavish a lifestyle as eating canned food and smoking convenience store cigars will allow, and looks down on the little people below. He surrounds himself with other guys who speak importantly, worry about their standing in the community, and spend time window shopping in the mall gazing at all the stuff the raiders brought in. Sometimes they buy it, although I can't imagine how money in such a tiny community cut off from the world could possibly have any use.
Kaufman is a middleman. He controls what he will pay for the raiders goods and he controls all the weapons that the raiders dutifully return to him so that they may live in his city, which they protect, and buy back the food they just brought in.
Riley and his best friend, Charlie (Robert Joy: RESURRECTION) return to their old haunts deep in the dankest parts of Fiddler's Green. Riley has been keeping a secret dream, however, a slowly rebuilt car. Riley is a mechanic and a whiz with tools. He built the war wagon, Dead Reckoning, the raiders drive in. This car was for his personal use, and now it's been stolen. A side story develops which helps to flesh out life for those who live beneath the towers of Fiddler's Green. Riley has friends, street preachers, who live in the city and try to get people to come together and demand more from Kaufman. They believe that, if form a group, then as a group, Kaufman will listen to their grievances. Riley knows better. He knows that Kaufman has no care for the street people other than as a class demarcation line. A living threat of "One wrong step and you'll be living down there, among them."
Riley has friends among the street people and secrets needful things like medicines to them when he can. They know he works for Kaufman, but he is also one of the raiders, without whom, the town would be over run with freaking zombies.
As Riley goes off looking for his car, he meets up with, and saves Slack (Asia Argento: XXX). They next thing they know, Riley, Charlie, and Slack all wind up in jail during a bust on a bar.
Things aren't going any better for Cholo. Kaufman has laughed at his dreams of living in Fiddler's Green and fired him for his presumption. Filled with betrayed rage, Cholo grabs a few of his team members and drives out of the city in Dead Reckoning.
Now here's the thing about this war wagon, Dead Reckoning. It has enough weapons aboard on any given day to raze Fiddler's Green to the ground. In fact, Kaufman springs Riley and his crew out of jail to go after Cholo and bring Dead Reckoning back. Now Riley has his henchmen, who seem little more than rent-a-cops, but the big guns, in fact, all of the power and supplies, rest in the hands of the raiding parties, which they dutifully hand over to Kaufman. There is never any explanation for this. If they decided to take his ass out of office, it could be done quite easily, as Cholo decides to prove. At this point, with Cholo in the driver's seat and being pursued by Riley, the film really starts to fall apart.
For one thing, the gross factor of LAND OF THE DEAD is far below the emotionally stunning imagery we've seen in previous Dead movies.
For another, Kaufman and his executives have nothing to do and no decisions to make. They just play at it. Meanwhile, those who have the actual power meekly surrender it without the film giving any reason for this behavior at all. The people who defend, run, and supply Fiddler's Green don't enjoy the fruits of their labors. I mean, even if we think of this as an extreme example of communism, it still doesn't make sense. The most dimwitted of dictators hell, the 13 year old gangbanger down the street, understands that whoever controls the trade and the weapons has the power.
And this is really odd because Romero has always been known for his political commentary in his Dead movies.*
It's hard to suspend disbelief after this. Meanwhile Big Daddy, the zombie gas station thing, is leading his Living Dead toward an attack on Fiddler's Green. It takes a while, they do everything slow, but zombies are nothing if not patient.
And, while Riley is portrayed as the hero of the movie, there is one part where he sees a group of zombies going after his friends -- the ones he's been giving medicine to. The ones who hope to make Fiddler's Green a better place. Inside Dead Reckoning, the driver is about to fire a missile at a bridge full of zombies who are in pursuit of Riley's friends. Riley stops the driver and says, "They're just looking for their own place, same as us."
Riley! Those zombies are looking to kill and eat your friends! And that's the lesson you come away with in LAND OF THE DEAD. While Bub was a sympathetic character in DAY OF THE DEAD, he also didn't kill and eat anyone. He shot a bad human, saluted, then walked away. Zombies that don't kill and eat people, THOSE are the ones who are finding their way! But for LAND OF THE DEAD, allowing zombies to hunt down your friends and eat them is the path of the true hero, and even patriotic fireworks are shot right after this scene.
To make this film, Romero brought on some people with questionable credits in Horror and Thriller films. People like Producer Mark Canton (Get Carter, Angel Eyes, Red Planet, Taking Lives, Godsend) who, as you can see by his track record, has produced some of the worst big budget Hollywood bombs out there. Then there's Bernie Goldman, producer of such gems as Taking Lives and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. And of course, longtime Romero collaborator, Peter Grunwald (MONKEY SHINES, BRUISER)
To think that Romero actually made a movie that was even worse than Resident Evil is disheartening. Between 2005's Star Wars sequel and Night of the Living Dead sequel, a lot of hardcore fans have been seriously let down by Kings named George.
There is an irony there.
(Two out of Five)