As it appears to be dying at the box office, I'd like to give two fleshless, mouldy, ghoul-eaten thumbs way up for George Romero's Land of the Dead, which exceeded all my expectations—and I had fairly high expectations. Why is it failing? More about that in a moment, but here's a mini-review.
After several years of flashy, fast-moving, MTV-ready zombies in variable-film-stock extravaganzas like 28 Days Later and the remade Dawn of the Dead, Romero the classicist knocks all the young punks into a cocked hat. This is a straightforward Howard Hawks movie, with group dynamics, colorful sidekicks and an insider shoutout to Sergeant York, of all things.
Land's highly professional sheen has in fact put off some zombie movie fans, who complain that the movie's too formulaic (read "too entertaining"). But in my experience zombie zealots are notoriously hard to please: In a year or so they'll all be claiming they loved this movie the first time they saw it. With good-to-excellent performances all around (including Dennis Hopper's first strong work in at least a decade) and full contemporary polish and special effects, this is the perfect blend of a Romero picture and a professional Hollywood production—a marriage I wouldn't have thought possible.
Land manages to wring a wealth of imaginative and memorable imagery even out of that most familiar screen event—the inevitable cannibal holocaust when the zombies break in. If you thought the original Dawn was the last word in funny and horrific zombie stuff, this one pulls out a whole new bag of tricks. How is it that a director this energetic and inventive has barely worked in the last ten years? While it's not really scary in any particular scene, Land is full of disturbing implications and fully imagined creepiness; the many ways the humans have figured out to use the zombies for sport and entertainment (I refuse to ruin these gags for potential viewers) set a new standard for laughs that stick in your throat. The zombies are full of suprises without ever breaking from Romero's slow-and-stupid tradition, and in the movie's cleverest inversion, the obligatory righteous black man is now a zombie himself (and no less sympathetic for the change). Fans, fear not: Though the Tom Savini cameo is brief, it's unmistakable.
All the usual paradoxes of zombie logic apply: If you're a continuity stickler you will certainly be troubled by the way a certain group of zombies seems to appear in widely separate locations within a short period of time. There's still no explanation for why the zombies don't continue to decompose—if there's something in the zombification process that arrests decomposition, why do they smell? (Also, why don't the humans ever smell zombies who are sneaking up behind them?) If the zombies don't breath (an important plot device), how are they able to howl, grunt, play brass instruments, etc? Why, considering that the already-dead are the worst recruiting pool imaginable, are there so many able-bodied zombies, with no disabilities and no apparent causes of death? And a question that goes back to the original film: Considering that there are more people alive now than have ever lived, shouldn't it have been the zombies who were hopelessly outnumbered from day one? I give a pass on all these questions: Romero has always been shrewd in refusing to pin down specifics about the causes and effects of zombiedom. (He's the opposite of Lucas in that all the extrapolation on his fictional world has been done by the fans rather than by the creator.)
Reason readers may take exception to the politics, which continue the Romero tradition of spoofing consumerism and capitalist excess. Like all Marxist readings, this one can be taken as a libertarian reading with virtually no changes, but if you're going to stick with authorial intent, you have to be content with some strong though not doctrinaire lefty politics. I say if you're going to do an anti-market screed, this is the way to do it. The film draws on a Metropolis-style dichotomy of proles-vs-patricians, indirect allusions to post-9/11 paranoia (more artfully done than in the new War of the Worlds), and even a Baffler-style critique of cultural rebels as dupes or willing servants of the capitalist "culture trust" (one hipster girl gets her belly ring bitten out by a zombie, and Hopper's performance as the big-business villain subtly implies that the character is a former hippie). I have to admit, Land of the Dead reminded me of how invigorating full-throated lefty agitprop can be in an entertaining movie.
Then again, if any man has reason to question the wisdom of the free market, it's Romero. He's done everything the right way—produced highly lucrative properties on tiny budgets, made all his pictures with non-union labor, carefully crafted his movies to chime with the prevailing national mood (the script of this one feels like it was written last week), attracted both a fanatical fan base and a mainstream following (is there anybody who hasn't seen and remembered at least one of the Dead movies?). But he's never gotten anywhere near the rewards he's deserved. He got ripped off by the distributor on Night of the Living Dead and saw none of that picture's vast profits. His movies have been repeatedly dumped on the market. Fascinating projects like Martin have disappeared completely.
And now, Universal gives Land of the Dead one of the most incompetent openings in movie history. They limited it to Thursday press screenings—a no-confidence vote just slightly above no press screenings at all. They've scrimped on ads to the point that several times this week I've recommended the movie to people—fans of the genre, even—who weren't aware it was playing. How is it that if you say this film is the latest entry in "George A. Romero's legendary Living Dead series," everybody in America understands you're referring to an iconic, hugely entertaining, enormously influential piece of American popular art—everybody except the minds at Universal, who are treating this movie as if it's the latest entry in the PuppetMaster series? Did they blow this season's promotional budget on cinemasominex like Cinderalla Man and The Perfect Man? Are they afraid they'll be seen as attacking American values? (Certainly the proliferation of zombie pictures in the last few years can't be a sign of a happy society.) If you can't make money on a zombie picture by the man who invented the zombie genre, can you make money on anything?
I hold out hope that the Living Dead pictures are too idiosyncratic to be pinned down to something as simple as an opening weekend take. Maybe Land of the Dead will turn out to be a surprise red-state hit like The Passion of the Christ. But at this rate you can't count on this movie to be in theaters much longer, and you should definitely see it on the big screen. Run, don't walk, and above all don't shamble mindlessly, down to your multiplex and take a bite out of Land of the Dead.