Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Film Appreciation - Flowers in the Graveyard

Cody Hamman ventures into George A. Romero's Land of the Dead (2005) for the latest edition of Film Appreciation.

George A. Romero was itching to make another zombie movie long before he finally got the chance to make Land of the Dead. He had made Night of the Living Dead in the 1960s, Dawn of the Dead in the '70s, and Day of the Dead in the '80s, each being influenced by the way he viewed the decades they were made in, so he thought it would be fitting to make another entry in the Dead series in the '90s. As he described it, the concept of the movie would be about "ignoring the problem", people attempting to go on with regular lives in the zombie apocalypse. There is an element of that in the finished film, but it took so long for him to be able to get the project off the ground that he missed out on getting it released in the '90s. Then the world was changed by terrorist attacks and the beginnings of wars in the early 2000s, and Romero reworked his idea a bit to reflect those issues.

During the twenty year wait between Romero zombie movies (aside from the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, which Romero wrote but Tom Savini directed), most fans were expecting the next film, if it ever happened, to be titled Twilight of the Dead. But Romero was done naming his movies after a time of day. He wanted to call the new film Dead Reckoning, but eventually settled on Land of the Dead. Both titles are fitting; there's a vehicle called Dead Reckoning at the center of the story, which takes place in the Land of the Dead. A world overrun by zombies.

We're deep into the zombie apocalypse by the time Land takes place, another a specific amount of time is never stated. All we know is that the outbreak of walking dead flesh-eaters started "some time ago". Most of the film's scenes take place within a city that is never named, but is very clearly modeled on Pittsburgh, where Romero lived for several decades. Night, Dawn, and most of Day were all shot in the Pittsburgh area, and the saying goes that one thing everyone from there wanted to be was a zombie in a Romero movie. Despite that, Night and Dawn could have been set anywhere - any small town farmhouse, any shopping mall. Day is actually set in Florida. So it's some entertainment industry irony that Romero's most obviously Pittsburgh Dead movie was actually shot in Toronto - where he ended up movie after this, and spent the rest of his life there. Although "Pittsburgh" is never spoken, the film does include a shot of the Pittsburgh skyline, so those who are familiar with that sight will know where this was supposed to be happening.

Pittsburgh is a good city to be in when the zombies hit, because it sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. Block the bridges going over those rivers so they can't be crossed and you've already significantly cut down the amount of zombies that could enter the city. That's what was done in the time before Land began, and then strongly electrified fences were constructed on the side of the city where zombies could come walking in without crossing a bridge. So that's how characters are able to "ignore the problem". Pittsburgh is protected. Life goes on within the city limits. Any zombies that are within the city are either people who have just passed away, or they're flesh-eaters that have been brought in for entertainment purposes. People pose for pictures with chained zombies, they bet on cage fights where humans fight zombies.

The biggest issue in this version of Pittsburgh is the class system. In Romero's initial script for Day of the Dead the Governor of Florida had a real good set-up for himself on an island and basically lived like a king inside a private fortress, surrounded by wealthy yes men and scantily clad courtesans. A bit of that, minus the courtesans, was carried over to Land, where the city is run by a wealthy man named Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) - and the fact that he's wealthy is still important, because money is still a thing in this city. Kaufman lives in the penthouse apartment in a skyscraper condominium called Fiddler's Green, which offers "luxury living in the grand old style" to certain members of society. The upper class.

The working class are the people like those in the "supplies unit", which makes runs into the zombie-infested areas outside the city limits in search of essential survival supplies to bring back into the city. It's the supplies unit that uses the Dead Reckoning, which is sort of a steel-reinforced semi truck road train that's armed with machine guns, a rocket launcher, and even a fireworks launcher, since people have figured out that fireworks are a good way to keep zombies distracted.

Supplies unit second-in-command Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo) is dreaming big. He has been saving his cash and actually believes that he's going to be accepted into Fiddler's Green just because he can afford to buy an apartment. It only takes a short meeting with Kaufman for Cholo to realize that he's never going to make it through the approval process... So he takes a different tactic. He loads up his pals Foxy (Tony Nappo), Mouse (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), Anchor (Tony Munch) and Pretty Boy (Joanne Boland), steals Dead Reckoning, and drives out of the city, finding the perfect parking spot so he can aim the vehicle's rockets at Fiddler's Green. If Kaufman doesn't send him his money plus a $5 million bonus, Cholo is going to blow him out of the sky. It's not clear where Cholo thinks money is going to be useful outside of this city, but obviously he thinks it still means something elsewhere.

The head of the supplies unit and designer of the Dead Reckoning is Riley Denbo (Simon Baker), and while Cholo was hoping to join high society Riley is a loner who feels trapped within the city. He wants to go find a place to live where there are no other people. Except maybe his sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy). Riley is a likeable guy, a stoic anti-hero type who carries the film well. Charlie is a wonderful character, a simple and kindhearted man who takes care of Riley while Riley takes care of him. A memorable aspect of his character is the fact that he's a sharpshooter who lost an eye in a fire that scarred half his face. He licks a finger to wipe spit on the end of gun so that will catch the light and help him aim.

It's looking like Riley is going to be more trapped in the city than ever until Cholo puts his scheme in motion. Kaufman sends Riley out to stop him, so Riley handpicks Charlie and a prostitute called Slack to assist him on this mission. Slack is played by Asia Argento, which is cool because her father Dario Argento helped Romero get funding for Dawn of the Dead. This seems even more fitting because Day of the Dead starred Lori Cardille, daughter of broadcast personality and horror host Bill Cardille, who had appeared in Night of the Living Dead. I always thought Romero should have kept the parent-child theme going by casting Lori Cardille's actress daughter Kate Rogal in the Dead film he made after this, but that didn't happen.

Kaufman also sends three of his own people with Riley; Sasha Roiz as Manolete, named after a historical figure who some consider to be "the greatest bullfighter of all time" (and who died from being gored by a bull; Krista Bridges as Motown, who's from Detroit; and Pedro Miguel Arce as Pillsbury, a large Samoan man who's a man of few words, but the things he says are often amusing.

Riley being an anti-hero, he has his own idea of how this mission is going to go, and it's not necessarily in line with what Kaufman and his people want him to do.

So yes, there is a lot going on in Land of the Dead that doesn't have anything to do with zombies, and that's because the characters are convinced that zombies aren't much of a problem anymore. You have to be unlucky and/or careless, and usually outside the city, for zombies to be any kind of threat. At least up until now. The characters will come to realize that zombies are becoming smarter and more capable, much like Bub was taught to be in Day of the Dead. Outside the city, groups of zombies are seen carrying on versions of their former lives, falling back into old routines just like instinct had them returning to the mall in Dawn. One zombie, a former gas station owner called Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) has become very aware of what's going on around him, and is outraged by the things he sees people doing to his fellow zombies. He gets other zombies from his town to follow him on a walk into the city, showing them how they can knock down barricades and get across the river. While Riley and others are outside the city dealing with Cholo and the Dead Reckoning situation, the zombies, these things the city's residents have been ignoring for so long, are strolling into the city and are going to be changing the status quo.

I know some viewers don't like the Big Daddy zombie and feel that he's too advanced, but I think he is a natural progression of how we've seen zombies behave and evolve over the previous three movies. He is a leap ahead of the others, but his existence still makes sense to me.

Special effects legend Tom Savini did some very famous work on Dawn and Day, but on this one he handed the FX reins over to his protégé Greg Nicotero, who got his start working on effects for Day. He did a great job here. When Romero was making Day, he had to make a choice: he could get a higher budget to shoot an R-rated version of his script, or he could rework the script to make a lower budgeted unrated movie. He took the lower budgeted unrated path. To get the budget for Land he had to agree to have an R-rated cut released in theatres, but he could still get an unrated cut released on home video. The age of DVDs made that compromise possible, and Nicotero got to work in some gross gore effects. Big Daddy and his companions make quite a mess sometimes. Nicotero has made a whole lot more zombies since this movie, as he and his team provide the effects for The Walking Dead. He's also an executive producer on that show and has directed some of the biggest episodes.

Land isn't completely lacking in the Savini department, as he shows up in a great cameo as a zombified version of Blades, his machete-wielding biker character from Dawn. The zombie Blades is still carrying around a machete, and he puts it to use.

This movie isn't as well regarded as the three it follows, much like Day was the black sheep of the franchise for a couple decades after it came out. Day has been gaining in popularity for a while now, which has been awesome to see happen, and maybe Land will gain in popularity eventually, too. It definitely seems to be worth revisiting in 2019, as it may be an even better reflection of the current times than it was of 2005.

I think that viewing with my friend was the third time seeing Land on the big screen. My second viewing wasn't notable, but the first viewing was one I'll always remember. There was a special premiere screening in Pittsburgh, and I was (along with my mom) able to attend that premiere. There was over a thousand people in that theatre, including Romero, Savini, Nicotero, and a few well-known filmmakers: Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Edgar Wright. My seat was not far off from the row Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Wright were in, I was just a couple rows back and over to the right. It was an incredible day, being able to see the Romero movie fans had been waiting so long for in a setting like that.

Despite that special first viewing, I don't hold Land up as highly as Night, Dawn, and Day myself, but that's not being negative toward it. Night, Dawn, and Day are three of my all-time favorite movies, so most things I watch don't even come close to ranking that high for me. I don't think Land is bad at all; not as great as what came before, but an entertaining trip back into the zombie apocalypse. It has characters who are fun to spend time with, a good cast (Phil Fondacaro even shows up for a scene!), and tells a story that is purely Romero.

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