Sunday, June 26, 2005

Come on baby, eat the rich...

It's been a long time coming, but in my estimation "Land of the Dead" is primo George Romero. Viewing the previous three films might enrich one's appreciation for this big idea b movie, but it's hardly necessary for "getting it." There are things here that are simply right on. Universal picked up the low budget production, which gave Romero a chance to use the classic Universal logo, a worthy nod to an era that obviously touched the prepubescent auteur and the world at large. It's a thrill to see that clunky piece of revolving iconography before a film that's new, NOT a remake of anything. The director is giving us a wink and saying he's coming from a different place, that he gets the classic monster genre in a way that hacks today will never comprehend. It's a film that speaks more specifically to the conundrum of humanity and progress than anyone today would ever dare.

Horror shlock maestro Wes Craven and his 30-something stooge Kevin Williamson think they do something like this too. The repugnant "Cursed," with weird faced Christina Ricci as a sensual werewolf in training, was intended as sly homage to the Universal monster pictures, too, but in truth it was closer to a tepid rip-off of Wes/Kevin's "Scream" cashcow crossed with John Hughes teen dramadies. No one really means it; it's just a clever post modern satire--read as unnecessary bore--designed to appeal to you on a self referential level that at this point is just tedious and leaves you wishing Lon Cheney in original "Wolfman" garb or David Naughton circa "An American Werewolf in London" would pop out of a dark corner and start reciting a dissertation on the inanity of ironic send ups of already ironic horror films.

No to say that Romero doesn't appreciate some subtly irony of his own.

The Dead series is definitely about something more than gore and plot mechanics. It's about so much there's really no point in getting specific. Romero never falls back on the easy tricks of modern horror. He doesn't hate the ladies. He doesn't needlessly linger on gruesome images of cannibalism, though he has before, and in a sure to be released "director's cut" of "Land..." I hope he does again. There are some choice muscular chompings to be enjoyed in this shorter version, even an evisceration or two, but it's slightly toned down for a post 9/11 market. Folks don't need to be shocked out of complacency these days (unless they're Christians!), they just need to wake up and read the paper as they sip their morning coffee.

Against this backdrop Romero has formulated one of his richest zombie tales. Crammed into the 93 minutes are comments on evolution/Darwinism, class struggle, herd mentality, communist revolt, tolerance and more. Perhaps more so than with any previous Dead film, aside from "Night," viewers will leave discussing the philosophical implications of having and having not in the age of apocalypse, and testing their own preconceptions about so called solutions to larger problems. They'll also do their part in trying to identify the "true zombies" in the world today, and just possibly end up coming off like braindead cannibals in the process. That's the beauty of Romero.

Things drag a bit. The initial shock of the classic "Dawn..." can't and shouldn't be repeated, but it can be updated and streamlined. The makeup and special effects are incredible. CGI isn't on the menu. The cast, including yumyum Asia Argento (Dario's daughter), John Leguizamo (not that I'm a big fan, but this is his best scenery chewing support role ever), Dennis Hopper (remember him in the second "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"?) and plenty of familiar faces (including the one and only Tom Savini as "machete blade"--a slight reprise of his character in "Dawn") in supporting and cameo roles all snort, moan and chomp with glee. The zombies are beautiful to look at too. Again the real soul of the picture lies in their tortured moans, childlike fascination and developing compassion for one another, where the richies that inhabit Fiddler's Green are little more than caricatures--a symbol of excess and greed, with Hopper making a boring Prospero. All these folks could use a little more fleshing out, no pun intended.

Still in the end, this is a Dead movie with ideas and images that no one else could ever conceive--genuine filmmaking in an age when indie and major studio productions are practically the same thing and no one has a voice anymore. The master is up to his old tricks for a new age. True, it's not as good as "28 Days Later," but I like it more for my own biased reasons. There are moments that will leave you giddy and clapping with approval, not to mention sort of wishing Romero had been tapped to remake his own "Dawn of the Dead" last year, instead of some guy who used to direct Korn videos. But, contrary to popular belief, Romero does not repeat himself.

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