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Land of the Dead

When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth. When there's no more room to gross us out with that, the writer/directors had better have a good plot.

Have no fear, children, for George A. Romero, the one that started it all and scared the living (insert fecal matter reference here) out of us, has returned - and he has a plot. And good actors. And not incidentally, good directing.

The fact that Land of the Dead also has some of the most creatively gory zombie scenes in the past few years seems almost incidental. Just close your eyes when the guy gets his esophagus pulled out through this mouth and marvel at the storytelling.

Set in a loose continuity with Romero's earlier "Dead" films, Land of the Dead focuses on survivors that have adjusted in a way Howard Zinn might have predicted. The wealthy live in a glass tower, pretending that nothing has gone wrong, while the poor scrabble out an existence on the streets. To keep the lower classes happy, city ruler Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) makes sure they have sex, drugs and gambling. All of them are protected by barriers that the living dead, now given the pejorative term "stenchies," should not be able to pass.

The rough economy depends on raiding parties led by Riley Denbo (Simon Baker), designer of the "Dead Reckoning," an urban assault vehicle that you just know will be the next big craze in gas guzzlers. Armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, the key to Dead Reckoning making a successful strike is in its "sky flowers." The living dead apparently like two things: human flesh and watching fireworks. They'll get so distracted by fireworks that the city dwellers can hit their small town up for canned goods and other supplies without getting eaten.

But one of them notices the dead are getting played, especially when a unit led by Cholo (John Leguizamo) rides through on cycles randomly shooting. Called Big Daddy in the credits, this hulking zombie (Eugene Clark) decides that he will rally his people and attack that gleaming tower in the distance that seems to be the source of all his pain.

His timing couldn't be more perfect, as the class struggle seems about to explode. Apparently, Kaufman has held his corrupt grip on the city just a little too tight and been too comfortable too long. While the city falls apart internally, no one will believe Riley that the dead may have started thinking.

At last Romero has a budget to fit his vision. It takes money to have a post-apocalyptic production design that doesn't look cobbled together for the sake of making a movie. Dead Reckoning looks high-tech enough; while other assault vehicles look scrounged together, they're still a cut above, say, The Road Warrior. Civilization hasn't fallen that far - yet.

Without the distraction of "hey, look at what this guy accomplished with limited resources," Romero's skill as a director can shine. He understands how to build suspense, drawing out the inevitable gotchas until you'd almost forgotten they were coming. Though of course blood and guts form the core of these movies for some fans, Romero knows that sometimes suggestion can be just as powerful. Oh, there are still money shots, brief and disgusting, but the violence only serves the story.

Romero eases us into the gore, focusing on the dead first. In the opening shot, he pans down a small town street populated only by the dead. Stuck in echoes of their living days, the zombies do actions so repetitive this looks as harmless as an undiscovered room in The Haunted Mansion. A dead boy and girl shamble hand in hand past gas station attendant Big Daddy, who then realizes that the living are watching him.

It's almost more disturbing to see the dawning awareness in the zombies than to see them feed. Because in this film, they are becoming less and less "other."

The point gets subtly made by a brain-damaged character, Charlie (Robert Joy). Scarred by fire and doggedly loyal to Riley, Charlie first appears in a manner meant for us to confuse him with a zombie. He jokes that the dead are almost as dumb as himself, but is also one of the first to realize that both he and they are smarter than they look.

Joy keeps his character from being too stereotypical, as do most of the other actors. Land of the Dead stands out as having one of the highest quality ensembles in zombie movie history (though the Dawn of the Dead remake and 28 Days Later came close). Only Asia Argento appears to be just rolling through the part of "Slack," but that may just be because it really is underwritten. She serves only as a tough foil, revealing pieces of others but never herself.

Handling a rare lead role, Baker provides a good moral center. He has to, when playing off of Joy and Leguizamo, another actor that manages to rein himself in just before going over the top.

Even the zombies seem well-acted. Limited to only being able to roar, Clark as Big Daddy still expresses a rudimentary range. As undead hockey fan "Number 9," Jennifer Baxter actually has some charm, and makes a bigger impact than Argento.

The story and artistry of Land of the Dead gets so engrossing that it's easy for a zombie-phobe like myself to forget that this is a zombie movie. It almost made me want to go back, overcome my adolescent terror and re-watch the original Night of the Living Dead. And then Romero throws in a zombie clown.



Derek McCaw

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