Mike: They’re pretending to be alive…
Riley: Isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?
I’m going to start by being annoying and say that this film could have been great. Not game changing, like Night of the Living Dead, the black-and-white budget film that started it all, or the brilliantly satirical Dawn of the Dead that followed, but great. Its ideas are all there: the undesirable zombie population is evolving, and poses a serious threat to a dwindling population of humans who lock themselves away in a fenced-off city in Pittsburgh divided into rich and poor. The elite live in a high-rise named Fiddler’s Green, served by the rest of the population who live in poverty. Naturally, class struggle is a big theme, as the audience begins to realise that the working class of the city have more in common with the undead outside than they do with the suited and booted “aristocracy”, led by Paul Kaufman (played by Dennis Hopper).
Kaufman is the face of the makeshift city, and is responsible for reinstating America’s social structure post-apocalypse as he makes sure that only the “best people” are allowed access in to his privileged world. Fiddler’s Green’s inhabitants depend on the workers below for food and supplies, and it is down to Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) and his crew to venture out beyond the borders and gather as much as they can to bring back to the city. They travel around in a heavily armoured vehicle named Dead Reckoning, which not only provides safety for those inside, but also works as a zombie-killing machine, blasting fireworks into the sky in order to dazzle the monsters before blowing them to smithereens. Cholo (John Leguizamo), second in command of the Dead Reckoning, also serves as Kaufman’s personal assistant and regularly picks up luxuries that go directly to him. Feeling that he deserves a place at Fiddler’s Green for his efforts, it is Cholo’s bitterness at being refused entry that sets off the main action of the film. And of course, whilst the humans are preoccupied with their own dramas, they are oblivious to the changes going on within the zombie “community”, all of whom are learning to wield weapons aimed right at the heads of those who slaughter and “suppress” them.
Sounds brilliant, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, despite this film having the biggest budget of all of the ‘Dead’ films ($15 million in comparison to Dawn of the Dead‘s $650,000 [around $1 million in today’s terms], for example), it is the one that squanders its potential most disastrously. Most of the film disappointingly centres around Riley and his friends Slack (Asia Argento) and Charlie (Robert Joy) attempting to track down fugitive Cholo, and unfortunately the characters and acting combined are nowhere near enough to make this narrative thread worth investing in emotionally. Throwaway side-characters such as Pretty Boy, Mouse, Anchor, Foxy, Manolete, Motown and Pilsbury confuse proceedings and serve very little purpose, meaning that even at a mere 93 minutes, the story drags. Baker is mildly interesting in the leading role, but always looks somewhat disinterested, and Argento is wooden at best, forcing a feistiness that feels unoriginal. When a film’s main characters are so tedious, it is hard to care about anything that happens to them, and you end up watching people being eaten alive with a numbing disinterest that doesn’t suit such blood-soaked violence.
Thankfully, the zombies themselves are on good form, led by the powerful Big Daddy who is the first to show signs of increased intelligence. Despite not communicating with his comrades via any kind of discernable language, he manages to teach them all to use guns and travel underwater, thus enabling a planned attack on the city. Bub’s behaviour in Day of the Dead had suggested that Romero would eventually lead his undead down this path; whilst other zombie movies at the time were focusing on giving their creatures an advantage through speed and strength (*cough* 28 Days Later *cough*), the Dead films were focusing instead on the quiet menace of brain power. Feeding into the metaphors that have always pervaded Romero’s films, the resourceful and ingenious zombie uprising here can stand as a representation of the supressed “Other” coming at loggerheads with the “capitalist oppressor” (Kaufman). The zombies are the exploited workers, the alienated voices that exist beyond “civilised society”.
Sadly, the ideas which so obviously form the foundations of the film itself are never given enough room to breathe or time to develop. Too much of the story takes place outside of the setting which is most intriguing and offers the most narrative possibilities. Obviously the zombies’ journey from the outlands is important, but why wasn’t more focus placed on the internal struggles within the city, which would have made for a more intense experience, alike to that of Dawn of the Dead (albeit on a grander scale)? Ultimately, the film fails both to capture the imagination of the audience, and to strike fear or dread into the heart, two things that the previous films do so well. It’s a sad thing to have to say, but Land is the first sign of Romero putting his thematic ideas before his cinematic execution, a move which allows his later films to be overshadowed by their own metaphors.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ 1/2