It’s Zombie Paradise for fans of George Romero’s living dead saga.
A near sell-out crowd of George Romero fans were in zombie paradise last night at the 12:05 am screening of LAND OF THE DEAD at the ArcLight Cinemas. There was enthusiastic applause at the beginning and end, lots of screaming in between, and not a few howls of disgust at the gory mayhem unfolding on screen. I personally didn’t find the violence as shocking or disgusting as that seen in DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD, but that’s not to say it was noticeably toned down — it’s probably just a reflection of my own jaded tastes. A more representative reaction probably came from the guy next to me, who frequently turned his head away from the screen and covered his face with his hand, moaning “Oh god!” at each new atrocity.
As always, it was nice to be part of a knowledgeable audience that caught the subtle references and spotted the inside jokes. For example, a round of cheers swept through the theatre when Tom Savini (who supplied makeup and appeared in Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD) showed up in a cameo as a zombie, complete with the machete he had wielded in DAWN.
As for the film itself, twenty years since DAY, it’s hard for Romero to be as unique and unmatched as he was when turning out his original zombie trilogy, so the film is not quite the standard-bearer that his previous DEAD films were. Nevertheless, it works on many levels: as an exciting action-adventure movie; as a suspenseful horror film; as an over-the-top (even if R-rated) gorefest; and as a biting (you should pardon the term) social satire.
It’s nice to see a return to the slow-moving, shuffling ghouls who are dangerous because of their sheer numbers and unstopability. The effect goes against the modern trend of “sprinter zombies,” but it works so well because it resonates so deeply as an all-purpose metaphor for things like fear of crowds and/or fear of conformity.
In the case of LAND, however, the zombies are regarded not only with fear. You’re also asked to identify with them to some extent because they are an oddly egalitarian group that stands in opposition to the obviously unjust classicism and racism of the human society. In a nice, ironic touch, they are led by “Big Daddy,” a dead gas station attendant who happens to be black — a subtle hint that he is the film’s true hero (all the previous Romero DEAD films cast African-American actors as their lead protagonists).
The most remarkable thing about the film (which is filled with sharp characters and funny dialogue) is the way we identify with the Cholo character played by John Leguizamo, a man whose class resentment (he does all the dirty work but isn’t allowed to reap the rewards because of his ethnicity) drives him first to blackmail and then, in a sense, to “defect” to the other side. In a less intelligent, typical Hollywood film, this guy would be an unsympathetic hero; instead, he emerges as an oddly sympathetic anti-hero.