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Land of the Dead

Year: 2005
Director: George A Romero
Writer: George A Romero
Cast: Simon Baker, Asia Argento, Dennis Hopper, John Legiuzamo
George A Romero came into 2005 like George Lucas - both are the godfathers of their genres, both of which had huge emotional baggage. They were both mavericks in old guard Hollywood, and their gambles paid off handsomely. Both franchises have had twenty years to gestate in our minds, and after countless discussions about how Star Wars and Night of the Living Dead changed the world, they both had a lot to live up to.

Few of the recent, studio-sanctioned forays into the zombie genre captured the style Romero perfected on his miniscule budgets and pig-intestine-and-tomato-sauce makeup effects. Disappointments like Resident Evil were more about action than zombies, and early glimpses of Land of the Dead didn't look very promising. Depicting a fortress city of the near future and a massive assault vehicle, it looked like Romero was leaving the world of splatter far behind for M-rated thrills and explosions.

There were both subtle and overt differences in the Dead films that separated Romero from the other directors who joined the studio fraternity from the ranks of music video and TV commercials. First, as one of the ringleaders of the 70s and 80s splatter genre, he didn't shy away from gore inherent (but little seen) in zombie films. Any Romero fan can describe exploding heads, ropes of intestines trailing out of disemboweled corpses and hacked off limbs.

But as fans also know, each Dead film contains a component of strong satire about society at the time, be it the carnage of the Vietnam War or the monotony of mass consumerism.

So it's a great pleasure to see both are prominent in Land of the Dead. Even aside from the entertainment value, Romero lives up to his name and legacy, and credit is due to Universal and his producers for giving him the freedom to do so instead of devolving it into a video game.

There is more action than Romero's worked with before, but it doesn't elbow aside the scares or the gore. With serious backing, the micro-budget, shoot-in-the-middle-of-the-night charm is gone, and the result has a slickness you might not be fully comfortable with if you were expecting another Dawn of the Dead . The unsuccessful third part Day of the Dead was a lot better produced than Dawn, and many believe the reason it flopped was because it lacked the independent energy of its predecessors.

After the descent into chaos, America is now a wasteland where the dead shamble aimlessly around crumbling towns. The survivors have battened themselves inside the cities with electric fences and rivers as in Land.

Specialised teams of hunters led by cowboys like Riley (Australia's Baker, possibly next in line after Heath Ledger, Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman) and Cholo (Leguizamo) execute ram raids on nearby towns for provisions. Inside the city, the majority live amid vice and crime in street shanties while the rich live a gated life in Fiddler's Green, the huge apartment building in the city centre complete with boutiques and restaurants for the well heeled.

And it's all overseen by the calculating Kaufman (Hopper) - a caricature of every CEO and politician we've hated in our lives - and therein is Romero's requisite social commentary. Horrors abound in the outside world (the undead are a parable for everything from drugs to terrorists) and in urban areas, the rich lock themselves in citadels of privilege while the rest of humanity tries to survive and entertain itself on the meagre crumbs thrown down to them by The System.

Together with his friend Charlie, Riley is giving it all up - he's got himself a car, and as soon as it's ready, he's hightailing it north where's there's nothing left - living, dead or undead.

But Cholo has other ideas. Believing himself groomed for life in Fiddler's Green after his sideline cleaning up after Kaufman, he has it within his grasp when Kaufman makes it clear; he's just not one of them.

Cholo hijacks Dead Reckoning (Land of the Dead's working title), the armoured assault vehicle that makes most of the smash and grab forays for food and supplies from the outside world. He aims its arsenal at Fiddler's Green, calls Kaufman, and holds the building hostage.

Kaufman calls in the only other man who can get close to Dead Reckoning and talk Cholo down; Riley. Teaming up with beautiful hooker Slack (Argento, enjoying a special lineage with Romero - her father Dario provided the music and part of the budget of Dawn and helped kick off the Italian zombie movie craze of the 70's and 80's), Riley takes to the road.

And the whole time, the zombies are changing. A huge black petrol station attendant is the first to show signs of reason, starting to communicate with his fellows and use rudimentary tools. He leads a zombie revolt on the city, and suddenly the fences aren't holding.

The script and plot are tight and well put together, but Romero still finds the time for what he does best and doesn't scrimp on it. Graphics scenes of dismemberment and cannibalism are shown in all their glory (you'll never look at belly button rings the same again) and you'll shriek while you're laughing. There are some genuine frights but straight horror has never been Romero's forte, nor his concern. He's the granddaddy of the splatter genre, he's lost none of his touch and some serious money and effort has bought us more besides. Land of the Dead will both please fans and be a great place to start if you're new to the Dead world.

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