I've just been to see the premiere of Land of the Dead at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It's been a long wait, in fact it's been twenty years since the Day of the Dead, but the next chapter in George A Romero's zombie legacy has finally arrived and it doesn't disappoint.
Land of the Dead follows on from the trilogy, introducing us to a world where the remaining humans live in a barricaded city and the zombies have started to develop some basic intelligence. This is a big budget affair with a quality script, fantastic action, some great laughs, scares and gore aplenty and most satisfyingly of all Romero's satirical comment on modern day society.
The action focuses on Riley, a cynical, tough but decent kind of character who works for the city as a scavenger running nightly excursions into the outside world to collect supplies. His loyal sidekick Charlie has been badly burned in a fire and has below average intelligence but he is a crack shot. The rest of the team includes the wildly unsafe Cholo and there is obvious tension between him and Riley from the beginning.
We join them on their return from an excursion. They go in and out of the city via a heavily guarded underground tunnel which runs under the river. The wilderness of the outside world encircles their compound and keeps the remaining humans completely trapped and yet even within the city there is an obvious split between the two tiers of society, those living in the ghetto and supplying all the food and services and those living in the ultra glamorous high-rise building run by Kaufman, who live in comparative luxury.
The zombies on the outside are beginning to remember things about their former lives and in the absence of any direction they are emulating living humans. Romero focuses on a central zombie character, a kind of leader if you will, who encourages and teaches the other zombies and then leads them against the city.
Romero himself was present at the premiere and he spoke about the film at some length. There are parallels here when we see the huge destructive truck the humans use on excursions "Dead Reckoning" rolling through the village and slaughtering the zombies with the war in Iraq which was equally unbalanced and unfair. The city surrounded by river which believes it is protected is like the USA surrounded by oceans. Despite the wealth of the survivors they still maintain a two-tier society and simply control those below them through vice and violence and naturally the man at the top is corrupt, selfish and completely lacking in any redeeming features.
The script is very good, characters are established with the minimum of fuss, the dialogue doesn't over explain everything and the pacing is perfect. The quality of the special effects is astounding and the gore is extremely visceral and realistic. There are also animatronics at play and some of the best make-up jobs I've ever seen.
The direction is expert. The horror conventions that have established so many formula scares are hard to see beyond but George always confounds expectations and avoids the obvious frights, preferring to lull you into a false sense of security before the sucker punch. The surreal comedy and horror of the situation are fully exploited by turns. George is a master of his craft and thankfully he doesn't deviate from the established rules about zombies which he laid down in the original trilogy and his empathy for their plight is apparent.
Land of the Dead also benefits from having a half-decent cast. Riley is played by Aussie Simon Baker and he gives a nicely understated performance which prevents his character from being too much of a cheesy hero. Cholo is well-played by John Leguizamo the fast talking testosterone overdose and he lends a sympathetic perspective. Asia Argento (daughter of Dario) is Slack and she does a great job, oozing dangerous sex appeal without compromising the strength of her character. The rest of the supporting cast are all very good, not least the zombies themselves but the runaway star has to be Dennis Hopper. He plays Kaufman the self-proclaimed leader of the city, a selfish, right-wing scumbag who´d sell his own mother to escape harm.
This is an action-packed film which starts at pace and doesn't let up for the full ninety minutes. With the recent resurgence in horror and in particular zombies since 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead it is fantastic to see an old master return and he still does it better than the rest. Land of the Dead is inventive, exciting and full of laughs and scares, the next chapter of Romero's legacy is a triumph, long may he continue.