Zombies feast less on human limbs than on unrest, and times have always been ripe for the walking dead -- is it any wonder that the first Night of the Living Dead, the original American nightmare, materialized in 1968, at the height of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination, the Vietnam involvement, and other national traumas? Ghouls have roamed the screen with telling frequency in recent years, from 28 Days Later and Cabin Fever to the Dawn of the Dead remake and the cheeky Shawn of the Dead, treading the path blazed by Night auteur George A. Romero. Now, in the era of Halliburton, 9/11, and the Iraq invasion, where has Romero been? For all the "inspiration" lip-service from young acolytes and adulation of the Fangoria crowd, the truth is that one of the country's most trenchant political critics has been cooling his heels with unrealized project after projected while horrormeisters with bigger budgets and smaller minds steal all his thunder. The new Land of the Dead, then, is a matter of raising his own career out of stumped-maverick graveyard, as well as a "This is how it's done, kids" act for audiences left jaded by today's pandering horror efforts.
Last seen a decade ago in the still-underappreciated Day of the Dead, the lumbering undead virtually ran the planet, the human survivors outnumbered but somehow hopeful. In the latest installment, the tables have been turned in humankind's favor, to no less gruesome effect -- an early panning shot left surveys a batch of zombies rotting in putrid blue-green tones yet still pathetically grappling for their previous lives, trying to pump gas or scratching tambourines in the gazebo. "They're trying to be us," notices stoic militia gunner Simon Baker through binoculars, though his mission is to keep them away from the unnamed, vaguely Pittsburghian metropolis where Dennis Hopper lords it up as a fat-cat tyrant out of Capra, cigar and classical music and all. When not mowed down during nocturnal supply raids, the undead are used to distract the wretched masses out in the streets, kept chained in nightclubs or tossed in cages for human cockfights -- where Baker meets up with hooker Asia Argento, playing feisty stomper to go along with Robert Joy's scarred sharpshooter-sidekick. Amid the periodical slaughters, hothead mercenary John Leguizamo finds time to drive off Hopper's super truck-tank and aim the nukes into town unless he gets the money he feels it's owed him. Of course, as Hopper says, "we don't negotiate with terrorists."
The living-dead reach at least as far back as Cesare rising out of the sideshow tomb in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, though Romero is a pioneer in seeing in them manifestations of sociopolitical turbulence, to say nothing of laying down the zombie-lore (contamination via bite, shoot 'em in the head, etc). Placing Bush's words in the mouth of the capitalist villain (played by a fellow '60s radical, no less) is just one of his subversive strategies -- most notably, the humanization of the ghouls serves as reminder that, all through the Dead trilogy, they have scarcely been the real villains. In fact, their annihilation at the end of Night of the Living Dead makes for a more suffocating conclusion than in the sequels where the creatures run free, for they stand, in Robin Wood's term, for "the return of the repressed," and their destruction for Romero is consistently ambiguous, pruning the leaves of the matter without coming near the root. An imploding order literally eating itself to death, yet the monsters remain, like Frankenstein's creature, the film's moral barometer, and Romero forges a link with the earlier chapter by locating its social center in a black man's outrage -- here one "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark), just as take-charge as the previous incarnations of Duane Jones and Ken Foree, only this time around fighting on the other side of the war, howling with anguish as zombie brothers are blown apart, and leading undead hordes onto the city.
Romero's ideas are often more potent than his technique, and, handling his biggest budget yet, he makes Land of the Dead his most stylistically conventional work, standard widescreen framing and punched-up Dolby blasts. Baker's square-jaw makes for similarly colorless heroics, practically a Paul Walker stand-in, yet contrasted interestingly with Joy's simpleminded feel for dependency, almost a Hawksian examination of Humphrey Bogart-Walter Brennan dynamics (there's even a line from To Have and Have Not: "He thinks he's taking care of me"). Still, even at his most reigned-in, Romero's camera draws blood, and the gorehounds will be happy to know I mean that literally as well: torsos get tore open for entrails-snacking, a noggin dangles by a tendon from a priest-collared neck, and splatter FX drenches the screen. Romero remains a devastating upheaval-detector who just happens to toil in viscera, but will viewers excavate the subtext or just come for the pig-intestine eruptions? Either way, the director is back in form, and the picture gets at least one indelibly daring image of fireworks blasted into the night sky to distract the famished monsters, the notion of the damagingly pacifying effects of unthinking patriotism more eloquent than all of Fahrenheit 9/11, just in time for the Fourth of July. More than ever, "they are us, we are them" -- welcome back, George.
Oh but for one zombie to jump screens and munch on the sweet-asses of Bewitched. Why is Nora Ephron still working while Elaine May can't get a project financed? At least this time her desecration is aimed at a lesser source -- instead of tackling An Affair to Remember or The Shop Around the Corner, she is going after the airy '60s series. Not that the TV show was as weightless as people remember; Elizabeth Montgomery's suburban witch knew feminism begins at home, after all, and in the film version the point gets promptly airbrushed by the cutesy-poo dithering of Nicole Kidman's domesticated sorceress, looking desperately for a mortal to take care of. Namely, Will Ferrell as a self-centered movie star slumming in a TV series (an update of, yup, Bewitched) and looking for some eye-candy for the wifey role. Kidman wrinkles her nose for him and, before you can say "Pirandello," she's a witch posing as a human playing a witch; falling-in-love montages and "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" musical cues follow. If the film blessedly lacks the assaultive camp bent of Kidman's previous comedy flop The Speford Wives, it more than makes up in its own brand of shiny obnoxiousness, with Ferrell flailing to stretch his big-dump-guy persona into leading-man smoothness, Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine wasted on the sidelines, and Steve Carell appropriately repugnant as Paul Lynde. The walking dead have more soul.
Reviewed June 30, 2005.