Romero: An Appreciation Part 04 – Land of the Dead

In 2005 Land of the Dead was released on the big screen and it was met with more disillusionment than any movie in the “Dead” canon, perhaps even more than any movie in Romero’s career. Ironically the movie was well received by the critics, which made many fans of the genre, and Romero in particular, wonder where they had been all these years.

In his ten year absence from the “Dead” Romero had continued to work in film, making movies that were consistently good though lacking the visceral punch that accompanied his earlier efforts in the “Dead” series. Anticipation could not be higher, Land had a hold over many horror fans that only something like Star Wars could approach in the mainstream world, and it is not hard to understand that the higher we build something up the easier it is to cut it down.

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Land still possessed some well crafted characters, it still continued the tradition of pertinent and timely themes but nothing about it could compare to the earlier movies.

On its own merits Land is a flawed though enjoyable movie, it 9/11 inspired plot led naturally (dare I say “predictably”?) to themes of alienation and terrorism. The effects were good and the action consistent but the audience was after something more, something that pushed the movie beyond its horror roots into an area more readily associated with “real” film.

Night pioneered it, Dawn continued it and even Day took a meaty bite out of it, but though “Land” tried it simply did not have the stomach to keep it down.

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With Romero’s previous films (even those not in the “Dead” canon) he had followed a simple style that Romero had developed over the years. He began to shoot using the academy ratio (4:3) back in the sixties, a ratio that he was well versed in from his years working in commercial film making. He moved to a letterboxed ratio (1:85) later, with “Dawn” and continued in this format for many years.

Shooting in “circular letterboxed” format (as opposed to anamorphic) required no special equipment or training. Essentially films are shot in academy ratio and then “cropped” to letterbox, so this change was not much of one, and it was something that Romero could do on the editing desk, a place where he was most at home.

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With Land however Romero changed things dramatically, moving to a full anamorphic format that required a complete change in everything to which he was artistically comfortable. This is not to say that Romero could not handle the format, Land’s widescreen image is filled with detail and many of the audience might not have even noticed the change, but being proficient with a tools use does not make one an artist with it.

The film making world had changed and though Romero had managed to resist the urge to do so alongside it eventually it was a step he was required to take if he wanted to still work in the industry.

Land was also a first for Romero in so many other ways, Universal Pictures was releasing this movie, it was the first “Dead” movie to be edited digitally, his first in a purely anamorphic format and his first aimed at a new audience that he had not previously considered in his movies.

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There is a distinct difference between what this reviewer refers to as “hard-core horror” and “pop horror”. Hard-core horror does not necessarily mean that the movie includes heavy gore or extreme situations, but it does mean that the movie is designed specifically for a horror enthusiast. Pop horror on the other hand are simply horror themed movies whose primary audience is much more broad, its aims are similar to any mainstream movie; to entice the broadest audience into the cinema.

Romero’s previous movies were designed primarily for a horror audience; little work was done in order for them to be accepted by the mainstream. Often they were, but if this happened it was happenstance and not by design. Land on the other hand, because of it being a major release from one of the worlds biggest distributors, had to have a broader appeal built into its design. This inevitably means that themes had to be universal ones, and had to be painted in wide brushstrokes, so that the maximum appeal could be achieved.

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Gamely Romero tried, dumping the habitual moments of self reflection and religious analogy in favour of pretty girls and big guns, but it was clear to Land’s audience that Romero had found something with which he had little understanding; and even less passion.

Land’s biggest problem is its casting, and specifically two aspects of that process. The first of these is that, unusually for Romero, too many characters in Land seem superfluous and many bear no influence on the story or its outcome. One such character is Slack (played by Asia Argento) who is little more than eye-candy, while another is Charlie (Robert Joy) whose character, though pleasant, seems to sit uncomfortably beside the films lead.

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The second issue is far more complex, and has an equal footing in the way the characters are written, as well as those who played them.

Riley (as played by Simon Baker) is introverted and stoic, the common traits of a Romero lead, and although Baker manages this admirably, infusing his performance with many subtle traits that allows such an inward facing character to be a believable one; there is an incongruity between this character and the dynamic hero the film requires.

This is not a fault of Baker’s, unless it is a fault of over-competence. Perhaps Baker’s performance is too subtle, his mannerisms in inflections too hard to read amongst the mayhem. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the fact that his two main antagonists are played by such expressive actors as John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, who are terribly big characters to play against.

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In many ways the characters follow the familiar tropes we have come to expect from a “Dead” film, with one or two small alterations, but perhaps the breadth of the characterisations are just a little too broad this time. The complex relationship between Riley (Simon Baker), Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo) and Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) leaves a little too much doubt on who is really in the right.

Leguizamo’s humanizing performance raises the character of Cholo to far more than the comic-book villain the character could have been otherwise. This, of course, is a good thing as is Bakers portrayal of Riley, the problem arises when we see these two characters in relation to each other while they both retain a subservient nature to the films real “big bad”, in the shape of Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman.

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In many ways this is an extremely realistic approach and feeds into the main themes of the film, the complex nature of politics and power that drives acts of terrorism in the real world, but it also makes for characters that are hard to pigeonhole as heroic or villainous.

If Land of the Dead is watched back to back with Day of the Dead then many similarities’ present themselves and we see how the nuanced performances of Land may actually be to blame for the film being a little less cut-and-dried in in approach. With any other genre of film this would be a cause for praise, but for a horror film this level of character complexity (and inter-complexity) deters from the simplicity of its basic premise.

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Perhaps in fact, this is a case of “less would have been more”.

Or perhaps ultimately the fault lies more with Hoppers portrayal of Kaufman.

Dennis Hopper is a stalwart of the “B” movies, starring in a huge amount of movies that ranges from the absurd (Space Truckers) to the sublime (Blue Velvet) and although he is easily the biggest named actor in Land, he is also its main weakness.

As an actor Hopper is not to everyone’s taste, his portrayals are often broad to the point of absurdity and Kaufman leans more towards this than the more subtle roles a fan of his would know him capable (Out of the Blue). In a more balanced ensemble, Hoppers broadness would not be an issue, but against the complexity and subtlety that Baker and Leguizamo exhibit Hoppers portrayal of Kaufman is a linchpin to the movie that sits uncomfortably in its place.

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Oddly it could be argued that what was needed from Hopper was a much broader performance, a “Frank Booth” that would give both Riley and Cholo a reason to go all-out; and a reason where the oncoming swarm of the Dead may be preferable to the madness Kaufman represents.

Ultimately, when all is said, it’s very easy to imagine that many of the problems that Land suffers could well be studio induced; Romero would have been limited on almost all aspects of the production, as is common in studio backed films. Cast, running times and content are all things that a studio would have a say regarding; in fact anything that could effect the box office of the picture would be fair game.

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Essentially it’s rather easy to argue that much of what we consider to be “vintage” Romero is missing from Land; it’s also easy to understand that much of it could be attributed to its distributor. This is considerably perplexing when Romero’s attitude towards the major distributors has been well documented; he even made one movie (Knightriders) that is entirely about the need to remain independent.

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The budget for Land was a staggering 16 million dollars, more that all the previous “Dead” films combined and it seems clear that this would be a good incentive, but after the making of Dawn there were many offers by the “majors” and its not entirely clear why after all these years of independence Romero would sell a part of it, regardless of the price. A part of this might be explained by the large amount of effects work in the movie, this wasn’t the usual effects that Romero was well versed with – make-up – but more elusive work such as digital matt painting and superimposition.

Perhaps this was a point where Romero decided to ally himself with a studio with experience in this field, and with the contacts and money that could make it happen easily. Land is littered with digital effects that enhance the world around the dead, but mostly left the dead to their more traditional latex. This does create a much larger world than in any previous “Dead” film, for the first time the audience can see the decimation with their own eyes and this brings home how immense the task of finding safety would be for the characters.

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The use of digital effects is only one of the “positives” of Land, just as you’d expect from Romero the action scenes and his cinematography are top notch, as are the costume and set designs. All these things had a depth of detail much greater than in any of Romero’s previous movies and the quantity of extras for this movie probably out numbers the amount Romero used in all his previous films combined.

The actual size and complexity of this production should not be underestimated; there is no doubt that this complexity led Romero to the gates of Universal for the movies creation. For a confirmed independent film maker there was little chance of him being able to mount this kind of operation without Universal’s logistical help. Romero’s previous films were always kept to the very minimal; Night was set in a farmhouse, Dawn in an indoor mall and Day in an underground bunker, so they relied a great deal on finding the right location in order for them to work. Land on the other hand, by its very nature, needed a much larger stage to be played out on and there was little chance of Romero the Independent managing this without considerable help.

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It is obvious that Universal would want “named” actors in the leads, both as some assurance the characters would be in good hands as well as having some names to promote. This would be another first for Romero; all of his previous films were built around stage performers, many of which were little known outside the business, and dealing with personalities that had as much power as him over a project must have been difficult.

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One final important footnote exists to the making Land that might shed some light on these problems that are so easy to misconstrue. In an interview just after the films release Romero stated that he hoped the extended cut might make it for the DVD premiere later on the same year. Unfortunately this extended version never saw the DVD store shelves, but it does raise the question of what was cut. And who cut it.

It seems likely considering Romero’s previous releases and his normal desire to release movies uncensored that these cuts, and their subsequent disappearance, were instigated by Universal. Primarily this was probably to shorten the running time of the movie (less running time equals more times it can be shown in a day, which equals more revenue), and then the movies less than stellar reputation with the fans might be why Universal has not deemed to release the longer cut on DVD or Blu-Ray.

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When all is said most accept that Land is not a bad film, it has its faults and viewers are split on which works and which doesn’t, but most who sit down to watch Land find it an enjoyable enough ride; even if they don’t find it a particularly profound one.

However one thing has become increasingly clear, the evolution of theme and character from Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead places Land squarely in a continuing cycle of films. Rather than it being connected merely by the situation the films are a continuation, direct sequels that concern themselves with theme rather than character.

This was an approach that would not be reused for the next film in the series, and it would be another few years before that movie would get a release. It was then, with 2008’s Diary of the Dead, that the fans and critics alike would see a film that defied them to leave its screening without bitter words.

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