*Land of the Dead (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Human flesh isn't merely consumed in George Romero's post-apocalyptic zombie flick Land of the Dead. It's what's for dinner.
Director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) eschews shock-and-dagger suspense for a blunt attack on the senses.
The result is a movie simultaneously more brutal, chilling and tongue-in-cheek than any other mainstream horror release this year.
The film opens with a trio of hideous zombies playing tuba, trombone and tambourine in a backyard gazebo. Having ravaged most of the world, the zombies now find themselves just as bored and listless as the suburbanites they've replaced.
Meanwhile, the last living humans have forged a peninsula redoubt in Manhattan. Most of the survivors live in mangy squalor, while a chosen few live in a quarantined luxury hotel owned by Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper).
A small corps of human soldiers crosses the barricades guarding them from the land of the dead each night. Lead characters Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) are co-commanders of the human team. They guide a series of Mad Max-style vehicles, including a huge tank train called "Dead Reckoning," into the zombie-infested streets to scrounge for food supplies.
While Riley does what he can to protect the crew, Cholo selfishly raids liquor stores for booze and cigars. As a result, one of Cholo's men is bitten by a zombie, which means he will turn into one himself within one hour.
But when Cholo returns to safety, he is unrepentant. He carries a box of liquor and cigars to Fiddler's Green, the luxury hotel where lucky humans live in an ultra-chic world of shopping and fine dining. Cholo tries to bribe Kaufman into giving him an apartment in the coveted building, but Kaufman throws him out on the street.
Feeling betrayed, Cholo takes revenge by stealing Dead Reckoning, giving the zombies a perfect opportunity to invade the human stronghold. Led by a burly former gas station attendant with a knack for innovation, the zombies storm the fences and wade through the Harbor.
Any human in their way is unmercifully slain and gobbled, and Romero doesn't spare the gory details. Spinal cords are yanked from human trunks, zombie arms plunge into victims' throats and piles of dead are devoured.
Riley, his gun-toting burn-victim sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy) and Slack (Asia Argento), a prostitute they rescue, represent the last hope against the zombie onslaught.
Romero rolls out the thrills with perfect pacing. More akin to an ultra-violent action film than a true thriller, Land of the Dead nonetheless contains several jump-from-your-seat scenes that send popcorn flying.
What makes this film a classic, however, is the story's critical subtext, delivered in a nightmarish version of Titanic. Romero presents a stratified society: the rich who live in Fiddler's Green, the poor who make Kaufman rich through his sleazy rackets, and the police. In the end, they all end up equalized by a destructive and sickening force. No character is entirely good, and that's satisfying in this age of predictable horror films.
While there are a few gaffes, such as Slack's sudden change of accent, this film is streamlined and ready to shock. Just don't bring children or the elderly.
-- Dan Wilcock