Edinburgh International Film Festival

Land of the Dead (2005)

Starring: Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy, Eugene A Clark

Directed by: George A Romero

Rating: 1 2 3 4

George A Romero directs Land of the Dead

In 1968, George A Romero changed the face of horror films forever with his coruscating attack on American family values and social structures, Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later, he returned with another snapshot of a sick society, Dawn of the Dead, in which mindless zombies shamble around a vast shopping mall, the power of consumerism their motivating force even in death.

In 1985, Day of the Dead saw soldiers and scientists clash in an underground bunker, the former hell bent on destroying the undead that besiege them, the latter determined to discover why the dead are rising up against them.

And in the '90s. oh. Due to, well, not really getting round to it, it would appear, there was no 'Dead' film in the '90s. But now George A Romero is back, back, back. and so are the living dead.

In the 20 years that he's been absent from the undead scene, zombies have moved on. Out of favour during the late '80s and '90s, the 21st century saw them return with a vengeance. In Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, they learnt to run (so wrong, but never mind), a talent they retained in Zack Snyder's high octane, MTV style remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004. So where, one wonders, could Romero possibly take us now? Zombies that can swim? Er, don't joke.

Dennis Hopper as ruthless entrepreneur Kaufman in George A Romero's Land of the Dead

In an unmissable parody of post 9/11 Republican insularity, Land of the Dead sees an America that has battened down the hatches. Under the control of ruthless entrepreneur Kaufman (a cross between Lex Luther and George Bush, played by Dennis Hopper in remarkably restrained mode), the living are corralled behind high security barriers guarded by heavily armed soldiers, while the dead (looking particularly decaying and grim, you'll be pleased to hear) roam aimlessly outside.

Yet within the relative safety of the city of the living, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots gapes wider than ever, the rich sitting pretty in luxury penthouses whilst the poor live hand to mouth on the streets. In a nice nod to Shaun of the Dead, underground entertainment includes zombie paintball, betting on zombie fights and getting one's photo taken next to two gruesome undead specimens - Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, no less.

Simon Baker as Riley in George A Romero's Land of the Dead

Led by our hero, Riley (Ring 2's Simon Baker), crack teams of hunters are sent out by night to forage for supplies in the abandoned towns and cities nearby. Riding jeeps, motorbikes and a monster truck called Dead Reckoning and armed to the teeth with some serious weaponry, they ooze that Mad Max/Lost Boys cool I find so irresistible as they roar around the countryside in search of supermarkets to raid and zombies to decapitate.

At first the zombies don't seem to pose much of a problem - all the hunters need do to distract their attention is let off a few fireworks (nice), whilst the entire team are such unerringly accurate shots that those who do attack are quickly dispatched. But, as Riley notes uneasily, something's changing out there.

Big Daddy (Eugene A Clark) leads the zombie masses to the city

Zombies are supposed to be mindless, animated corpses, motivated by nothing beyond an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Yet some zombies are, well, evolving. They're learning to communicate, to work together and (it's so good, you gotta love it) to use tools. Guns, for example... Following the lead of super clever undead gas attendant 'Big Daddy' (Eugene A Clark - who, alongside Penelope Wilton, deserves a prize for actually managing to invest the role of a zombie with pathos and nobility), the zombie masses are on the move, and they have one thing on their minds (if zombies have minds - the big question really, I suppose): the city.

Throw in a threatened terrorist attack by Riley's ex-sidekick Cholo (John Leguizamo), some really quite gorgeous gore (watch out for the bellybutton piercing and the finger nails - ye gods, that's grim) and some lovely zombie make up and you have the perfect explosive recipe for a fast-paced, exciting action horror movie that also makes you think (a bit, anyway).

Whilst cherry picking the best bits of the Dawn remake, Romero yet offers a less nihilistic view of society. So we have far fewer scenes of human beings trampling over each other in a rush to escape the zombie hordes, and far more positive images of mutual aid and comradeship. At the same time as clearly delineating the chasms between rich and poor, living and dead, in the right wing, military, brave new world created by Kaufman, Romero also holds out the possibility of hope for the future. The ending is almost sentimental, for Chrissake - ol' George must be mellowing in his old age.

Zombies beseige attack truck Dead Reckoning in Land of the Dead

While perhaps not the 'masterpiece' it's been declared, Land of the Dead is nevertheless a hugely entertaining horror flick, filled with nice jumpy moments to make you start out of your seat, laced with a healthy streak of dark humour and peopled by characters you can actually care about (my favourite was simple Charlie - what a bless pot!). This is no postmodern Scream fest (unlike Wes Craven, Romero seems to feel no need to dissect or poke fun at the genre he invented), but this doesn't stop him playing with our expectations, and the feeling of delighted glee you get as Big Daddy first lays his yellow eyes on a gun is unbeatable. So forget weird, creepy Japanese horror remakes: Land of the Dead is the real, rotting, decomposing deal. Brains. brains.? Yes, this film has some - along with plenty of gore.

Land of the Dead premiered in the UK at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (I was in a cinema with George A Romero - how cool is that?) and is due for general release later in the year. Check out the official website, www.landofthedeadmovie.net, to find out more.

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