“Stenches” isn’t just the nickname given to the decrepit zombies in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead. It’s what emits from the screen anytime the horror filmmaker tries to make it scary.
It’s a good thing, then, that Romero’s mostly disinterested in frazzling nerves with his return to the zombie-movie genre he created — a genre as resilient to being put down as its antagonists.
Or are they really the protagonists?
It’s one of many wicked little sociological and satirical points Romero nails in a film that drips with as much subversion as it does blood, tissue and plasma. Some of the genius grotesqueries are done in silhouette, likely to avoid the nasty NC-17.
Exposing ills of the day always has been Romero’s main motivation for each of his zombie movies — racial prejudice, empty-head mall culture, Cold War paranoia. With a little bit of residual ’80s anger (target practice on a very Reagan-esque balloon), he sets his sights both on corporate America and the current administration. Any movie where Dennis Hopper serves as a satirical stand-in for the President of the United States has the right amount of mad-genius energy.
He plays Kaufman, an unscrupulous businessman who has walled off himself and his fat-cat friends from a world overrun by the risen undead. This is unhinged Hopper at his best, with two priceless scenes — a bumbled confrontation with a suspicious underling and a bit of bad hygiene that says everything about the character.
Money alone won’t earn a spot in Fiddler’s Grove, his ivory-tower complex of capitalism. That’s the hard lesson learned by payday-saving Cholo (John Leguizamo), who makes supply runs for Fiddler’s Grove and Kaufman’s vice-riddled, lower-class ghetto below. In retaliation, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning, a heavily armed mobile-command unit used on the runs, with a $5 million ransom and a threat to demolish Fiddler’s Grove.
A panicked Kaufman calls on Cholo’s former supply-run partner Riley (Simon Baker), who designed Dead Reckoning, to track it and bring it back to him. No corporate lackey, Riley has his own plan — one complicated by growing intelligence among a zombie army out to tumble the wall.
Romero’s script crackles with lean, Western-style quips (“No, that’s good shooting. There’s no such thing as nice shooting.”). And his direction balances slick action, well-placed modern effects, a thorough vision of the world he’s created and, of course, copious amounts of wince-worthy gore. Get ready to have bad flashbacks for some time whenever someone flashes a bellybutton ring.
The filmmaker’s only mistake was casting horribly inexpressive Asia Argento as Slack, the tough-talking female lead. Perhaps it was an ill-guided favor from one horror master to another; Asia’s dad is Suspiria director Dario Argento. (Horror-buff cameos from makeup guru Tom Savini and Shaun of the Dead co-creators Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright are far better in-jokes.)
It’s a good thing most of the other actors fit so well. Aside from the leads, little-known character player Robert Joy shines as scarred sidekick Charlie. And Pedro Miguel Arce, as a Samoan mercenary appropriately named Pillsbury, provides short-sentence comic relief.
A sunshiny ending (complete with fireworks) seems a little odd for Romero. But it doesn’t soften his blow. Cockroaches won’t be the only species to live through an apocalypse. You can count on the surviving haves fashioning a sector of have-nots to exploit. Brains are all over the place in both respects in Land of the Dead, a fine example of hard-R genre fun.