THE DEAD LIVE: John Leguizamo fights off zombie.
When you boil them all down, movie monsters — to a man, woman, beast or Thing — all have something in common: their reliance on those animal fears we as humans hold bone-deep inside ourselves. For Dracula, it’s the fear of the dead coming back to life, of bloodsuckers, of the foreign “other” who can move among us unseen and — even worse — turn us into the thing we hate. Blood pollution is on the menu again for the Wolfman, along with a terror of having our feral side run amok. For Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and every ghost story you ever heard around a campfire, it’s the oldest of fears: that the dead are going to come back and take their vengeance on the living.
When director George Romero made his cult classic “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, he not only birthed a genre, he also created the blueprint for what might be the purest monster ever put to film. His shambling, groaning zombies — rising from the grave and “living” to feed on human flesh — not only made for a great scare, they were the ultimate conglomeration of everything our Cold War and Vietnam-stoked minds could fear: equal parts other, animal-self run amok, walking virus, cannibal, ghost come back to terrorize the living, and maybe even a little of the old Communist Menace. What do the living dead want? They want to bite you and turn you into one of them. How do you kill them? A shot to the brain — the center of self. Methinks there’s a fair-to-middlin’ MFA thesis in film in there somewhere.
Now, Romero is back with “Land of the Dead.” An updated living dead movie for the 21st century, it perfectly fits America’s post-9/11 bunker mentality. Though not jump-out-and-gitcha scary, it is a scary movie, full of wry comments on society, power and war. In short, it might be the best “Living Dead” movie yet by any director.
Romero sets his scene long after the zombie apocalypse. With rural America overrun, the survivors have pulled back to the cities — in this case, a city that’s supposed to be Pittsburgh, walled off from Zombieland by a series of barricades, machine-gun emplacements, and electric fences.
While the wealthy are ensconced in high-rise luxury — led by the city’s suitably slimy mayor/despot Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) — the common folk live in squalor and vice down in the streets. Feeding this monster is Riley (Simon Baker), the head of the city’s requisition force, a group of armed-to-the-teeth guerrillas who make frequent and increasingly long-distance forays into no-man’s-land to loot for canned goods and other things the city needs to survive. When we join the story, Riley is just about to retire, with plans to leave and go north in search of a fabled promised land. However, when Riley’s second-in-command Cholo (John Leguizamo) goes AWOL, taking with him the city’s giant, armored foraging vehicle, Kaufman makes Riley an offer he can’t refuse: Bring back Cholo and the truck, and he’ll make sure he gets out of town in style. Add to this the fact that one of the zombies (Big Daddy, played by Eugene Clark) in an outlying town has gotten “smart,” teaching others to use tools, weapons and guns — not to mention letting them in on the fact that they can breach the river and get at the fortified city — and the scene is set for the Big Showdown.
One thing I liked about “Land of the Dead” was Romero’s willingness to let his movie bear the scarlet “R” — as in an R rating. Directors of many “horror” movies today are all too willing to let their films be whittled down to PG-13. While this assures a bigger box office, it also pretty much guarantees that the movie in question will be about as scary as watching your grandmother take out her false teeth for the night. Here, however, Romero goes hell-bent for leather, with all the entrail-eating gore and pitch-black humor fans expect from a good living dead flick.
While it’s not for everybody — and especially not for kids — “Land of the Dead” does manage to provide fans a letter-perfect cap to the genre Romero created, provided by the master himself. Let’s all hope he’s got another one in him.
— By David Koon
Light summer DVD
Maybe you don’t want to waste $7.50 a ticket for a new theatrical release, and we understand. Here’s a suggestion for the stay-at-home sort: the Will Smith-starring romantic comedy “Hitch,” just released on DVD and which did an impressive $177 million at the box office.
Performances are believable and fun; the cast is attractive and Kevin James’ dancing is worth the rental fee. The DVD includes a gag reel and lots of extras. Be sure and watch the credits for some serious “Soul Train” wedding dancing.
Smith is Alex “Hitch” Hitchens and he’s got the looks, the charm and the wardrobe to sweep any woman with a pulse right off her feet. The good news: Hitch has chosen to use his powers for good. He’s the date doctor working with the charm-challenged, not-so-confident men around Manhattan who are in love with women who don’t know they exist.
Enter James (“King of Queens”) as a hapless lovesick accountant who’s head over heels for a Hilton-type heiress played by Amber Valetta. While Hitch is concerned James is “swinging for the fences” he loves the challenge.
Meanwhile Hitch meets a beautiful gossip columnist played by Eva Mendes who’s way too guarded to fall for his moves, and this time Hitch is the one who needs the date doctor. On date 1 Mr. Smooth accidentally kicks her in the head and brings up a horrible family secret, but in true Hollywood movie-making style this is what makes him endearing.
The two-hour film is rated PG-13 for language.
— By Renee Shapiro