DYING, as an old actor once said, is easy. Comedy is hard.
A similar sentiment might be expressed about "George A. Romero's Land of the Dead," the latest offering from the so-called father of the modern horror film, revered for the 1968 zombie classic "Night of the Living Dead" and its sequels. Dying -- or, in this case, undying -- is easy. Scary is hard.
Don't get me wrong. "Land of the Dead" is fairly intense. Intensely gory and violent, that is, as has come to be expected from the genre. It's just not very frightening. Not half as frightening as, say, last year's "Dawn of the Dead," a remake of Romero's own 1978 film. That remake was not just gory, but way scary, funny and smartly self-aware, with a touch of social critique and a deliciously pessimistic unhappy ending thrown in. Other than the opening shot of "Land," however, in which Romero's camera pans past a battered diner sign pointing in the direction of "Eats" (get it?), there's no real joy in this undertaking, which seems to prize grossing out the members of its audience above freaking them out.
Set in a hypothetical present (an on-screen title identifies the time ominously as "today"), "Land" takes place in a heavily fortified city, where the last of the living have barricaded themselves against the sea of hungry zombies staggering around outside. Surrounded by rivers and an electrified fence, the citizens of this community have been divided into two strata: the elite, who luxuriate in exclusive gated communities and high-rises, and the riffraff who serve them, a few of whom work as mercenary scavengers, slipping out of the city under the cover of night in armored vehicles to collect food and supplies from outlying communities.
Among these mercenaries are Cholo (John Leguizamo), an opportunistic hotshot who makes money on the side in the black market and as an errand boy for the city's heartless ruler, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), and Riley (Simon Baker), an idealist who dreams of one day getting away from all this to Canada (where, presumably, there are no zombies, or, if there are, you can't tell them from the living). As you might expect, the film's central tension arises between these two opposites, one of whom, Cholo, has gone off the reservation with the city's sole armored car, a jury-rigged and missile-equipped tank known as Dead Reckoning. Cholo's mad because Kaufman has not only refused to pay him, but has also denied him an expensive condo, reminding Cholo of his lower-class status.
Riley, along with a crew of (surprise!) hard-boiled but lovable misfits (Asia Argento and Robert Joy), is sent by Kaufman to bring back Dead Reckoning before Cholo can turn its guns against the city. Meanwhile, the zombies (or the "stenches," as they are called for obvious reasons) are evolving from a disorganized, cretinous, cannibalistic horde into a kind of disorganized, cretinous, cannibalistic army, led by a quasi-sentient corpse-general named Big Daddy (Eugene Clark). At least that's the name stitched on his service station jumpsuit. No one actually calls him Big Daddy. I mean, they may act like soldiers, but they're still zombies.
Anyway, Riley has to save the city from Cholo's guns while remaining uneaten. Imagine the tension.
No seriously, you'll have to imagine it, because Romero just doesn't provide it. Blood and guts he's got in spades, with, on the one hand, innumerable shots of zombies feasting on the stringy, gooey, drippy flesh of the living and, on the other, countless instances of Riley and others shooting the heads (and other body parts, but mostly the heads) off the undead. As fans of the genre will recall, a bullet to the brain is the only effective defense against zombies, leading me to think that I must have taken one between the eyes without knowing it.
All of which is not without a certain satisfaction.
It's just that, despite the mindless fun of the yuck factor, there's no real emotional payoff here. (And no, nausea doesn't count as an emotion.) The cast, all of whom run around with looks of gravely theatrical seriousness on their faces, seem less aware that they're surrounded by zombies dead set on eating their characters alive than by movie cameras. They're not the last living human beings in the land of the dead, but a bunch of actors in the "Land of the Dead," where everyone looks like Norman Bates's mother and John Waters on a bad hair day. Romero himself seems to have forgotten one crucial thing, too: Making us sick to our stomachs by showing us a zombie snacking on a man's organs by pulling them up through his mouth is far easier -- and far less rewarding -- than reaching somewhere even deeper than that and scaring the bejesus out of us.
GEORGE A. ROMERO'S LAND OF THE DEAD (R, 94 minutes) -- Contains plentiful gore, violence, some obscenity, toplessness, brief sexuality and drug use. Area theaters.