In War of the Worlds cinematographer Janusz Kaminski takes naturally to getting into the trenches with an in-your-face first-hand approach to the mayhem. It’s aptly complimented by the stark, realistic settings evoked by production designer Rick Carter. Dennis Muren and his team of special-effects wizards tear up the earth in the manner of an earthquake with a cacophony of sound to enhance the experience. In Land of the Dead, cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak affects the cool iciness of an Edward Hopper painting that effectively mutes the grotesque qualities of the drone-like army. It’s also a rigorous challenge met by the makeup and prosthetics team with supervisor Gregory Nicotero superbly taking over the reins from Tom Savini, who started the process for Romero almost three decades ago.The end of the world literally, or as we’ve known it, is the core of both War of the Worlds and Land of the Dead. It’s a theme that goes back at least to the dawn of the talkies when Abel Gance’s La Fin du Monde had his movie scientists warning of imminent disaster from a comet on a collision course with the earth. A few years later H.G. Wells envisioned a post-apocalyptic era in The Shape of Things to Come when war turned the future into medieval times with only the shell of its glorious past standing as a stark reminder of better times.However, it was only with the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the subject evolved into a genre. The 1950s was rife with tales of man’s misuse of power turning the planet into a wasteland or being the primary cause of a mutant strain that threatened his very existence. Its apotheosis came in The Incredible Shrinking Man, when a nuclear mist caused its protagonist to literally diminish and disappear from the face of the earth.War of the Worlds, based on Wells’ 1898 novel of global annihilation, envisions man in a desperate fight against Martian invaders. Adapted for radio by Orson Wells in 1938, the anxious tale of interglobal combat set off a brief but telling national hysteria, and its first film translation in 1953 was laden with Cold War references. The new adaptation as well as Land of the Dead cannot help but echo memories of September 11, 2001. In War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg, the gutted shell of an airplane and the chaos of fleeing crowd captured seemingly by someone with an unsteady grip on a camcorder are intense visual reminders of the recent past.Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, ASC, as in Saving Private Ryan, takes naturally to getting into the trenches with an in-your-face first-hand approach to the mayhem. It’s aptly complimented by the stark, realistic settings evoked by production designer Rick Carter.But unlike past versions, the contemporary metaphor pretty much ends with these images. It is foremost a special-effects movie with dazzling creations that fill one with awe and wonder rather than fear and horror. The first sight of the “tripods”—machines the size of a skyscraper that lumber along vicariously dispensing death via a vaporizing ray—recall an awkwardly graceful giraffe, hardly the embodiment of terror.The threat remains remote largely because even though the invader is presumably a species of a higher evolution than humans, he does not communicate with his prey. The reason for his malevolent arrival is vague.The basic focus of the yarn is prosaic and a little bit too reminiscent of Spielberg’s friendlier aliens efforts in Close Encounters and E.T. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) operates a crane on the New Jersey docks. He’s divorced and the father of two children that arrive for a weekend on the eve of invasion. Naturally self-centered and inattentive, crisis will make him a better person. He will guard his brood to the death against the pernicious presence.The film is best appreciated as a visit to an amusement park with at least a half dozen thrill rides to keep one’s adrenaline pumping. Dennis Muren and his team of special-effects wizards tear up the earth in the manner of an earthquake with a cacophony of sound to enhance the experience. The alien attack on a ferry has its occupants scurrying for safety in the manner of Titanic passengers as the thing’s tentacles up-end the craft and a high speed chase on a highway littered with inoperable vehicles makes for a dazzling obstacle course.The picture’s most dazzling image lasts no more than a few seconds. A group waiting at a railway crossing hears an approaching train and seconds later it speeds by engulfed completely in flames like a fiery comet. It is these startling reminders and the more introspective moments when characters emotionally prepare for an inevitable siege that suggest a far more intelligent and compelling film than the one on view.Land of the Dead isn’t the effective antidote to War of the Worlds but on a very basic level it succeeds in marrying genre convention with social analogies. Filmmaker George Romero redefined horror movies with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and his subsequent zombie forays have demonstrated an evolving skill and sensibility.In his vision of the near future, the zombie horde has evolved from mindless predators into pack animals with an intuitive sense for survival. The “straight” world is a latter day Metropolis in which the very privileged live in cocooned luxury while the workers and soldiers subsist in squalor, and through cunning manipulation do their bidding. The threat from these aliens surrounding their borders has allowed the bosses to strip society of basic liberties in the name of order and security. There is more than a sliver of hypocrisy in the control dictated in this bubble environment.Romero shares with Spielberg the priority to entertain. His proclivity is for decidedly more graphic and disturbing images that limit his appeal to a core crowd and the rarified cognoscenti. But in this instance he has a better and more assured story to tell. In the midst of the zombie threat, a soldier with crossover aspiration threatens to expose the dirty deeds of the chief administrator Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) unless he’s elevated in station. Rather than accede to the blackmail, a deal is struck with another soldier, Riley (Simon Baker), to bring him down in exchange for the freedom to leave the compound. Of course it’s more complex because the prevalent menace is rapidly mounting.With the film primarily set from dusk to dawn, cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak affects the cool iciness of an Edward Hopper painting that effectively mutes the grotesque qualities of the drone-like army. It is a low-tech carnival, littered with makeshift housing and equipment save for the automatic weapons employed against the advancing menace. It’s also a rigorous challenge met by the makeup and prosthetics team with supervisor Gregory Nicotero superbly taking over the reins from Tom Savini (who appears briefly as a zombie raider) who started the process for Romero almost three decades ago.Ultimately it is a story of blood and not simply gore. Tainted blood is a significant literary metaphor whether applied to the breakdown of society or the transference of disease and with the intertwined narrative threads, Land of the Dead organically weds both strains into a disturbing, gut-wrenching viewing experience.
Written by Len Klady