George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” is the fourth zombie movie in the last three years to be given a mainstream release in America. But one must only look as far as the name that appears before the title to realize that this is not a calculated attempt to piggyback the genre’s newfound popularity. Instead, it is the legendary director’s long-awaited follow-up to 1985’s “Day of the Dead.” It is also only the fourth zombie movie Romero has made since inventing the genre in 1968 with “The Night of the Living Dead.”
“28 Years Later” re-invigorated zombies with a sci-fi twist, and last year’s re-make of Romero’s 1978 opus “Dawn of the Dead” was fast and furious for the MTV generation. “Shaun of the Dead” paid hilarious tribute to the master, and it is now an established cult hit. But none of these zombie flicks sport the wicked satire that Romero offers in all of his films, including, I am happy to report, “Land of the Dead.”
In a world completely overrun by zombies, there is an isolated city of humans protected by electric fences and surrounded by water. Like any civilization, there are the haves and the have-nots. The upper class live in luxury, provided by a rich businessman named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) in the self-contained hi-rise towers of Fiddler’s Green, where the rich can live their lives free of the worries of the outside world. The have-nots, on the other hand, live in abject poverty and pass the time with typical low class diversions like gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Are the zombies barricaded out or have the humans locked themselves in?
When the dead begin to walk in zombie movies, it has a way of unifying humanity under the banner of survival. Romero’s vision, however, is more interested with the eventual destruction of the humans’ natural bond, and his movies spotlight humanity’s ugly side. An ex-hooker named Slack (Asia Argento) is attacked by zombies in a ring for the amusement of a crowd, and is saved by Riley (Simon Baker), the only person there who realizes the depravity of the situation. The humans have debased themselves so much that they revel in their own exploitation.
Riley’s travel companion is Charlie, a slow-witted burn victim who is also a crack shot with a rifle. Like “Of Mice and Men,” he is Lennie to Riley’s George, and the pair reluctantly work for Kaufman, venturing outside the city to ransack dilapidated buildings for supplies. Riley yearns to quit pillaging for the walled-in society and head for the open spaces of Canada, while his comrade-in-arms Cholo (John Leguizamo) wants to escape in a different way. He believes that he’s paid his dues as a foot soldier and deserves to live in the carefree extravagance of Fiddler’s Green.
The themes of oppression and greed are tied even more relevantly in “Land of the Dead” than any of its predecessors, making this a more overtly political film. There is the requisite amount of racial slurs and white men behaving badly that peppered “Dawn” and “Day,” but Hopper hilariously parodies ruling-class selfishness, playing Kaufman with the self-awareness of a virtually indestructible man. When Kaufman refuses Cholo entry into the Green, the warrior kidnaps an armored vehicle for millions of dollars in ransom. Kaufman petulantly refuses to pay, screaming, “We will not bargain with terrorists!”
Kaufman’s vision exists and thrives by turning a blind eye to what goes on in the outside world. This may work in the short run for some countries, Romero suggests, but it will eventually be their undoing. The zombies, in a nifty parallel with “Frankenstein,” are beginning to learn. Under the leadership of a burly gas station attendant zombie who just happens to be black (Eugene Clark), they overcome obstacles through trial and error and stumble on the ability to operate machine guns. Hopper’s outrage at the unlikely intrusion of the brainless zombies into his sacred community is the same as it was when Cholo wanted to join the club of rich exclusivity— “You have no right!” It is also may be a scary reflection of deluded CEOs everywhere.
While Romero certainly works up a good amount of sympathy for the zombies, he also relishes in watching them get destroyed in all sorts of creative ways. If gore is what you crave from a zombie flick, then “Land of the Dead” delivers the goods there as well, albeit in an R-rated format, unlike its predecessors’ low-budget unrated versions. He and famed makeup man Greg Nicotero also revel in the gory deaths of those selfish humans, and those are doled out in almost equal parts.
One scene in particular sums up Romero’s idea of the desperation of those in power and the stubbornness to which they hold on to it. Terror sweeps over the rich people when the zombies break in. Unlike “Dawn of the Dead,” the mall is not empty this time, and they feast on the fleeing members of privileged society. As one victim scrambles fruitlessly to get away while his legs are being munched on, his arms are stretched out to anything or anybody he can grab to help. What he comes up with is the leg of a terrified woman who is moments away from escape. Instead, the man trips her up, foiling her escape, and she is eaten as well.
Perhaps the movie’s original title suited the film better: “Dead Reckoning.”