George Romero inhabits a peculiar realm in American cinema. He is both a political provocateur, championing the cause of the common man, and the king of zombie gore, the lowbrow art of human disembowelment, decapitation, and so on. Land of the Dead is his fourth zombie picture, a sequel of sorts to his last “___of the Dead’ picture, Day of the Dead. It all began, of course, with the infamous ’60s shocker Night of the Living Dead, which combined social commentary and, at the time, shocking gore. It was a combo that inspired a whole genre, the zombie-athon, and countless imitators, very few of which are as inspired as any of Romero’s. (The engaging and referential Shaun of the Dead comes closest.)
The story takes place in a future where most of Earth’s population has become zombified. A few small pockets of the living exist in barricaded cities and eke out a sad existence in a class society, where the rich live in giant glass towers and the poor wander the streets below under the watchful gaze of the roaming zombies. In one such city, a tycoon named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) controls a team of scavengers adept at searching outlying suburbs for medicine, food, and sundries, and, naturally, they’re great at zombie hunting. Led by Riley (Simon Baker), the team rides about in a Mad Max-ian caravan, with a vehicle called “Dead Reckoning,” an urban assault train that closely resembles the truck in Damnation Alley. Riley is about to retire and make his way north to Canada, where he plans to live as a hermit in the woods far from any people or zombies. But his scheming co-scavenger Cholo (John Leguizamo) is a brash thorn in Riley’s side. While the natives in the city are getting restless, tired of Kaufman’s domineering and the rich folks’ fancy living, the zombies outside the city are moving in, led by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a “stencher” (zombie) who’s beginning to think and reason. And zombies aren’t supposed to be able to do that.
Romero’s pictures are uniquely American. The frame is always on small, personal stories played out against a grander vista. There are only one or two long shots of zombie hordes in Land of Dead; most of the picture takes place in limited landscapes with only a handful of people. Romero’s style is subdued, craftsman-like. He doesn’t play with camera angles, there are no fancy edits or sped up sequences, no montages, no rock songs blasting out over action scenes. This is working class cinema in its truest sense. Romero delivers the goods in spades: he heaps on the shocks, the blood, the action, the humor and the politics.
Politics? Yeah, that last one is what makes Romero unique amongst his horror film contemporaries. Romero’s characters are ciphers, they don’t have much in the way of background or emotional investment, they do what they do ‘cause they represent something. Land of the Dead plays evenly with class warfare, racism and social welfare. The zombies that wander the dead world are in many ways more human than the humans scrabbling to keep some semblance of normality in an increasingly unreal world. Cholo isn’t a clever character so much as he is a representation of every underpaid, abused Mexican worker in America. Kaufman (this cuts awfully close to anti-Semitism) is a rich white guy (he must be a Republican because he says things like ‘we will not bow down to terrorists’) who lives in an ivory tower, has a black servant, and cares only for himself and his money. Riley is your prototypical working-class hero who just wants to get away from it all and sympathizes with the zombies (the other suppressed proletariat). Slick, played by Asia Argento — daughter of Italy’s reigning king of giallo (Italian thrillers), Dario Argento — a hooker rescued from a demented bar where patrons bet on zombies battling it out in a cage and where teens can get their pictures taken with chained up zombies, has, no surprise, a heart of gold.
Despite the presence of all these prototypical characters, Romero keeps the film fast-moving and fun. This is the kind of picture where audience members hoot and holler and throw their popcorn and young lovers huddle at every shock scene. Every five minutes a zombie pops out and chomps down on some unlucky bastard’s arm, leg, neck, belly-button ring, or eyeball. The special effects — enhanced only minimally with CGI — are as gruesome as they come. (It’s an homage to the grindhouse films that played Times Square — like Romero’s — before Disney swept aside all the filth.) It’s gross, to say the least, but the whole thing is couched in a carnival-like atmosphere. If you’re coming to one of these films you pretty much know what to expect and how to enjoy the ride.
Land of the Dead is the biggest and baddest beast in Romero’s canon. And it may as well be the last word on American zombie cinema. And while it’s not a self-referential film or a post-modernist romp like the Scream franchise, Romero plays loosely with his cards and wins on every level.