For decades, George A. Romero struggled with the possibility of mounting a sequel to Day of the Dead, continuing his fly-by-night sequence of undead films that endlessly retcon the source material while constantly introducing new characters. The excised bits of Day of the Dead formed the genesis of another film, and after the monumental successes of 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead, he was granted the full budget and creative control befitting his latest vision of the undead, and thus Land of the Dead was born.
Some years after the events of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the surviving humans have sought refuge in defensible major cities. In this case, Pittsburgh, with rivers blocking off two sides and an easily defended overland entrance, has become a modern citadel with the wealthiest occupying the posh Fiddler’s Green and the poor occupying the streets while soldiers keep things on an even keel. Since supplies are needed from the outside world, raids are conducted under the command of Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) and Cholo Demora (John Leguizamo), both of whom run a massively armored battle tank with weapons galore known as Dead Reckoning. Denbo seeks the essentials and a way out, while Demora squabbles for a way into the Green via expensive gifts and questionable favors to the head honcho Paul Kaufman (a delectable Dennis Hopper). Needless to say, few people get what they want.
The catch is that the ‘smart’ undead hinted at in Day of the Dead have become smarter in the street, personified by Big Daddy, a zombie both too big and too intelligent for his britches. After witnessing a raid on a suburban town, Big Daddy leads a cadre of the undead toward the big city with gruesome results. The learning zombies are enough to dissuade some audiences, but since Romero invented the modern zombie, it’s wise to consider his perspective.
Like previous films, Romero tackles modern social issues in Land of the Dead, focusing on the ever widening income gap between the rich and the poor. Indeed, there is no middle ground shown in Land of the Dead; the rich insulate themselves in the Green while the poor live on the streets, provided with drugs, gambling, and prostitutes to keep them out of the hair of the bigwigs. Fitting, considering that Romero’s other target is the contemporary desire to just forget about troubling things by walling ourselves off and overindulging in escapism. It may not be Bergman, but the fact that Land of the Dead has ideas that don’t distract from the fun help it outclass a dozen other zombie romps.
Though much of Land of the Dead is laden with predictable character arcs and features a predilection toward the contemporary fad of circular dialogue, the film is tightly plotted and well acted enough to come off without a hitch. Even better, Romero positively refuses to abandon his penchant for campy gore and manages to pull off a series of stomach-churning shocks that fail to be equaled by any contemporary zombie film. The master can be seen at work when a zombie pulls a man’s vital organs out through his mouth and when another walking corpse bites off a navel piercing in the final assault.
Armed with a budget to match his formidable tastes, Romero finally gets enough money to attract a few stars and a slew of memorable cameos. Asia Argento, an overseas acting virtuoso and daughter of Dario Argento, a big Dawn of the Dead financier and legendary filmmaker in his own right, gets to stretch her muscles in a campy role she was born to play. Robert Joy also turns in a nuanced performance as Denbo’s permanently scarred but eminently useful right-hand man, and Leguizamo is better than he’s been in years. The rockstar, of course, is Dennis Hopper; Kaufman not only struts and sneers his way through the best dialogue, he chews scenery with the best of the them and has the most comedic moment in the series when he decides to execute a curious adversary in a moment of pique, only to realize his folly moments later. Cameos include Shaun of the Dead writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright as imprisoned corpses in a photo booth, but the best is one of the most indelible secondary characters in Dawn of the Dead and a legend in the field of gore makeup who reprises his role from the aforementioned film for a final moment in the undead sun.
The gloss on Land of the Dead prevents it from joining the ranks of its inimitable predecessors, particularly in the delightfully showy climax that is as uneven as it is unpredictable. The stylized dialogue is a bit too gaudy for the likes of Romero films, and as previously stated, some of the characters are a bit too slick to function realistically, but it’s hard to ignore that this Hollywood iteration of Romero still possesses a heart that outclasses all of its contemporary brethren.
With the zombie fad in full swing, Romero would get the budget for a few more zombie outings amongst a sea of dregs, but his writing and occasionally directing panache would eventually fail him in a fast-paced world requiring an expedited output; nevertheless, Land of the Dead stands up to the most serious of the post-2000 zombie fare with elegance and violence to spare. With so many pretenders to the throne, it’s good to have Romero hold onto the reigns with a series that spans almost 40 years.
The unrated director’s cut of Land of the Dead is undoubtedly the version to own, and fortunately it is cheap, widely available on both DVD and Blu-ray, and often paired with the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, forming an unassailable duo of modern zombie films that is a must-own for all undead aficionados.