George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” is the fourth installment in the legendary filmmaker’s “Dead” series, which began in the ’60s with “Night of the Living Dead”, continued into the ’70s with “Dawn of the Dead”, and seemingly concluded with “Day of the Dead” in the ’80s. There were rumors of a fourth film in the ’90s, to be called “Twilight of the Dead”, but that film never came to pass. Now, with the sudden resurgence of popularity for all things zombie, it seems only right that George Romero, the progenitor of the genre, should get his shot at the big screen once again.
In “Land of the Dead”, zombies have overrun the planet, leaving humans scattered in self-contained outposts built out of leftover cities. One such place is Pittsburgh, which uses its surrounding water (on three sides) and a long fence (on the fourth) to keep out the undead. The ruler of this new Eden is the sleazy Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who employs a mercenary army to watch over his riches, as well as to keep the populace that lives in the city’s slums away from the exclusive Fiddler’s Green high-rise.
In Pittsburgh, you either work for Kaufman or you end up dead. One man who has had enough of working for Kaufman is Riley (Simon Baker), one of many scavengers Kaufman uses to raid the surrounding towns for supplies. Riley and his band, including the ambitious Cholo (John Leguizamo), use a heavily armored vehicle called the Dead Reckoning on their jaunts through the zombie-infested towns. In one such town, a zombie who used to be a gas station attendant by the name of Big Daddy (it’s written on his nametag) has begun to slowly regain the ability to think, to organize, and to teach…
There is a lot going on in Romero’s “Land of the Dead”, and the film deftly explains its horrific world to newcomers with a slick opening credit sequence. As the hero of the piece, Riley knows all too well that Pittsburgh is no more salvation than the abandoned towns beyond the city limits, and he wants out. But that’s easier said than done, since at the same time Riley is planning to head up to Canada with his deadshot sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy), Cholo gets on the bad side of Kaufman and goes on the lam with the Dead Reckoning. After saving a prostitute name Slack (Asia Argento, “XXX”) from zombies, Riley gets tossed in jail, but is released by Kaufman to go after Cholo.
There are some nifty moments in “Land of the Dead”, including everything involving the Dead Reckoning. The invincible truck is a rolling crowd pleaser, especially when it opens up with its high-powered machineguns, which it does much too little of. John Leguizamo is the highlight of the cast; after he is spurned by Kaufman, Cholo makes plans for revenge that involves the Dead Reckoning’s rocket launchers. Asia Argento, who I had bagged on for her past works (I believe I used the word “skank” a couple of times) is actually very good as the prostitute-turned-zombie fighter, and I enjoyed her subtle moments with Simon Baker. Best of all, there’s an iconic shot of the zombies emerging out of the water that’s just brilliantly executed.
If you were to grade your zombie films based on gore, then “Land of the Dead” would rate a 5 on a 5-point scale. Romero hasn’t forgotten what zombie fans want — gore, gore, and more gore. And oh my do they ever get their fill. The bloody squibs explode on a regular basis and the bodily carnage is on an epic scale. Sliced arms, exploding bodies, heads hanging from muscle sinew — you name it, “Land” serves them up in all their vicious, unholy glory. From beginning to end, the brain matter gets splattered regularly and “Land of the Dead” might be one of the goriest films in recent years to manage an “R” rating.
Unfortunately not everything about “Land” works as well as it should. The climactic Third Act features the zombie army finally punching through the human defenses, but instead of having Riley and company in the thick of the battle, they are instead chasing Cholo in the countryside, well removed from the action. Also, Romero’s use of Kaufman and his waspy Fiddler’s Green residents as social commentary is too hamfisted and unnecessarily blunt. In fact, I’m still not sure where Kaufman got that black servant of his — was he magically transported from the 1880s? The film is probably too action-oriented, and despite the overwhelming presence of darkness, “Land” is never really as scary as it should be. There are also a hefty amount of “boo” scare moments that I could have done without, especially since I knew, to the very second, when they would come.
For gore, zombie mayhem, and an unvarnished look at human nature run amok, no one does it better than George Romero. He is, after all, the unquestionable master of the genre, and as such deserves all the wealth and fortune the genre can bestow upon him. Is “Land of the Dead” as good as it could be? No. In a way, the big budget probably hamstrings Romero’s creativity, allowing him to rely on the spectacular gore effects (and they really are quite spectacular) as a crutch rather than crafting a more involving story out of necessity. Nevertheless, this is George Romero and he’s doing zombies again, and for now, that’s enough.
(For those wondering, Yes, Tom Savini does make an appearance — as the biker zombie from “Dawn of the Dead”.)
George A. Romero (director) / George A. Romero (screenplay)
CAST: Simon Baker …. Riley
John Leguizamo …. Cholo
Asia Argento …. Slack
Robert Joy …. Charlie
Dennis Hopper …. Kaufman
Eugene Clark …. Big Daddy