George Romero is the undisputed creator of the zombie genre. His film Night of the Living Dead was a masterpiece of horror — with a dash of social commentary and a focus at least as much on the human interaction as on the zombies, it was an heart-stopping horror film with a bit of intelligence. Now, after giving us Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, Romero has released his fourth movie in the Dead series: Land of the Dead. Although it does have plenty of social
commentary it lacks the character development necessary to lift it above standard Hollywood horror movies.
The story revolves around a handful of people living in an unnamed city several years after the zombie plague has spread around the world. It has been thoroughly barricaded against zombies. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) runs everything in the city from his penthouse high in Fiddler’s Green, the skyscraper where the wealthy live in luxury away from the poor in the rest of the city. The town is supplied by mercenaries, led by the calm and heroic Riley (Simon Baker).
His team uses an armored tank-like vehicle called Dead Reckoning to go on supply runs. They blast into the small towns around the city, distract the
zombies with fireworks, and steal whatever food and other supplies they can find.
It’s a stable, if often grossly unfair, society. All that changes, of course — stable societies aren’t all that entertaining. Two things happen to send this society crashing down: Riley’s second in command, Cholo (John Leguizamo), tries to get accepted into Fiddler’s Green and is refused and the zombies organize under the leadership of a zombie called Big Daddy in the credits (Eugene Clark). The zombies in “Land of the Dead” are evolving, developing the ability to
communicate on a very basic level and even to cook up elementary plans of attack. This is not a good omen for the folk of Fiddler’s Green.
There’s plenty of social commentary, of course; this would hardly be a Romero film without it. Cholo goes on a rampage when Kaufman won’t let him move into Fiddler’s Green; he steals Dead Reckoning and threatens to bomb the city. Big Daddy is a sympathetic character — his rage when Riley’s team kill some of the zombies in his town is very
human, and it leads to his desire for revenge. But it’s difficult to tell exactly what Romero is trying to say. Are the zombies meant to represent terrorists? Or is Cholo meant to represent them?
Clearly, there’s an indictment of rich people who live in splendor and ignore the problems of the world — the zombie rampage through the skyscraper dwells with relish upon the gory end of those insensitive wealthy folk. But the film resonates with issues around the Iraq war without quite
making a coherent point.
Don’t be deceived by all the social commentary, though. This is definitely a horror flick. Romero has to resort to some creativity on the part of the zombies to provide a semi-new spin on the zombie-feasting-on-human flesh motif, and the results are at times bleakly comical. The camera lingers on the destruction of bodies, whether human or zombie. Vast quantities of fake blood and body parts litter the screen and there are long shots of zombies enjoying their dinner. It’s not terribly frightening, but it is gross. Sensitive viewers should definitely know better than to go to a zombie flick.
What makes Land of the Dead fail for this reviewer, however, is the utter lack of character development. It’s hard to be frightened for characters you don’t much care about. Riley is a cookie-cutter hero with nothing to set him apart from B-movie good guys everywhere. Cholo is a standard Leguizamo loose canon. Kaufman is Dennis Hopper in
bad-guy mode. They’re all characters we’ve seen a hundred times before. They aren’t interesting or even all that sympathetic because they are the same old stereotype.
Land of the Dead is not terrible. It provides plenty of zombie action and gore, as well as a few laughs and material for a
philosophical/analytical argument with pals afterwards. But it isn’t great in the way that Night of the Living Dead was great. In the end, like so many films, it is competently mediocre: you know what you are going into when you enter the theater, and on that level it will not disappoint.
Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Eugene Clark, Robert Joy
Rated: R for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use.
Parental Notes: This is a zombie movie. It is packed with unspeakably disgusting images and is suitable only for very mature teenagers.