George A. Romero invented the modern zombie movie with his seminal 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead and its sequels: Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. In the past two years, zombie movies have come into vogue again with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, all of which were box office hits. This is therefore a perfect time for Romero to step back into the ring, which he does with the fourth film in his zombie series, Land of the Dead.
As the film opens, we learn that a group of humans has managed to fend off the zombies by barricading themselves inside a city that is surrounded on two sides by rivers. Fences have been put up to keep the zombies out of this area on the side not protected by water. The poor people live in slums or on the street; rich people can live in a posh high-rise called Fiddler’s Green, the interior of which contains not only apartments, but restaurants and stores as well. In other words, the wealthy can live a life not unlike that to which they are accustomed while keeping the zombies (and the poor folk) out. Fiddler’s Green is owned by the wealthy Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper).
John Leguizamo plays Cholo, part of a salvage crew that occasionally ventures out into the zombie-infested parts of the region in an armored truck called the Dead Reckoning. Their job is to loot “essential items” from abandoned stores and homes. These items can be as necessary as medication or as frivolous as booze. Cholo frequently delivers supplies to Kaufman and is enraged when he’s denied an apartment inside of Fiddler’s Green. He steals Dead Reckoning and announces his plan to use its weapons to destroy the high rise. Kaufman calls in the truck’s designer, Riley (Simon Baker), to locate it and stop Cholo. Riley has just retired after years of working with Cholo and there’s no love lost between the two.
George Romero has always used zombie movies as a means to satirize or comment on society. This time, his theme is class warfare. When zombies have essentially taken over the world, the wealthy are able to live safely and comfortably while the poor have to fend for themselves. There’s very little (if any) compassion on display; it’s every man for himself in a Darwinian fight for life. The fact that Cholo is Hispanic adds a racial element to the theme. He’s apparently good enough to work for Kaufman but not good enough to live alongside him.
The director doesn’t stop there, though. While this class conflict is taking place, the zombies are getting smarter. They have apparently tired of aimless roaming and now spend their time trying to find some purpose for existing. A few of them loiter around a town park, banging on old musical instruments they have found. Another, known as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), hangs around a gas station and squeezes the pumps. During a conflict with the salvage crew, he steals one of their guns and inadvertently figures out how to use it. (The scene calls to mind the first creation of fire by the cavemen.) Realizing that many of the objects lying around town have potentially beneficial uses for the zombies, Big Daddy leads a charge upon the city. He and the others eventually realize that the river can be crossed. On the other side, they crash through the fences and launch their own attack on Fiddler’s Green.
If Cholo, Riley, and the other humans represent class warfare, then the zombies represent every culture’s natural desire to improve their own lot. Any oppressed society will find ways to fight back – to rise up out of poverty and despair by taking on the system. Sometimes this is done peacefully, other times through violence. Once the zombies realize that the humans have been preying on their collective weakness to keep them down, they band together and fight back. Similar oppression goes on in our nation’s inner cities, as well as in countries run by dictatorships. Romero nicely uses the genre to touch on such global issues.
Some of you might be thinking, Hey, I thought this was a horror movie! Well, it is. Romero packs Land of the Dead with all the flesh-eating blood and gore you've come to expect. What’s interesting is that the director has managed to come up with original acts of violence. In one particularly cringe-worthy sequence, a zombie yanks out a woman’s belly button ring with his mouth, causing blood to spurt from her stomach. I’ve seen hundreds of horror movies and thought I’d seen everything. I guess not.
Land of the Dead is the first zombie movie I can remember where the zombies actually had individual personalities. This is especially true of Big Daddy, who seems confused – then delighted – by his unexpected moments of a-ha! insight. Eugene Clark gives the best performance ever by an actor playing a zombie. The human characters are also interesting, especially Kaufman. This is the kind of role Dennis Hopper can go to town with. In one scene (sure to become a cult favorite), Kaufman absent-mindedly picks his nose while saying: “Zombies, man. They sure freak me out.” It’s a classic moment of that patented Hopper weirdness.
I wouldn’t really call Land of the Dead scary because I rarely get scared by things that don’t exist. However, there are some moments that cause you to jump, and the film has an overall sense of eerieness. Romero has made a movie that will completely satisfy the Fangoria magazine crowd but, in the tradition of his previous efforts, also manages to make acute observations about modern society. Lots of younger filmmakers have been playing with Romero’s genre lately, but now he stands up and proves that he’s still the master of the zombie flick.
( out of four)
George A. Romero's Land of the Dead is rated R for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat