The fourth installment of George Romero’s Dead series, Land of the Dead appeared to have all the makings of another drab sequel. While the director’s first two zombie creations—Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead—stand among the greatest horror films ever made, the franchise petered out in the third chapter, 1985’s Day of the Dead. Also, a generation of zombie flicks (including a pair of recent, high-profile ghoul tales, 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead) would seem to leave little ground to cover. However, this latest effort, which Romero wrote as well as directed, is a worthy successor to his two best films.
The movie opens some time after the undead takeover of the planet. An old city houses surviving humans in a densely populated space, bounded partly by a river and partly by electric fences. Supply raids into zombie-infested surrounding areas are a necessity and the fortress town’s government uses paramilitaries for the job. The story centers on these troops and especially their two leaders, Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo). The paramilitaries are recruited from the slum areas that make up most of the city, which is run by the CEO/dictator Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) from a posh tower building where he and his top subordinates live. The competing agendas of the three men—and of the increasingly aggressive ghoul horde outside the fence—drive the plot into violent territory.
The risky missions take their toll on the raiders, as do the soldiers’ thwarted ambitions to parlay service to Kaufman into better lives for themselves. Cholo personifies that predicament. In a telling sequence early in the film, he displays callousness toward a fellow soldier’s death, followed by unctuous servility in a meeting with Kaufman. Leguizamo makes the most of that transition and his character’s hardened desperation is one of the most compelling aspects of the movie. Romero’s depiction of the gap between the rulers and those who fight their battles is persistently dark, but also witty. Dennis Hopper clearly enjoys portraying a more tightly self-controlled character than he often plays and his dry delivery of Romero’s verbal barbs makes for some fine comic moments.
Of course, a zombie movie needs to deliver more than social commentary and character development, and Land of the Dead features ghoul attacks that are varied and arresting. The gore effects are skillfully done without losing the appealingly raw quality of the director’s lower-budget works. The humanization of the zombies, begun in Day of the Dead with Bub, the talking ghoul, continues more effectively in this installment. The zombies do not talk this time, fortunately, but they achieve a degree of mental and emotional development; some even manage to become sympathetic figures. Romero also seems to have an appreciation for the better works of his successors: the ghouls’ attack on the city resembles the undead assault on Manhattan in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.
Several plot lines weave together at a brisk pace, but the film’s greatest strength lies in the use of visuals for storytelling. In just a few scenes inside the city, Romero sketches the want, bustle and decadence of his dystopia in adept shorthand. In the corner of one shot is a smashed-out television set with a Punch and Judy puppet show going on inside it. The image cleverly sums up how the zombie apocalypse changed society and how much remained unchanged. Likewise, during the raids, the zombies are dazzled into inaction by fireworks shows—a highly suggestive metaphor that strikes several targets at once.
There are a few flaws. Riley is a generic movieland good-guy and Romero adds some allusions to imperial Rome, which are unnecessary in light of the abundance of more contemporary satirical subjects. Asia Argento offers an effective portrayal of a prostitute who signs up as a mercenary, but her character seems to exist mainly because Riley needed a love interest. However, these problems only momentarily distract from the story.
Much of the power of the Dead films lies in Romero’s intuition that external threats are more likely to exacerbate human conflicts than to submerge them. Also, there was always a lot of gory fun. Land of the Dead possesses the same heady mix of satire and searing horror that characterized the director’s first two entries in the series.