George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead: Rated “R” (93 minutes)
Starring: Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Robert Joy
Directed by: George A Romero
Well, we suppose that it had to happen. In 2005, legendary horror director George Romero returned to his apocalyptic roots, and actually did what the Town Crier from Monty Python and the Holy Grail would have had him do, and “brought out his dead” (so to speak). Only, in the case of Mr. Romero, he isn’t so much doing it for laughs, as he admittedly did in Dawn of the Dead, which was as much a sideways spoof at this entire subgenre of zombie flicks which Romero essentially created in ‘68 with the release of the B&W Horror classic Night of the Living Dead, as he is doing it for the horror of it all. Well, since we our self, participated in our very first Zombie Run this past weekend at the Hartford Xfinity Center with The Walking Dead Escape, we figured that we’d bring out this old chestnut and, well, walk it about again.
Land of the Dead not only brings Romero full circle, it would — on its surface — seem to close out this particular cycle of Romero’s oeuvre. The zombies who have mysteriously come back to life all those years ago in Night, and those still alive have settled into an uneasy truce. The dead inhabit the wasteland while the living attempt to continue to strive within walled city-states. Unfortunately, for both the living and the dead, all things are not quite equal, for, as the anthropomorphic animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm learned to their eternal regret, some are more equal than others.
Or, more specifically, some of the living are better off than others. To wit: a number of very wealthy survivors have retreated to an island community on the river that was built up within an unnamed U.S. city (presumably Pittsburg, but one denizen seems to have referred to it as Detroit) named Fiddler’s Green. The society living there was originally intended to be a controlled community, but, after the event that caused the dead to reanimate, the denizens cut themselves off from the city proper by blocking the various bridges connecting their piece of paradise to the mainland, erecting walls and electrified fences, and then fortifying themselves against the outside, hostile elements.
All of this was arranged through the foresight, greed, and machinations of Mr. Kaufman (Hopper), who sits high atop the food chain. Everyone ultimately works for Kaufman, who controls the armed forces that protect the city, as well as teams of armed scavengers who prowl the outlying suburbs acquiring canned goods, medicines, and other non-perishables to continue to re-stock Fiddler’s Green’s supplies. One of these squads is ramrodded by the no-nonsense Riley (Simon Baker), who commands the rolling juggernaut-cum-assault vehicle, nicknamed Dead Reckoning, and who wants nothing more than to move on with his life.
Riley is tired of doing Kaufman’s dirty work, and wants to head north to Canada with his buddy and close friend Charlie (Robert Joy), turning over command of the squad to Cholo (John Leguizamo). Only, Cholo wants nothing to do with leadership of a pack of trigger-happy goons who fetch stuff for management and take out their trash. No, Cholo feels that he is better than that, and wants more. He thinks that, while Mr. Kaufman tolerates him and pays him to do Kaufman’s wet work, Kaufman will allow Cholo to buy his way into Fiddler’s Green. As expected, nothing could be further from the truth, and when the scruffy, Hispanic Cholo confronts Kaufman with his plan to join the well-heeled Kaufman in his Ivory Tower, he suddenly falls from grace.
Here is where life begins to get really interesting, as Cholo steals Dead Reckoning, using its powerful missile launchers to attempt to blackmail Kaufman into paying Cholo the money that he is owed. Kaufman then manipulates Riley into going after Cholo. Complicating this is the small (all but unnoticed) fact that the dead seem to be evolving. While out on their last run, Riley notices that the dead seem to be communicating with each other, and are apparently following the lead of one of the dead, a gas station mechanic (Eugene Clark) who has somehow rallied his “people” into seeking out the living, rather than simply wandering aimlessly around the countryside.
What feels good about this installment is that Romero is (finally) back in control of his series (rumor has it that some kind of a copyright screw-up resulted in the original film falling into the public domain, which is why he did remakes on the first two chapters). The dead have returned to their slow, shambling walk (the hyped-up, running zombies from the remake of Dawn totally ruined that film for us), and the gross-out factor of the zombies visibly noshing out on decaying human flesh was delightfully nauseating. Plus, it answers some questions that many of us have had over the years, which include, how could these shuffling zombies overrun everything. Well they apparently didn’t.
According to what we see here, there are still small pockets of life scattered around the world (mention is made of a group of humans still living up north in Canada, and elsewhere). Further, it is possible to successfully defend against the zombies. Still, this version feels as if other films have come around full circle to exert their influence on the series. The evolution of the zombies into sentient creatures who are (as Reilly says later on in the film) “Looking for a place to go” smacks more of The Omega Man (or more specifically, the Richard Matheson book I Am Legend, — on which The Omega Man and The Last Man on Earth was based. In that book a mysterious (manmade?) disease turns all of mankind into blood-sucking vampires with one just one “normal” human left alive to purge the world of their kind.
It would be interesting to see if Romero chooses to go further with this concept, or is he — now that he’s finally received the budget that he so richly deserved all along — is content to leave dead dogs lie, and move on to some other nameless (more horrific) creatures of the night to scare the pants off us. We suppose only time (and the lure of an even bigger budget) will tell.
Robert J. Sodaro has been reviewing films for some 30 years. During that time, his movie reviews and articles have appeared in numerous print publications, as well as on the web. Subscribe to receive regular articles and movie reviews.