2005 was a great year for horror. It marked not only the return of George Romero, but after 20 years, a new film in his Dead saga. And it did so in grand fashion. LAND OF THE DEAD was the first zombie movie that Romero would make for a studio, with a healthy budget, real actors including the legendary Dennis Hopper, and because Universal liked it so much a summer release. Two decades without a Dead film left the director with plenty to say, and Romero came back with a vengeance. In the bargain, he made a great film that stands up with the rest of the saga. The sad part, I really believe it’s the last great film Romero will ever make.
The film opens up in black-and-white and sums up the state of the undead world (it even includes a sweet shot of the famous Zenith radio). The zombie plague has left the planet ravaged, and society has dramatically restructured. In a country of the have’s and the have not’s, the rich Kaufman has walled up a high rise where the three rivers join in Pittsburgh, PA where he charges the upper class heftily for the privilege and safety of Fiddler’s Green. Mercenary squads rove the zombie-filled night to scavenge supplies, as the lower class eek out their existence in the shadows of the Green. When squad leader Cholo tries to buy his way into the upper class, Kaufman rebuffs him, leading Cholo to steal Dead Reckoning, a massive assault vehicle. He threatens to blow up the Green if his demands aren’t satisfied. Kaufman sends out Riley Denbo, another squad leader and Dead Reckoning’s designer, to get it back, promising his freedom if he succeeds.
LAND OF THE DEAD has a great story, especially how it differs from Romero’s three earlier Dead films. Those were all bathtub stories, focusing on people stuck in a location. With LAND he takes the story out of a static location and puts it on the move. Stealing Dead Reckoning brings the conflict between Riley and Cholo onto the streets, and it’s a welcome change in the format, especially after the stuff atmosphere of DAY OF THE DEAD’s underground fortress. Romero’s able to accomplish this and still have his zombie siege, as throughout the film the zombies move toward the Green. It manages to be fresh and still fit in with the rest of the saga.
It also has sharp social commentary, the mark of every great Romero film. The Bush administration is in full focus, with Kaufman representing the arrogant U.S. government and it’s lack of accountability to anyone. When he says, “We don’t deal with terrorists,” it’s the Romeroverse’s response to 9/11. A ramped up military presence, references to jihads and jabs at gasoline are all up for critique, giving Romero the writer ample material for discourse, and he attacks them with relish. After years of languishing in obsolescence, with LAND he’s as sharp as he’s ever been.
Let’s not forget this is a Dead film, and there are zombies. Romero sets his sights on Big Daddy, a black gasoline attendant, and in doing so, he brings together a number of threads from the three earlier films. The zombies went from mindless feeders, to working on instincts that drew them to a mall, to creatures that could not only learn again, but be sympathetic and sympathize themselves. Here, Big Daddy has taught the others to communicate, work as their own society and fight back against the oppressive living. They’ve come full circle, fulfilling the promise that Bub only hinted at.
He’s also the first time Romero has used a prominent black character as a zombie. Beginning with Duane Jones, Romeo’s zombie flicks had always established a strong black male as a lead, and here that trend reaches its logical conclusion. It’s such an interesting twist, and it’s a joy watching Big Daddy shoot a gun, organize zombies and lead a revolution. And pump gas, an important distinction as he’s one of the working class, and a symbol of the importance of gasoline in America’s struggles with the Middle East (Romero even seems to have foreshadowed insane gas prices, as it’s 4 dollars a gallon some seven years later).
Romero also provides all the gore fans of the Dead saga would ever want. After years of Tom Savini stating he was ready to hop on board whenever Romero was ready, the makeup effects are actually the work of Greg Nicotero. Nicotero builds on Savini’s earlier makeup concepts and creates a slightly more mummified look that suits the undead well. He also provides some great gory stuff. With the MPAA more permissive 20 years after DAY OF THE DEAD, he and Romero were able to push the envelope well past where the director could ever go before and still get an R rating (though the unrated DVD offers even more bloodshed).
Given a studio budget, Romero was able to hire name actors to populate a Dead film for the first time. Simon Baker and John Leguziamo are stellar as Riley and Cholo, two men in conflict who begrudgingly respect one another, and Romero gives them great dialogue. As Big Daddy, Eugene Clark brings a rage no zombie has brought before. Asia Argento is tough as nails as streetwise prostitute Slack, balanced by Robert Joy’s sensitive portrayal of dimwitted burn victim Charlie. But Dennis Hopper steals the show. Basing his performance on Donald Rumsfeld, he chews scenery like a zombie chews a fat dude. Kaufman should amount to a stock villain role, but Hopper plays him with deadpan flair.
LAND OF THE DEAD is a fine addition to George Romero’s Dead saga that includes NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD. It’s got a great plot, sharp dialogue and social commentary worthy of its position in the saga. Romero was supposed to follow with a direct sequel to LAND, but bumping its release up to summer robbed it of much of the audience it would have met in October, where it was originally planned. His output since has been south of the Quality Border, and I firmly believe that LAND OF THE DEAD will be the last great film that George Romero will ever direct. If that’s true, it’s certainly no embarrassment to the legendary director who’s meant so much to horror for more than forty years.