The undead have started thinking for themselves, and the living have the benefit of armored vehicles and automatic weapons in fighting them. Other than that, the zombie genre remains alive and well, and (mostly) just the way you like it, with “George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead.”
Romero defined the zombie movie nearly 40 years ago with the sparse, black-and-white “Night of the Living Dead” and perfected it with the 1978 masterpiece “Dawn of the Dead,” his indictment of consumer culture which still holds up beautifully today.
Now, a decade after the third film in the series, “Day of the Dead,” the writer-director still continues to adhere to the basic rules he established, which should please the purists. The undead still stagger around the earth, bleary-eyed and hungry for human flesh (and there are some gleefully gory scenes here, including one involving a belly-button ring that will make you squirm in your seat). If you get bitten by a zombie, you’ll eventually become one, too. And the only way to kill them is with a gunshot or a blow to the head.
The main difference is, the people being attacked are played by actors you’ve actually heard of. Simon Baker (from the TV series “The Guardian”) leads a comparatively all-star cast that includes John Leguizamo as a loose cannon who steals champagne and cigars for the elite who rule the film’s post-apocalyptic society — and threatens to destroy civilization as we know it!
Which brings us to the explosions. There are lots of them. “Land of the Dead” is unfortunately like so many other action movies, with its mind-numbing array of military-style firepower, capable of blowing stuff up real good. (Competing in the noise department is the bombastic score, which is overused and squelches any possibility of subtlety.)
These changes probably won’t please the purists, or anyone who likes a little quiet, steady suspense in their horror movies.
But Romero’s ideological intentions remain firmly intact. The battle between the living and the undead in his films was always just an opportunity to explore our political and social problems. Amid heightened homeland security fears and gaping chasms in class, Romero has no shortage of inspiration from which to draw.
The city in which “Land of the Dead” takes place is an urban island surrounded by electrified fences and connected by bridges to the surrounding wasteland. Standing in the middle of it is Fiddler’s Green, a heavily fortified skyscraper that replaces the mall from “Dawn of the Dead,” where the city’s remaining wealthy (and white) citizens can live, shop and dine in peace, without fear of attack from zombies or the poor.
Ruling them all from his penthouse is Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, beautifully dressed and fabulously crazed), a mogul who’s sort of a cross between Donald Rumsfeld and Donald Trump. When Leguizamo’s character — with the politically incorrect name of Cholo — steals Kaufman’s armored vehicle and holds it for $5 million ransom, Kaufman responds forcefully, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
Instead, Baker’s character, Riley, is sent to fetch it, with help from his wisecracking, mentally handicapped buddy Charlie (Robert Joy) and Slack, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Asia Argento, which is a nice touch, since her filmmaker father, Dario, produced and helped with the score for “Dawn of the Dead”).
Baker is suitably brave and rugged, though he’s saddled with some seriously clunky lines. “I’m looking for a world where there’s no fences,” he says at one point. Romero’s characters have never been so literal.
Such dialogue is emblematic of what ultimately makes “Land of the Dead” inferior to its predecessors: Everything happens much more quickly and obviously. Even the zombies seem a little more with-it, and almost appear to be communicating with each other, led by a service station attendant who keeps trying to pump gas.
Maybe that’s part of Romero’s attempt at reflecting the current times through his own unique, zombified prism. In this brave new world, your friends don’t wait until you’ve turned into a zombie to kill you for the greater good of humanity. Once you’re bitten, you’re as good as (un)dead.