What a world George Romero has single-handedly given us—now four living-dead films, two remakes of those four, and 10,000 rip-offs all laboring around the simple idea of slow-walking, cannibalistic zombiehood. Zombies used to be merely mute slaves summoned from the grave by vodun; now and forever, they’re Romero’s dopey, latex-faced homo-vores, perpetually on the edge of signifying America, or class warfare, or capitalistic rapaciousness, or something. Since 9-11, I’ve seen no less than 13 new zombie films (not including Pirates of the Caribbean); while Lacanian doctoral students unpack the phenomena, here’s Romero’s fourth episode, set at least a few months after Day of the Dead and concerned, as Romero has been since he began commanding budgets, with new and squishy ways to eliminate the stumbling, decaying masses.
Romero has rarely ever been up to his own ideas, and after Night of the Living Dead, Martin, and The Crazies, ideas were hard to come by. Land of the Dead is a knot of half-measures: The world has adapted to the plague of wandering flesh eaters, but only to the Wild West, shotgun-pumping extent of John Carpenter’s Escape films. The zombies begin to learn things—how to hold weapons, set fires, etc.—but to only trudge doggedly on toward where the meat is. (Do they ever starve?) The golden opportunity to visit Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and have the zombies develop as a social force, is shot to hell.
Romero certainly tries to inject subtext: The center of the new civilization, defended by electric fences and armed guards, is a luxury skyscraper inhabited by the wealthy and owned by Bushy power-monger Dennis Hopper. The poor of the Pittsburghian city live in the decimated slum outside, serving the rich or merely indulging in vices, like betting on bear pit matches between the undead and unwilling human victims (in this case, rebel hooker Asia Argento). Who exactly is the threatening proletariat in this scenario—the living poor or the ravenous undead—is never sussed out, but the self-serving elite are clear targets, down to Hopper’s bigwig labeling John Leguizamo’s vengeful extortionist a “terrorist.” Unfortunately, the story as such revolves around the stoic hero (Simon Baker) retrieving Hopper’s custom-built tank-truck (literally named
Dead Reckoning) from Leguizamo’s opportunistic bad boy, and little more.
The foggy politics are still more sensible than any you could excavate from
Batman Begins. Romero’s fourth-grade dialogue doesn’t help matters, but anyone seeking out the latest achievements in cranial ruptures, spewing-blood gouts, and ground-beef spillage need look no further. Times have changed. Cheap as a used pickup and raw to the touch, the original
Night of the Living Dead had an effortless relationship with its historical moment and still contains passages of claustrophobic suspense and bruising transgression. Today, with big money at stake, it’s the makeup effects team that gets center stage.