The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire. It’s a nightmare represented in George Romero’s zombie films—and also by them, as his cycle has evolved over nearly 40 years. Offering the most literal possible vision of America devouring itself, the original Night of the Living Dead remains the supreme movie metaphor for 1968; more specifically dog-eat-dog in its social critique, Romero’s new Land of the Dead pushes further into political horror. Where chaos reigned in Night of the Living Dead, Land of the Dead shows an institutionalized disaster. A mindless zombie underclass controls the countryside. The super-rich are holed up in gated high-rises while a demoralized service class huddles in shanty slums, venturing out to the dead zone to loot provisions from the stenches (whom they distract with firework displays). A few loudmouths talk revolution; then, led by an “evolved” corpse, the stenches march on the city.
Set almost entirely at night and accompanied by a clanking industrial score, Land of the Dead is populated by an urgent gaggle of posturing loudmouths—notably John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, and Asia Argento—all of whom are upstaged by the reproachful horde of zombie extras and their anguished leader, Eugene Clark. Far stronger than Spielberg’s post–9-11 War of the Worlds, against which it opened in early summer, Romero’s post-apocalyptic vision only came into its own with Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly, the movie’s images of fire, flood, looting, evacuation, and shortages were abundantly present in Bush’s America—if not yet the exploding heads and gooey entrail-chawing. Watching CNN, it was impossible not to appreciate Romero’s warning that the fantasy of social cohesion is the first victim of catastrophe.