The fact that Land of the Dead also has some of
the most creatively gory zombie scenes in the past few years
seems almost incidental. Just close your eyes when the guy
gets his esophagus pulled out through this mouth and marvel
at the storytelling.
Set in a loose continuity with Romero's earlier "Dead"
films, Land of the Dead focuses on survivors that
have adjusted in a way Howard Zinn might have predicted.
The wealthy live in a glass tower, pretending that nothing
has gone wrong, while the poor scrabble out an existence
on the streets. To keep the lower classes happy, city ruler
Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) makes sure they have sex, drugs
and gambling. All of them are protected by barriers that
the living dead, now given the pejorative term "stenchies,"
should not be able to pass.
The rough economy depends on raiding parties led by Riley
Denbo (Simon Baker), designer of the "Dead Reckoning," an
urban assault vehicle that you just know will be the next
big craze in gas guzzlers. Armed with machine guns and rocket
launchers, the key to Dead Reckoning making a successful
strike is in its "sky flowers." The living dead apparently
like two things: human flesh and watching fireworks. They'll
get so distracted by fireworks that the city dwellers can
hit their small town up for canned goods and other supplies
without getting eaten.
But one of them notices the dead are getting played, especially
when a unit led by Cholo (John Leguizamo) rides through
on cycles randomly shooting. Called Big Daddy in the credits,
this hulking zombie (Eugene Clark) decides that he will
rally his people and attack that gleaming tower in the distance
that seems to be the source of all his pain.
His timing couldn't be more perfect, as the class struggle
seems about to explode. Apparently, Kaufman has held his
corrupt grip on the city just a little too tight and been
too comfortable too long. While the city falls apart internally,
no one will believe Riley that the dead may have started
At last Romero has a budget to fit his vision. It takes
money to have a post-apocalyptic production design that
doesn't look cobbled together for the sake of making a movie.
Dead Reckoning looks high-tech enough; while other assault
vehicles look scrounged together, they're still a cut above,
say, The Road Warrior. Civilization hasn't fallen
that far - yet.
Without the distraction of "hey, look at what this guy
accomplished with limited resources," Romero's skill as
a director can shine. He understands how to build suspense,
drawing out the inevitable gotchas until you'd almost forgotten
they were coming. Though of course blood and guts form the
core of these movies for some fans, Romero knows that sometimes
suggestion can be just as powerful. Oh, there are still
money shots, brief and disgusting, but the violence only
serves the story.
Romero eases us into the gore, focusing on the dead first.
In the opening shot, he pans down a small town street populated
only by the dead. Stuck in echoes of their living days,
the zombies do actions so repetitive this looks as harmless
as an undiscovered room in The Haunted Mansion. A dead boy
and girl shamble hand in hand past gas station attendant
Big Daddy, who then realizes that the living are watching
It's almost more disturbing to see the dawning awareness
in the zombies than to see them feed. Because in this film,
they are becoming less and less "other."
The point gets subtly made by a brain-damaged character,
Charlie (Robert Joy). Scarred by fire and doggedly loyal
to Riley, Charlie first appears in a manner meant for us
to confuse him with a zombie. He jokes that the dead are
almost as dumb as himself, but is also one of the first
to realize that both he and they are smarter than they look.
Joy keeps his character from being too stereotypical,
as do most of the other actors. Land of the Dead
stands out as having one of the highest quality ensembles
in zombie movie history (though the Dawn
of the Dead remake and 28
Days Later came close). Only Asia Argento appears
to be just rolling through the part of "Slack," but that
may just be because it really is underwritten. She serves
only as a tough foil, revealing pieces of others but never
Handling a rare lead role, Baker provides a good moral
center. He has to, when playing off of Joy and Leguizamo,
another actor that manages to rein himself in just before
going over the top.
Even the zombies seem well-acted. Limited to only being
able to roar, Clark as Big Daddy still expresses a rudimentary
range. As undead hockey fan "Number 9," Jennifer Baxter
actually has some charm, and makes a bigger impact than
The story and artistry of Land of the Dead gets
so engrossing that it's easy for a zombie-phobe like myself
to forget that this is a zombie movie. It almost made me
want to go back, overcome my adolescent terror and re-watch
the original Night of the Living Dead. And then Romero
throws in a zombie clown.