It's been 20 years since the release of George A. Romero's Day of the Dead, and the interim has seen the rise of CGI effects and the mainstreaming of zombie horror. In fact, a remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead (derided by Romero loyalists for zombies that run instead of stutter-stepping) pulled big numbers only last year for Universal Pictures. Universal turned around and bankrolled a long-aborning fourth picture in what writer-director Romero originally conceived as a trilogy, begun with 1968's Night of the Living Dead.
Romero's first two Dead films are now generally considered classics of the horror genre, and though critics and fans remain split on Day of the Dead, all three films allowed Romero to implant subtextual satire about human nature and social constructs. Romero's fourth Dead film is George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, and though the director agreeably follows his own pattern of gore and social commentary, the result is inescapably deflated. Romero now has to chase his own shadow, and his acquisition of a substantial budget, at last, suggests a cliche: "be careful what you wish for" (or, perhaps, "nothing exceeds like success").
Land of the Dead takes place in a walled city that tentatively holds bordering zombies at bay. A band of mercenaries with a huge armored assault vehicle (named "Dead Reckoning") carries out night missions to thin out the zombie herd. Their humble rewards are the table scraps of Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the string-pulling CEO of skyscraping shoppingtown Fiddler's Green. The gleaming "gated community" crosses high-rise apartments with the mall of Dawn of the Dead, and the zombies inevitably go to town on it. When they do, the mercenaries squabble, but eventually follow the lead of humorless stand-up-guy Riley (Simon Baker of The Ring Two).
The humans all have competing agendas, which makes the zombie's dividing and conquering that much easier. Explaining his plan to head north for supposedly quiet Canada, Riley intones, "I'm looking for a world where there's no fences," which sounds good to his two compadres: Charlie (Robert Joy), a dead-eye sharpshooter with a mild mental challenge, and Slack (Asia Argento, Dario's daughter), an ex-hooker Riley springs from a zombie cage-match. John Leguizamo plays Cholo, a zombie-killer who doubles as Kaufman's gofer; when the promise of an apartment in Fiddler's Green dissipates, Cholo makes trouble. Hopper, Leguizamo, and Joy (who's been reliable support since Louis Malle's Atlantic City) are lively standouts, while Baker and Argento come off as solid but bland in the ostensible male and female leads.
As for Kaufman, the capitalist in a conspicuous red power tie proves to be a de facto politician who makes self-serving pronouncements to excuse his behavior: "Do you understand the meaning of the word 'responsibility'? We have to do what we have to do!" and "We don't negotiate with terrorists!" Okay, so Romero skewers today's "Land of the Free," particularly the yawning class gap between income-hoarding fat cats and ghettoized, scrappy survivors anesthetized with raunchy "entertainments" (perhaps Romero's self-satire?).
Romero purposely blurs the line between the zombies and the humans, now more than ever. First of all, Romero whips up Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a zombie protagonist with his own character arc (Clark, who is African American, fulfills Romero's pattern of black protagonists in Dead films). A former gas-station attendant, Big Daddy has, um, lost his way in the world, but he senses he's been wronged by the social groups above his. When Big Daddy gets his hands on an assault rifle and repeats what he's observed, Romero might well be skewering the C.I.A. tradition of training, and supplying with weapons, groups that later turn against the U.S. Romero also makes a wonderfully nasty joke about how to distract zombies—just send up some red, white, and blue fireworks.
But just exactly what does "I'm looking for a world where there's no fences" mean? Will Romero's proposed fifth film, if he's allowed to make it, be called Truce of the Dead? At least for now, the orders of the day remain feeding frenzies and absurdly creative gore. An unrated video version of Land of the Dead is inevitable, but, Jesus, what will be on it?! Romero repaints the line for the R-rating: abetted by unfettered CGI and the traditional special makeup effects of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, Romero racks up beheadings and head shots, along with ample flesh-gorging, a face-stomping, and other zombie "tricks."
Outside of the titter-inducing violence, Romero's sense of humor is mostly muted here, though he does name peripheral characters Roach, Chihuahua, and Pillsbury and supply cameos by make-up man Tom Savini (reprising his role from Dawn of the Dead) and Shaun of the Dead filmmakers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (I missed 'em, but they're credited as "Photo Booth Zombies"). Hopper's zombie-scolding exhortation "You bastards! You have no right!" is pretty amusing, and the 1930s Universal logo at the film's outset is a nice touch.
If Romero delivers the satire and the gory action, what's wrong with Land of the Dead? The story is the big deficiency, with underdeveloped internal logic, a "been there, done that" malaise, and oddball pacing that culminates in a "that's it?" ending. Skim off the foamy metaphors and what's left is rat-a-tat-tatting, clanging '80s-style action-horror: exactly the sort of thing that Romero has actively avoided (I know: so don't skim off the metaphors...). If only by picking Romero's bones, Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake has more narrative skill than George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, which, while diverting, isn't the masterpiece the posters claim. Still, lackluster Romero is better than no Romero at all, and hopefully the horror-meister is warmed up for a quirkier big finish.