Twenty years after the sun went down on George A. Romero’s 1985 zombie epic, Day Of The Dead, fans had anxiously been awaiting to see if the auteur would ever aim his satirical camera at the blank, moldy faces of of the living dead ever again. There were a couple of near misses, to be sure: shambling ghouls turned up briefly in his segment of Edgar Allen Poe anthology Two Evil Eyes, and despite missing out on a gig directing a movie adaptation of Resident Evil, he did helm a Japanese commercial for Resident Evil 2 – but for true zombie aficionados this just simply wasn’t enough. They longed for the master to return to the genre he created and coat the screen with copious gore and shrewd political commentary at least one more time and in 2005 we were finally gifted with exactly that – but was this belated return from the grave a case of a wish come true or had the rot set well and truly in on this master of the genre?
America has become a legitimate zombie town due to the masses of the resurrected dead far outnumbering those still lucky to be sporting a pulse but society is ticking over in the refuge known as Fiddler’s Green, a multi-storey high-rise where the rich have sequestered themselves and the have-nots remain camped outside, reduced to making dangerous supply runs to keep their pampered masters happy. Chief of these is the (understandably) world weary Riley, the man who designed and owns the Dead Reckoning – a massive, armoured war-rig used to safely negotiate the corpse strewn streets – who has had enough of this life and is saving up to get a car and start a new life up North. Counter to this is his partner Cholo, a mercenary who does illicit deeds for building owner Mr. Kaufman in the desperate hope he can move up the social ladder and secure himself a place with the social elite. But when he realises that Kaufman has no intention of letting “his kind” buy his way into Fiddler’s Green, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and holds the building to ransom, threatening to bring it down with a rocket attack if his demands aren’t met. Doing a deal with Kaufman to get the huge death-truck back (people seem to make a lot of deals in the apocalypse), Riley heads out with his buddy, the infantile, sharp shooting, burn victim, Charlie, tough, former hooker Slack (not a great nickname for a prostitute to be fair) and a clutch of others to reclaim his monstrous recreational vehicle before time runs out.
There’s something that no one has taken in account, however… the zombies – the TRUE have-nots if this story – lead by the suprisingly smart Big Daddy, have had enough of the raids on what they consider as their land and so move against Fiddler’s Green in a form of a groaning, shuffling, full scale revolt. Who will survive in this extreme case of the poor striving to literally eat the rich?
So, let’s adress the giant, zombified elephant in the room first: while it’s nothing short of a gift that we managed to get another George Romero zombie film, it’s a still a noticable drop in quality from his virtually flawless original Dead trilogy. It was inevitable really, after all, even Peter Jackson and George Lucas fell short when belatedly adding to the Middle-Earth and Star Wars trilogies, but while Land Of The Dead feels a bit too comic booky to comfortably measure up to it’s predecessors, it’s still a lot of fun, still managing to pack as many ideas into it’s story as a zombie can pack a steaming pile of entrails into it’s mouth.
Obviously Romero has 20 years of social commentary to run with and the concept of human beings weathering the storm of a zombie apocalypse to the point where the richer, more comfortable humans now regard the flesh eating creatures that roam the earth as something quite passe and therefore a problem that can afforded to be ignored. Adopting the tactic of burying your head in the sand is a sure-fire way to eventually finding a set of rotted dental work embedded in your left ass cheek, but it unfortunately rings true – be honest, if the apocalypse was raging outside someone’s window and they had enough money to simply pretend it wasn’t happening no matter the cost, chances are that’s probably what they’d do.
However, the big twist here is that it’s not Riley and his motley band of survivors who are the real heroes here as it’s pretty apparent that this time Romero’s sympathies lie with the zombies as he fashions a world where a population that’s predominantly led by corpses is oddly peaceful. As the festering fuckers slowly wander around, going about no real business whatsoever and harming no one it’s tough not to yearn for a world that’s also slowed down a bit (although one that also smells better than a city full of rotting people would also be nice). By far the best character here is howling, zombie revolutionary Big Daddy, a hulking, blue collar zombie who hangs around gas pumps while faintly remembering his past existence who then snaps into action when the scavengers come to town. Teaching himself – and his raggedy undead kin – new skills, such as firing a machine gun and traversing water (in the movie’s coolest shot), Big Daddy is a natural progression from Dawn Of The Dead’s Stephen and Day Of The Dead’s Bub which also feature room temperature marauders who manage to engaged the few remaining brain cells they got left.
In comparison, the living characters get a bit of a short shrift; Simon Baker’s lead is somewhat bland, as is Dennis Hopper’s oddly restrained performance as the ruthless Kaufman but thankfulky John Leguizamo and Asia Argento brings much needed charisma and Robert Joy’s childlike Charlie is sweet despite his Harvey Dent style face lift.
However, when it comes to Land Of The Dead you come for the zombies and stay for the zombies and Romero, gifted with a healthier budget than usual, stretches his world building and creative kill muscles with intriguing results. Innovative gore (the zombie featuring a head that’s clinging on by the slightest of scraps who attacks by snapping his snapping cranium forward like a whip), nifty touches (the humans use fireworks to distract the zombies while they forage) and cool call backs (a cameoing Tom Savini zombified up in full Dawn Of The Dead garb) mean that while this fourth entry may not quite measure up to it’s three older brothers, it still has enough smart, splatter and downright fucking cool moments to still be worth digging out in a world still somehow ruled by The Walking Dead and all it’s many spinoffs.
A gruesomely solid Zom-B +