In the near future, zombies, walkers, stenchies, are everywhere. An undead majority seems par for George Romero's fourth foray into illustrating the ongoing crisis between us and them. Sure, a few can be picked off with good head shots, but the undead just keep coming and coming.
In Land of the Dead, the remaining humans are holed up downtown in a city that isn't quite Pittsburgh. (Romero, native 'Burgher, shot the film in Canada and California.) Bordered by two rivers, an electrified fence along the third border keeps the zombies out. The rich live in a luxury tower while the unluckier citizens make do in the streets.
Our heroes are a small plebian crew who load up armored tanks and head deep into zombie territory to scavenge for food. Good-guy Riley (Simon Baker) is aided by Charlie (Robert Joy), who is mildly retarded but a crack sniper, and the ass-kicking hooker Slack (Asia Argento). Trouble starts when an ambitious scavenger Cholo (John Leguizamo) runs afoul of Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the de facto city lord.
While those interpersonal struggles propel the slim plot, the real problem is slowly unfolding on the city's fringe: The zombies are evolving mentally, learning to communicate and problem-solve. Led by a gas-station jockey named "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark), they advance into the safe zone, slow but steady. It should come as no surprise to any fan of Romero's class-tweaking films that these not-so-brain-dead zombies head straight for plump, tasty humans ensconced in the high-roller flats
The film opens with a close-up of an old diner sign that reads "EATS," and Land easily earns its R-rating by serving up the expected zombie cuisine: The undead munch on bloody limbs and slurp up innards, all of it quite realistically depicted. Romero even adds a new gross-out to the practice of ravenous flesh-eating that is sure to cause shrieks of delighted horror in the multiplexes.
Land is a brisk 90 minutes that hews to tradition while expanding the genre's conventions just enough to keep the on-screen heads rolling and theater-goers engaged. Romero, who also scripted, wisely doesn't overdo the gags or snarkiness, though one bit about zombies and fireworks might be a sly tip of the hat to Pittsburgh's obsession with pyrotechnics.
The film lacks the dramatic sharpness and tension that made Romero's Dawn of the Dead, released in 1979, such a worthy follow-up to his groundbreaking 1968 Night of the Living Dead. Dawn forefronted its human protagonists against a generic zombie threat whereas in Land, the characters are less developed, their conflicts simply stock. But the godfather of zombie flicks can still craft a flat-out unnerving, and bloodless, scene, like when the undead silently navigate the river. "Zombies, man," complains Kaufman at one point, shuddering, "they creep me out." They sure do.