Twenty years after what we thought was the final part of Romero's Dead Trilogy George returned to his most loved of themes and put into production Land of the Dead. There seemed nothing more which he could really explore, no more biting wit that he could direct at American society; but he dug deep, wrote and directed this feature which continued his exploration into the walking dead.
The dead truly have taken over the land, the last few remaining living members of society find themselves encamped in walled cities. Kaufman (Denis Hopper) rules one such city where the people live in a luxurious condominium, enjoy fine food, shopping and restaurants. The poor are on the streets eeking out a living as best they can. Riley (Simon Barker) and his sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy) along with Cholo (John Leguizamo) and a number of other raiders take frequent trips outside these protected walls foraging for food and other general supplies.
It is on one such venture that Riley starts to believe that the undead are actually learning, or at least remembering, some of their past, remembering some of their abilities. One of the undead, 'Big Daddy' (Eugene Clark), realises that he can mobilise hoards of his fellow zombie compatriots, storm the walled city and enjoy the live flesh they all crave. All that stands between them is a wide river, Riley and Dead Reckoning.
Obviously Romero never brought the zombie clan to our big screens although his name is now synonymous with that genre. He took the concept to his heart in Night of the Living Dead producing a claustrophobic terror which was only matched in the 1980s by The Evil Dead. Continuing on with the classic Dawn of the Dead expanding the zombie curse and taking a large wide swipe at consumerism before 'finishing' his trilogy with Day of the Dead where we can see that humanity itself is at stake and portrayed again as pockets of humanity just waiting for their time to come. Land of the Dead simply continues this theme, the one of humanity as a whole slowly dying; there is no way back for them and no hope whatsoever.
Although in earlier versions the zombies are portrayed as mumbling, staggering automatons with only a desire to eat, Romero here takes the step that after a time these undead would remember their old skills. It's not as though they are evolving as there's no way even these hoards could achieve that, more they seem to have connection with their past. Most found this to be a step too far though, stumbling zombies they could accept; organised zombies they had a big problem with. Why this is the case though I couldn't say. Going back to the original Night of the Living Dead the zombies in that feature do in fact use tools to catch their prey; one using a stone for instance to help kill his victim. After all of these years George perhaps remembered this and decided yet again to give his zombies a little more character, a little more depth. This was reiterated to some degree with Day of the Dead with zombie Bob learning how to use a firearm. I accepted this slow development of the zombies and thought this film continued those themes well.
George even has another swipe at society; this time exploring with the rich / poor divide. How the rich can control all of the wealth whilst the poor unfortunate souls who actually work for a living have none of the rewards. Who in fact are the zombies in this feature, the masses outside the city walls trying for their pound of flesh or those within the ivory towers living off the blood and tears of the poorer members of society? This was another welcome addition but it never had the ultimate biting wit that say Dawn of the Dead offered, it is somewhat watered down, and doesn't quite hit the right mark it should
Make up effects themselves have evolved over the previous twenty years also, enabling Romero and make up artist Howard Berger really go to town. Now that the zombies have been around for some years and they're not getting any prettier, they're flesh either hangs or has been ripped away uncovering the skeletal structure beneath. The eating scenes again go that one step further. Deep blood reds, ripped intestines, splattered brains and a copious amount of head shots keep the most hardened zombie fanatic happy.
What lets this feature down for me was the very thin story line, a story which had been done to better effect previously and to some degree repeats the closed in environment and escapism of Mad Max II. Like John Carpenter before him it seems as though Romero tends to make better movies with less money. Once the studios fired more cash into his pockets he certainly had access to bigger sets, bigger props, better special effects but the actual storyline has suffered somewhat. The actors are another cause for concern even Denis Hopper. Hopper has had some amazing roles in his time, but this is not one of them. A stereotypical corporate bad guy whose ultimate demise is known as soon as he enters the frame. Simon Barker as the guy drafted in to save the day has no flesh on his bones, rescuing the fair maiden as required, saving the day and his engineering as needed. His sidekick, Robert Joy, is the usual fodder and in an attempt to even make him look like a zombie have given him a scarred face from an earlier burning. His character is only there for others to ridicule or for Barker's character to yet again show what a nice guy he is by not leaving him out in the cold. The only praise for the casting has to rest on Asia Argento, daughter of legendary Italian director Dario Argento, and I enjoyed the fact that she was in there as though Romero himself is bowing to and acknowledging Dario Argento's unmistakable talent. Of course Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright also appear as zombies themselves, Romero again acknowledging his own appreciation of their Shaun of the Dead which in itself acknowledges the contribution Romero has made to the horror genre.
In the end then I felt it was lacking somewhat in terms of storyline but continued themes Romero introduced and developed in his previous Dead series. He acknowledges works that others have done and without whom perhaps even he might not have the elevated position he currently holds. It's a must for lovers of this series but doesn't come top of the list by any stretch of the imagination; all the previous three incarnations beating it hands down. I have not yet seen Diary of the Dead and this has not put me off. I've enjoyed all of his Dead films, I just felt this didn't have the depth, the wit and even the humour which the others portrayed; still enjoyable though if you want to see a few zombies meet their maker.
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