Every type of film has at least one bona fide master. With zombies, it’s George A. Romero.
Nobody brings the walking dead to life with as much gory gusto and surprising intelligence as the infamous filmmaker who returns to his forte after a 20-year absence.
Romero’s 1968 debut – the spooky, shoestring-budget “Night of the Living Dead” – became a phenomenon and established the format for scores of low-budget fright flicks that have followed, but few have matched Romero’s layers of social commentary and gruesome wit in what had previously been a junk-movie staple of drive-in theaters.
Sure, Romero wants to scare you, but he would also like to make you think about topics including rampant consumerism, prejudice and class divisions. Hmm, what a concept.
Romero’s strengths are more apparent than ever in “Land of the Dead,” his first zombie film since “Day of the Dead” in 1985.
In what looks like an apocalyptic final chapter, “Land of the Dead” envisions a world in which the zombies clearly have taken over. The flesh-eating living dead wander freely through the landscape, while a small minority of wealthy survivors lives behind electrified fences, high atop a Pittsburgh skyscraper in a world of penthouse apartments and luxury shopping malls. The less fortunate survivors huddle in small clusters on the fringes of Fiddler’s Green, like serfs outside castle walls in the Middle Ages.
A Trump-like entrepreneur named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) heads the ruling class. He employs mercenaries to guard his domain – and to occasionally venture out for supplies and to hunt zombies. (Do you remember the rules? Zombies can be killed – but only with a shot or fatal blow to the head.)
Two groups of mercenaries compete in “Land of the Dead,” as each tries to wrest a bit of the good life from the ruling class. A rogue gang headed by the hotheaded Cholo (John Leguizamo) tries to extort wealth from Kaufman through threats. The more ethical Riley (Simon Baker) and his cohorts simply want the right to move from the area, hoping to find peace in the sparsely populated far north.
Ultimately, the haves and have-nots clash violently. Of course, so do the zombies and the humans. And there’s a new twist in zombie land: The previously brain-dead walking dead are beginning to show signs of organizational skills and minimal intelligence.
With “Land of the Dead,” Romero has created his personal masterpiece: an incredibly gruesome film, but with thought-provoking concepts and surprising resonance. The film even achieves a sort of epic stature – especially when the zombies finally figure out how to get across the river that blocks them from Fiddler’s Green.
Apparently, you can’t keep a good zombie out. Or a good director.