To many, George A. Romero's zombie series has long felt like unfinished business. Not in that there was ever going to be any happy resolution to the story, but in the feeling that there were still places for the director's apocalyptic vision of a world overrun by the living dead to go, especially with the scope of 1985's Day of the Dead compromised through budgetary constraints. And finally, 20 years down the line, the great man has returned to do what he does best, with a bit more money to spend and a new bunch of characters to terrorise.
In a city that might well be Pittsburgh (though shot in Toronto), the human survivors now exist in two distinct groups. At the top are the lucky few, who occupy a luxury apartment building/shopping complex called Fiddler's Green and attempt to live as normal a life as possible. This world is ruled by the ruthless Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), a man for whom the old principles of privilege and economic advantage still hold true – one has to buy their way into Fiddler's Green, even though money is all but useless in this ravaged society. The rest of the population live in slum areas around the base of Kaufman's paradise, making their own entertainment and plotting futile rebellion against him. And beyond the electrified gates of the city roam the living dead, hungrier than ever now that human food sources have become so scarce. The film focuses on two men – Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo), who Kaufman employ to make nightly sweeps outside the city gates to scavenge food and medicine in a high-tech tank known as Dead Reckoning.
The first thing that strikes you about Land of the Dead is that it doesn't look or sound like the Dawn of the Dead remake, Resident Evil or any other recent Hollywood horrorfest. There's a slick, creepy credit sequence that recaps the events leading to this point in the saga, but from the very first shots of ambling zombies (here referred to alternatively as 'walkers' or 'stenches'), as Riley, Cholo and their team embark on one of their nightly missions into their midst, this feels very much like a grungy independent film, despite Universal's financial involvement. Romero has never been the flashiest of directors, and here he concentrates on his strengths – dialogue, editing and pacing – while resisting the need the engage in any overly-stylised filmmaking.
Land of the Dead is closest to Dawn of the Dead in tone, mostly opting for obvious but pointed satire and fast-moving action rather than the intense, claustrophobic horrors of Night of the Living Dead or Day of the Dead. There are more locations in Land than any of its predecessors, and more characters – other protagonists include Riley's scarred, devoted guardian Charlie (Robert Joy), the tough hooker-turned-mercenary Slack (Asia Argento) and a huge Samoan soldier called Pillsbury (Pedro Miguel Arce). And on the other side, there's Big Daddy, an undead gas attendant whose evolving zombie mind has made him something of a leader amongst his rotting colleagues. The evolution of the zombies and their reawakening consciousness is something that Romero has explored throughout the series, and in this film reaches the next logical step, as Big Daddy attempts to co-ordinate the other zombies in a siege on Kaufman's fortress. And like Day of the Dead's Bub, Big Daddy emerges as one of Land's best, most sympathetic characters, aided by an imposing performance from Eugene Clark. (Watch also for zombiefied cameos from good old Tom Savini, plus Shaun of the Dead creators Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright).
In fact, the acting in Land of the Dead is easily the best of the series. Dennis Hopper for once plays a restrained, quietly spoken villain and is all the more effective for it, while Baker, Leguizamo and Joy all deliver strong, straight-faced performances. What does suffer however is characterisation; Land is the shortest film of the series (93 minutes), and while the pacing is good, the amount of action that Romero chooses to inject doesn't leave much room for developing his characters – apart from the more ambiguous Cholo, we're left more with stock types than well-rounded individuals. Cholo's journey from hero to something more interesting comes when he decides to steal Dead Reckoning and hold it ransom in an attempt to extort $5 million from Kaufman, who he feels has cheated him out of a place in Fiddler's Green. This provides some of the film's best satirical observations, as Kaufman declares "I don't negotiate with terrorists" and the gulf between the two human classes is sharply contrasted. Riley reluctantly agrees to retrieve the vehicle from his former colleague in exchange for his own transit out of the city to the relative safety of the Canadian wastes.
Romero was for the first time bound by having to deliver an R-rated zombie movie in the US, and Land inevitably seems a little tamer than Dawn or Day in the concentrated gore stakes. The director certainly pushes the envelope in terms of what that rating allows – there's no shortage of splattery head shots, flesh-biting and limb-munching, but it's very quickly cut, diminishing the intensity of the violence (hopefully an unrated DVD will rectify this). The film is never really that scary, but it's frequently exciting, particularly the action sequences involving Dead Reckoning, and KNB's effects work (enhanced with only the tiniest bit of CGI) is top-notch. There are also some standout set pieces, most notably the chilling sequence where Big Daddy's zombie army, having overcome their natural fear of water, emerge from the murky depths of the river that separates them from Fiddler's Green.
Land of the Dead is a clever, hugely entertaining movie, but is perhaps not an era-defining horror film in the way the previous three were. Frankly, they're tough acts to follow and only the most hopelessly devoted fan would fail to spot some flaws with this new one; a few quieter moments and a less abrupt ending would definitely not have gone amiss. But full marks to Romero for grabbing his opportunity to develop the themes of its predecessors and remain true to the indie spirit of the series without retreading old ground – and for making damn sure that these zombies don't run. Welcome home George.
American writer/director and one of the most influential figures in modern horror cinema, whose ability to write strong scripts and characters match his penchant for gory chills. The Pittsburgh native began his career directing adverts before making Night of the Living Dead in 1968. This bleak, scary classic ushered in a new era of horror film-making, but Romero struggled initially to follow it up - There's Always Vanilla is a little-seen romantic drama, and Jack's Wife was butchered by its distributor. The Crazies was a flop but still an exciting slice of sci-fi horror, and while the dark vampire drama Martin again made little money but got Romero some of the best reviews of his career and remains the director's personal favourite.