The 2000s saw a resurgence in the zombie film with the good (28 Days Later), the bad (Resident Evil) and the funny (Shaun of the Dead), but all of them pale in comparison to George A. Romero’s trilogy of zombie films. The first two have been remade already, most significantly with Dawn of the Dead (2004), and both failed to build on or even recapture what made Romero’s films so great in the first place. They seem to only be in love with the gore and miss (or just didn’t understand) the socio-political message of them. Romero returned with a zombie movie that was years in the making and was well worth the wait.
As with his other zombie films, Land of the Dead (2005) is a stand-alone story but looks like it could exist in the same universe as the others. The zombies have completely taken over and the dwindling human population tries desperately to hold onto what little land they have left. A small, heavily armed group venture regularly into zombie territory to scavenge whatever supplies they can find and then return to an island complex known as Fiddler’s Green. The island has been heavily fortified by the military who rule with complete control with rich businessman Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) as their leader.
Society has degraded even further since Day of the Dead (1985). The wide gulf between the rich and the poor is even more pronounced. In the slums of the city people can get their pictures taken with captive zombies or shoot them with paintball guns. At one point, they even throw a woman (Asia Argento) into a steel cage with two zombies for sport. The rich people aren’t much better as represented by Kaufman who is corrupt and amoral enough to make money off of and sacrifice his own people. It’s as if Romero’s saying that it wouldn’t be so bad if the zombies wiped us out. Look at what we’ve become.
The glimmer of hope is represented by Riley (Simon Baker), the leader of the scavengers and his sidekick and ace sharpshooter Charlie (Robert Joy). Like the protagonists in Romero’s Dead trilogy and Knightriders (1981), Riley is a reluctant leader who is tired of this corrupt world and is quietly planning an escape route to a more natural way of life. However, this is disrupted by another member of his group, Cholo (John Leguizamo), who represents the dissenting voice. He’s only in it for the money and has a secret pact going with Kaufman. However, when Kaufman rips off Cholo, the mercenary goes rogue and takes off with Dead Reckoning, the island’s heavily armored vehicle. So, Kaufman cuts a deal with Riley to find Cholo, kill him and bring back the vehicle.
To make matters worse, the zombies are getting smarter as exemplified by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) who not only learns how to use a gun but is also able to organize legions of the undead. It’s nice to see a return to the slow moving zombies that we all know and love, but with a definite upgrade in the intelligence department while the humans continue to regress, embroiled in more bickering and in-fighting. After all, the zombies are the ultimate have-nots in this world. They are clearly tired of being shot at and exploited by the living. It’s almost as if Big Daddy is some kind of zombie Che Guevara leading an undead revolution that wants to take down corrupt, rich capitalists. In fact, Land of the Dead can be read as Romero’s critique of the George Bush administration with Kaufman as a Donald Rumsfeld stand-in.
Romero has crafted a very smart horror film, which is something of a rarity these days what with all of these lames remakes littering the landscape. Land of the Dead has all of the requisite gore (and the unrated version has even more) while actually trying to say something. There are plenty of powerful images, like the undead rising out of the water at night (a nice nod to Carnival of Souls, one of the films that inspired Night of the Living Dead) or zombies crashing through the posh apartment complex and feasting on the wealthy. Like with his other zombie films, Land of the Dead is a commentary on the times in which it was made. And for that alone, his movie is a refreshing breath of fresh air.