In 1968, George A. Romero revolutionized the horror genre with Night of the Living Dead, a brutal and uncompromising depiction of flesh-eating zombies laying siege on a farmhouse. Fueled by the anger of Romero and a creative team fed up with the status quo, all sorts of taboos were shattered. They were responding to Vietnam and political assassination, paranoia and distrust of the government—an all-pervading dread that civilization was crumbling. Most of the characters in Night of the Living Dead wind up killing each other accidentally or in panic, while the undead creatures keep growing into an unstoppable legion. Hope was found in Ben (Duane Jones), the hero, who was intelligent and resourceful, but also black—he winds up getting killed, not by the monsters outside his door, but by some dumb hillbilly warrior who mistakes him for the enemy. The film ends with him getting hung up on meat hooks and burned on a funeral pyre along with dozens of other corpses. It’s pointless and unfair, enraging, galvanizing, and absolutely powerful.
Romero struck the zeitgeist hard, and Night of the Living Dead still resonates today not just as a time capsule of a violent era but a legitimate depiction of our nightmares: the world falling apart. He returned to this premise, and improved upon it, with his 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead. Four survivors of the zombie apocalypse hole themselves up in a modern shopping mall, where the slow-marching undead resemble glazed, fluorescent-lit consumers. The heroes indulge, living the dream of mall paradise, and only gradually realize that they’re living a shallow fantasy. When the zombies lay an all-out siege at the climax, resulting in an entrails- and gore-spattered Grand Guignol bloodbath, again it’s a chilling sign of the times. These two horror films deserve their reputation as classics because they’re genuinely scary, provoke tremendous dread, and are adrenaline-pumping funhouse rides that are cathartic in their ability to push spectators to their limit. So many characters get their brains blown out in Dawn of the Dead, the viewer becomes numb to it and begins to view it as absurd comedy, which is exactly the point.
Romero’s third zombie film, 1985’s Day of the Dead, takes place in an underground military bunker where the humans are tipping over into madness, self-righteous rage, and pot-fueled philosophizing. Once again, the main protagonists are black or female (and also, if Roger Avary is to be believed, casually gay). Romero’s perspective is decidedly steered to the left, so the villains are right-wing automatons. The zombies start to broaden their context as tormented slaves, but have always been blank and unstoppable enough to sustain all sorts of metaphors. Suffice to say, Romero’s vision holds up, and makes an artful and insightful case for the ability of horror films to tap into our collective psyches and reveal what’s in our very hearts and guts. It’s not always pretty, but when done as powerfully as Romero it’s visceral and rewarding.
28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake were successful enough, both critically and at the box office, to allow Romero an opportunity he’s wanted for nearly 20 years: to make a forth zombie film on a bigger budget, reflective of the 1990s and 2000s. We live in a hotbed political climate of terrorism, jingoism, war, and red state/blue state unrest right now. The time is ripe for horror movies to cast reflection on our national fears, to confront or expose, and provide a necessary outlet for our rage disguised as passivity.
How disappointing, then, to report that Land of the Dead is a familiar rehashing of what Romero already covered in Day of the Dead. Now that he has a larger budget, the heroes can live in a walled cityscape called Fiddler’s Green instead of an underground bunker. He tantalizes the viewer with a class system of fat cats living in skyscrapers while the poor rot below in the gutters, entertained by sensationalistic carnival games and turning their brains off to the zombies lurking outside. And the undead are learning how to use weapons, and mobilizing into a makeshift army of the oppressed led by a hulking black leader (Eugene Clark) whose character trait is a rebellious scream and a fist thrown in the air. Fuck the Man!
That would be fine if Romero sufficiently developed his material, but Land of the Dead rushes through its fleeting 93-minute running time at the breakneck pace of a video game. That leaves insufficient time for Romero’s gift for metaphor, and limits character development to broad strokes. An opening sequence where humans explore an abandoned town as hunter/gatherers for penicillin, food, and booze highlights the superb special F/X make-up on the zombie characters, with flesh rotting off their faces and eyes tinged with a yellowish glow, but they offer very little in the way of threat or substance. Romero has grown so used to his zombie world that his creatures are just kind of there, and if that’s the point he’s trying to make it’s one that drains all energy and interest out of them as well. The humans are no better, led by Riley (Simon Baker), a white male hero with a square jaw, a dedication to self-preservation, and very little in the way of backstory or personality. He seems especially inactive next to Cholo (John Leguizamo), a lower-class Hispanic thug with dreams of moving uptown to a life of wealth and comfort he feels he’s earned.
Cholo steals the city’s prize armored assault vehicle (called the Dead Reckoning) and threatens to bring down the city and open the gates for an all-out zombie riot in the streets. Head capitalist villain Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) enlists Riley and former marine turned street hooker Slack (Asia Argento) to stop their former cohort before Fiddler’s Green is overrun with zombie mayhem. Riley’s search for Cholo takes them outside the confines of the city and into the burned-out, monster-infested streets familiar from Romero-inspired video games (and subsequent movies) like Resident Evil and House of the Dead. The fact that Romero can’t push the envelope any further than his acolytes and imitators is especially daunting, considering he’s the one who pioneered this subgenre in the first place.
Even the all-out zombie attack that results in a terrorized city seems fairly old hat by now. It’s difficult to surpass that unforgettable moment in Day of the Dead where the main bad guy got both his legs ripped off, at which point he bellows, “Choke on ‘em!” Or, for sheer nastiness, seeing a little girl hack up her mother with a garden trowel in Night of the Living Dead. This time, Romero has more money to play with, and the resulting movie is slicker and smoother than his rough-hewn earlier efforts, and thus feels safer. One also gets the impression he was filming on a rigorous tight schedule, since this one lacks the spontaneity of his earlier work, some of which had a documentary-style that lent credibility and realism to his macabre fantasies.
Even the weakest, most compromised Romero film has its moments, and Land of the Dead offers several. The introduction of Asia Argento, dressed in a hooker’s getup complete with fishnet stockings and thrown into a cage of zombies, is intercut with one of the good guys getting betrayed by a nefarious dwarf, all against the backdrop of a gauche carnival circus. With several oddball events happening all at once, Romero develops a wonderfully sleazy sequence of shots. Likewise, the image of a hundred zombies rising out of the water in preparation for a riverbank assault and a seemingly headless zombie attacker with a jack-in-the-box surprise attack are especially chilling.
It’s a shame these highlights exist within an otherwise banal narrative: Will the good guys get to the armored vehicle in time to save the city? Romero almost delivers a moment of utter devastation that might have made all the difference between a potent scene and a hokey one, when the good guys approach the city gates after the massacre. But Romero pulls his punch here big time, and slaps on a cringe-inducing message about how the humans and zombies are all just “trying to find their way home.” The objects of our dread and fascination are transformed into Lassie. By the time the closing credits roll, the pervading mood is one of crashing disappointment; Night of the Living Dead climaxed with its hero’s unfair death after an evening in hell, while Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead sent the survivors off in helicopters to a no man’s land of uncertain fate and guarded optimism about the future, but Land of the Dead treats its zombie warfare as a “that-wasn’t-so-bad” skirmish. Is that the kind of under-whelming false reassurance we need in these troubled times? Sadly, Romero’s comeback effort after not having had a theatrical release in 12 years is a bust, and though his theme deals with the inability of survivors to deal with the problem, that doesn’t mean the filmmaker should pull his punches too.