George A. Romero may have created the zombie film as we know it, but in the 20 years since he last made one, he has been surpassed by better filmmakers — his imitators, actually, who have now learned to make zombie flicks with greater skill than the master himself.
“Land of the Dead,” Romero’s fourth (after the original “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead”), is good, but last year’s “Shaun of the Dead” and the “Dawn of the Dead” remake were better; “28 Days Later” was better than them all. “Land of the Dead” isn’t as witty as those films, nor as creative. Nor, to be honest, as scary.
It is set sometime after the events of “Day of the Dead,” when the earth is overrun with zombies. The living have set up outposts and barricades in the large cities, with the flesh-eaters mostly relegated to the small towns and wooded areas. The humans must occasionally venture into the towns, though, to find food and supplies. These operations are carefully organized and performed by a specialized team of zombie-fighters who comprise the post-zombie-apocalypse military.
But back in the city, despite the relative safety provided by the armed guards and the electrified fences, all is not well. The wealthy live in a luxury high-rise while the poor live on the streets. A man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) is behind it all, running the city as a ruthless capitalist dictator, ensuring his own safety and that of his constituents while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. I’m sure I do not need to tell you that he will be eaten by zombies before the film’s end.
Among the aforementioned soldiers are Riley (Simon Baker), a stout-hearted, emotionless do-gooder; and Cholo (John Leguizamo), a mercenary rule-breaker who freelances for Kaufman on the side. Double-crossed by Kaufman, Cholo steals the armed vehicle known as Dead Reckoning and threatens to use it to attack Kaufman’s high-rise unless he pays up. Kaufman, fearing to lose his life but not wanting to “negotiate with terrorists,” hires Riley to get Dead Reckoning back from his teammate. For his part, Riley just wants to leave the city and go north, where there are no zombies or humans. (He seems to have equal disdain for both races. The zombies may try to eat him, but at least they don’t lie to him.)
Meanwhile, the zombies have gotten smarter since the old days. They still move slowly — Romero is a staunch anti-speedist — but they are led, more or less, by a head zombie named Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), and they are gradually developing skills for using tools and working together. Already they have changed out of whatever clothes they were buried in and put on the uniforms they lived in, resuming the gestures and movements of their occupations in a ghoulish imitation of real life. Old habits die hard, I guess, or don’t die at all. How depressing is it to realize that if you’re a waitress all your life, you’re still going to shuffle around the restaurant carrying a tray after you die?
If my description of the plot seems lengthy, that is by design. It feels lengthy in the movie, too — busy, multi-faceted and almost unnecessary. The time spent setting up the Riley vs. Cholo vs. Kaufman triangle might have been better spent showing zombies ripping people apart, don’t you think? Romero includes a few dismemberings and killings that are particularly clever, but in general he cannot achieve the dark humor and exhilaration of his imitators.
B- (1 hr., 32 min.; )