2005 (Canada / France / USA)
Set some three years after hell shut it gates and zombies swept civilisation aside mankind has survived in small isolated enclaves. One such shelter and the centre for George A. Romero's Land of the Dead is the luxury skyscraper Fiddler's Green, home to the city's ruler Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) and his rich sycophantic friends. Here they sit in their ivory tower eating fine food, shopping in boutique stores and living as if nothing has changed and segregated behind paid mercenaries, the rest of the population live in the slums where Kaufmann encourages vice and uses greed and fear to keep them under control.
From the off though we can see that some things never change. There is no mankind putting its differences behind to work together for a brighter united future; we still find class stratification, greed and a world divided not by ability or achievement but by what you have and who you know.
The film starts with the same old Romero zombies. Shambling parodies of their former selves they walk the same routes and return to the same places they did when they were alive. Mimicking their same old routines, a gas attendant waits for cars and a small bandstand plays host to a hilarious trombone player and his troupe.
Out on his last sortie from the city for supplies, Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) the designer and commander of the state of the art zombie killing bus Dead Reckoning has decided he's had enough, he's sick of the politics, the unfairness and way in which the rich have begun to take the illusion of safety for granted.
Gathering up essential food and medicine to take back to the safety of the city with the zombie horde hypnotised to the nights fireworks he has also noticed changes in some of the zombies behaviour. One such zombie, the petrol attendant affectionately known as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) even seems to be able to communicate with a grunt to others. Time has passed and the zombies in Romero's world are starting to grow up. Starting with Bub in Day of the Dead, the zombies or walkers as they're referred have started are starting to exhibit self awareness and an ability to adapt.
We've talked about Romero's use of subtext at length before and Land of the Dead doesn't disappoint. As well Romero's usual and slightly communist use of exaggerated class demarcation, the zombies themselves have an evolved dynamic. Not just the ever constant static fear, the background cinder-keg, there to let the tension, narrative and characters play out, this time they're portrayed as an underclass of their own. Ridiculed and slaughtered without thought, their journey to Fiddler's Green is just as much symbolic of their journey of self-discovery as it is a tense horror story as they creep ever closer, their breach of the city walls and slaughter of the rich just as much symbolic of resistance fighters knocking down their oppressors as it is a good old story of zombie slaughter and mayhem.
On returning to pick up his car he discovers he's been ripped off and with his best friend Charlie (Robert Joy) heads to confront bar owner Chihuahua (Phil Fondacaro) to get his ride out of town. Witnessing the slums fall to a new low with the evening's entertainment a state sponsored zombie murder, he steps in rescues a young lady called Slack (Asia Argento) moments before she's eaten, kills Chihuahua and gets thrown in jail.
Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), second in command also thinks that was his last night out on patrol and with delusions of grandeur returns to Kaufmann thinking he'll finally be granted a place with the elite. He comes crashing down to earth as his request is not only reclined but Kaufmann's decided he's had enough of him. Out for revenge, he steals Dead Reckoning just as the city begins to descend into chaos with Big Daddy breaching one of the supply stations outside the city walls, and demands $5m or he'll blow the tower up.
Kaufmann throws Riley a lifeline; if he can retake Dead Reckoning and save the city he'll be free to leave with his friends and with the zombies realising they can cross the rivers protecting the city the story is set for a dramatic and bloodthirsty climax.
And for the most part the ending is as full on, tense and dramatic as you'd want. There's lots of panic, screaming, zombie kills and more blood, guts and dismemberments than probably in all of Romero's other films to this point. The narrative is authentic and strong, the characters believable and the effects staggering. My only complain is that I felt the film ended a bit abruptly, almost as if it ran out of time. As zombies ravage the remaining survivors and the city looks beyond hope, in rides Dead Reckoning, three quick missiles to one stretch of fencing and Slack turns to Riley as men, women and children appear unscathed in the background and says," you saved them". Really? An hour of setting up a massive multi dynamic confrontation, hundreds of organised zombies, mercenaries, civilians and freedom fighters and it's all over in thirty seconds? The missing scenes alludes to a longer more involved resistance including a fight back from the men and women of the slums as the rich in their ivory palace run like headless chickens to their death at Big Daddy and feeling his wrath exacted and with a sense of affinity, he leads his zombies away to find a new un-life.
Land of the Dead is a masterful apocalyptic sci-fi adventure. Using all of Romero's biggest ever budget, some $15m, the action is lavish and much larger in scale than anything we've seen from him before. Expansive overhead shots, explosions, vibrant city scenes; the world is alive and authentic. In many ways this is easily his best zombie film, certainly for the viewer more used to bigger and better effects but it also retains that hallmark Romero wit and use of satire. An interesting exploration of how zombies over time could evolve to almost something one could sympathise Romero isn't afraid to break new ground in a genre that's becoming more saturated. Big, bold, the master is back, 8/10.