The opening shot of Land Of The Dead is a dilapidated diner sign that reads ‘EATS’. It may be two decades since George A Romero’s Dead last had their Day but as the veteran director enters his twilight years it’s good to see he still has a twinkle in his eye. Or maybe laughing is the only way to staunch the tears. “It’s like they’re pretending to be alive,” says an ill-fated youngster, watching zombie honcho Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) trying to pump petrol. “Isn’t that what we’re doing?” replies Riley (Simon Baker). “Pretending to be alive?”
There’s a desolation to Land Of The Dead. Behind the smart dialogue, splattery action and barely submerged political message: a resignation. Night Of The Living Dead (1968) was fuelled by the issues of its age: the Civil Rights movement, rage at the Vietnam War. Passionate and relentless, clear-eyed and chilling, it’s a eulogy for the generation that blew it, that saw it all go up in smoke. Dawn Of The Dead (1978) targeted baby boomers grown-up and complacent, shuffling round malls mistaking shopping for life. Day Of The Dead (1985) followed us underground, bound in the idiocy of the arms race and Reagan, with a sunshine postscript no one bought. Increasingly the message was, ‘It’s not the dead you have to be afraid of.’ Maybe friendship could bring you happiness, but something would take it away. It’s all about trying to fill a spiritual void: can we be saved through community, commerce or science? And: how the hell did they tear that bloke’s legs off? Land Of The Dead explores the same themes, using some of Romero’s grander ideas for the low-budget Day, expanded in this still-modest $15 million production.
Sided by barbed wire fences and a river, the unnamed survivors’ city hosts both the Fiddler’s Green development, where “life goes on” under the watchful eye of the rich, ruthless Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), and street-slums where, in the words of Asia Argento’s hardy hooker, “if you can drink it, shoot it up, fuck it, gamble on it, it belongs to him.” Kaufman (who’s styled, by Hopper’s own admission, after US Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) is the real cannibal. The living are destroying themselves.
“Kaufman’s gonna pay me because if he doesn’t he knows I’m going to do a jihad on his ass,” says rebellious raider Cholo (John Leguizamo), coming over all Osama Bin Laden after half-inching rocket-firing truck-tank the Dead Reckoning. In another scene he offers a tumbler of Champagne to Kaufman which the supercilious suit ignores, pouring himself fresh bubbly into a flute. You can’t buy class.
Romero is clearly angry, or bitter, at the state of America. The ‘Land’ that most concerns him here may be Iraq - and while the grubby shantytown sideshows are at first funny (take your picture with a zombie!), when Argento is chucked into a zombie-filled cage for gambling pleasure, the comparisons between the US and Roman Empires might as well be daubed on the print in Christians’ blood.
Not that the director’s rage stops this being an effectively grisly urban Western, with zombies as Indians, Kaufman a corrupt sheriff and Riley a conscience-stricken gunfighter (think James Stewart in The Naked Spur with the walking dead). But it does give pseudy critics (hands up!) something to chew over.
There are also plenty of terr/horr-ific post-viewing pub-chat points: the belly ring, the finger munching and that-bit-where-it-scoops-gunk-out-of-the-corpse’s-mouth-and-slurps-it. No one delivers gore quite like Romero and he’s still finding inventive ways for the dead to chow on the living (the semi-headless killing is superb) and creating suspense sequences with sly kickers (the clown on the pier). He also has two of the best performances in (what’s now) the Quadrilogy Of The Dead, with Leguizamo’s charismatic wiseass playing well with Baker’s dialled-down, mournful humanity.
What stops this being equal to its predecessors is a final third that, as Baker frantically tries to save the city, abandons the series’ traditional siege mentality to become a ‘man with a plan’-style actioner. There’s an optimism to the ending that doesn’t feel sincere: more the wan hope of the director in the face of real-world travails, trying to tell himself everything will be okay. Throughout, the zombies are distracted by “sky flowers” (fireworks), which serve as a brilliant metaphor for how movies/sport/entertainment divert the masses’ (our) attention from poverty, how the media quells revolution. Land Of The Dead turns out to be another such fiery bloom. But there are many worse ways to entertain yourself to death.
Not a fourth zombie masterpiece, but still a bloody, provocative and enjoyable return from the Don of the Dead himself.