As the wait continued for the follow-up to “Forefather of the Dead” George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), longtime fans of his brand of socially-conscious zombie carnage probably weren’t remiss in feeling that this particular ship had already set sail into the sunset. After all, Day of the Dead’s production was notoriously compromised due to financial constraints (Romero’s original plan to continue expanding the world that he created with Dawn of the Dead (1978) was, effectively, shot in the head and downsized to a “handful of survivors in a bunker” storyline after it all proved prohibitively expensive) and Romero appeared to have little success in attracting investors for another entry. For all intents and purposes, it looked like Romero’s zombies had finally stopped kicking, even if his filmmaking career continued to chug along with non-zombie efforts like Monkey Shines (1988), The Dark Half (1993) and Bruiser (2000).
But, to paraphrase another master of the macabre, “over time, even death may die” and Romero’s “Dead” fans finally got their long-delayed wish when Land of the Dead (2005), the official follow-up to Day of the Dead, finally roared into multiplexes. For the first time in 20 years, Romero’s shambling gut-munchers were once again duking it out for box-office dinero, hoping to infect a new generation of horror audiences. Anytime someone waits twenty years for something, however, there’s an inherent danger of irrelevance: after all, there have been twenty years of zombie films between Day and Land. Would Romero still have the goods or would this be another sad example of a master craftsman set adrift, helpless against the ever-changing zeitgeist of our modern era? The answer, as it turns out, would be a hearty “yes,” followed by a quieter, slightly more hesitant “perhaps.”
Radio broadcasts and images of zombie mayhem over the opening credits give us a shorthand version of the events leading up to the “present day,” which appears to reside in a decidedly dystopic near-future: zombies have, effectively, taken over the world, although small bands of survivors still carve out rough existences in the burned-out cities that litter the landscape of what used to be America. The living dead have continued to “evolve,” in a manner of speaking, which we witness first-hand as we see zombies attempting to play instruments, pump gas and carry on rudimentary conversations with each other. One zombie in particular, a large gas station attendant (Eugene Clark), seems to have more intelligence than the average gut-muncher and appears to serve as defacto “leader” to the zombies, organizing them into a more cohesive “army.”
Our plucky protagonist, Riley (Simon Baker), is the leader of a paramilitary group that serves as the last line defense for one of the anonymous, ruined metropoli that jut up from the landscape like scorched bones. Along with the obnoxious, conniving Cholo (John Leguizamo), best friend Charlie (Robert Joy), Mouse (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) and the rest of the hardened former soldiers, Riley answers to the ultra-slimy Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), lord of the self-sustaining, high-rise paradise known as Fiddler’s Green. Fiddler’s Green, home to the city’s most wealthy and powerful, towers above the slums of the city like an unattainable Eden for the unwashed masses. While the poor and downtrodden carve out existences in a futuristic ghetto that makes Blade Runner (1982) look like Pasadena, the rich and powerful live it up in a combination skyscraper/shopping mall/luxury apartment complex that couldn’t be a more obvious metaphor if it wore a sign saying “Future zombie snacks.” The only thing standing between the 1% and the “walkers” are Riley, his troops and one badass tank known as Dead Reckoning.
While Riley hopes for a modest little piece of land somewhere relatively zombie-free, Cholo has much bigger ambitions: he wants to move into the Green and take his place with the hoity toity elements of society. After he’s doublecrossed by the odious Kaufman, however, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and aims it right at Paradise: if Kaufman doesn’t pay up what he owes, Cholo will happily mulch the rich and famous with their own firepower…irony, thy name art Romero. Realizing that the only one who can stop Cholo is the guy who trained him, Kaufman enlists Riley and Charlie to return the tank to homebase and deliver the “traitor,” dead or alive. With the assistance of Slack (Asia Argento), a wannabe soldier who Riley rescues from one of the city’s zombie vs human cage matches, the trio are closer than ever to realizing their dream of getting the hell out of the city. All that stands between them is a former comrade, an indestructible weapon of war and a zombie army led by an undead “messiah” named Big Daddy. The stakes? Nothing less than the future of the entire human species.
With a budget almost five times that of Day of the Dead (albeit still “modest” by modern tent-pole standards) and a much bigger scope, it’s tempting to view Land of the Dead as the “proper” follow-up to the landmark Dawn of the Dead. While one could certainly make an argument for this (at the very least, Romero’s desire to fully realize his short-changed vision must have been the genesis for the project), it’s also pretty evident that Land of the Dead presents a natural progression from Day of the Dead, especially when one considers the continued “evolution” of the zombies. Bub may have learned to use a Walkman but the zombies in Land of the Dead can communicate with each other, use basic tools and weapons, strategize (on a basic level) and seem to experience basic human emotions, such as anger, sorrow and pride.
This, of course, has always been one of my main issues with Day of the Dead: the “humanization” of the zombies may dovetail nicely with Romero’s overarching themes of societal collapse and rebirth but it also has the (presumably unintended) effect of removing much of the inherent horror from the living dead: once the zombies start acting more and more like “us,” as it were, they cease to be monsters and begin the journey towards sympathetic characters. While this is still handled rather subtly in Land of the Dead (to a point), the scales tip completely by the time of Diary of the Dead (2007) and it’s pretty obvious that the zombies are now the “victims” while the humans are the “monsters.” While Land of the Dead’s finale is certainly thought-provoking, Riley’s ruminations on the possibility of a shared “promised land” for both human and zombie-kind put us on a much different philosophical plane than the apocalyptic climaxes to either Dawn or Day of the Dead.
None of this, by the way, is to argue for “dumber” zombie films: I’ve always felt that the social politics of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead were one of the main reasons why those films will always be such complete and undeniable classics. There’s a delicate balance to be maintained, however, a balance that Romero appears to grow increasingly uninterested in as the franchise continues: perhaps the desire to make his films more than just “zombie films” fuels this although, to be honest, this is probably just the natural progression of his earlier films, albeit taken a bit far, at least for my personal tastes.
My biggest issue with Land of the Dead, ultimately, is that it ends up being a rather mediocre horror film, despite being an above-average action film. Romero has sacrificed most of the inherent chills and shocks of his first three zombie films in favor of rather repetitious “run and gun” scenes involving Riley’s mercs and the undead: we get treated to what seems an inordinate amount of rather cheap-looking action beats rather than horror setpieces like the inquisitive Hari Krishna or the semi-trailer fiasco from Dawn of the Dead. Land of the Dead is also a much different-looking film than either Dawn or Day: the zombie effects are all handled by KNB, rather than Tom Savini, which actually makes Land of the Dead a bit of a dry-run for the smash-hit TV show The Walking Dead. This is a minor quibble, obviously, since KNB’s designs are nothing to sneeze at, although discerning viewers will still notice the difference (KNB’s zombies are much more “technical” but Savini’s zombies always felt more “real” to me, strangely enough).
The one aspect where Land of the Dead vaults head and shoulders above its immediate predecessor, however, is the caliber of the acting. Quite frankly, Day of the Dead is still one of the most unpleasantly “shouty” films I’ve ever watched: every actor in that thing is pitching to the rafters and, at times, it feels more like a wrestling match than an actual film. Land of the Dead, by contrast, features some absolutely fine performances by the likes of Baker, Argento (Dario’s daughter) and Leguizamo, who I normally find to be excruciating yet who wear the role of Cholo like a spike-knuckled glove. I’ll admit that Robert Joy’s “idiot savant” role stretches credibility just a bit (he’s innocent, like a child, but also a crackshot sniper, like a plot device). Top of the class, however, is Hopper, like always, ruling the roost like some sort of megalomaniacal rooster. He’s predictably great, tossing off lines like “Zombies, man…they creep me out” with the joie de vivre that you expect from cinema’s favorite wild man. Even if everyone else in the movie stunk to high heaven, which they don’t, Hopper is still 1000% more charismatic than every actor in Day of the Dead combined.
Ultimately, Land of the Dead is what it is: a sequel that comes just about 20 years too late. While there’s an awful lot to like here and even some stuff to love (the bits involving the zombies’ fascination with fireworks are, to be honest, quite beautiful), this ends up being a pretty big step-down from Dawn of the Dead, despite being a better film, overall, than Day of the Dead (in my opinion, at least). As mentioned before, this is more of an action film than a horror film, for the most part, but it’s never anything less than watchable and, on occasion, has plenty of that old Romero moxie. This may not be Romero firing on all cylinders (by contrast, The Dark Half is a much, much better film) but I’ll take a “pretty-good” Romero zombie film over pretty much any other horror director’s fare any day of the week. Part of me will never stop wondering what might have happened if this had come a mere 5-10 years after Day of the Dead, however, instead of 20.