Welcome to the zombie renaissance. After the success of last year's stellar 28 Days Later and the better-than-expected remake of Dawn of the Dead, the folks at Universal have wisely decided to tap the resources of the father of modern indie horror as we know it, Night of the Living Dead creator George A. Romero. If you're familiar with Romero's legion of imitators, you may not be accustomed to the way his undead behave themselves: They don't travel like deranged Olympic sprinters, nor do they give birth to hissing, placenta-coated offspring. But in Land of the Dead, Romero proves that he still has the market cornered when it comes to menacing, subtext-laden rotting corpses.
Nearly 40 years after the original Night of the Living Dead, Romero's come up with a great concept to keep his franchise vital: The zombies, it seems, have a learning curve. The film is set in a grim, dystopian Pittsburgh, where the living have used the city's three rivers to cordon themselves off from the flesh-eaters. There, in a shiny high-rise, the opportunistic Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) cruelly doles out shelter and amenities to those who can afford it, while the great unwashed claw out a meager existence at street level. Caught in the middle are Kaufman's hunting and scavenging underlings, the amoral Cholo (John Leguizamo) and the soon-to-retire Riley (Simon Baker).
Romero further ratchets up the class-revolt tension when Cholo, denied his rightful share of the riches, takes control of the Dead Reckoning an impenetrable, military-grade zombie plow and holds it for ransom. Kaufman refuses to pay: "We don't negotiate with terrorists!" he screams, should anyone in the audience miss the allegory. Recruited to fetch the vehicle, Riley teams up with a hooker named Slack (Italian horror heiress Asia Argento) and his best buddy Charlie (Robert Joy) to do more than just that: They plan to escape Kaufman's totalitarian regime in favor of the greener pastures of Canada (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, not unlike the cavemen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the undead slowly begin to learn their ABCs aiming semiautomatic rifles, brandishing jackhammers and cutting electrified wires. This development prompts Riley and his gang to put aside their socialist travel plans in favor of saving the remaining humans from the new, smarter zombie scourge.
Unapologetic B-horror fare, Land of the Dead may not be as innovative as 28 Days or as fashionably cynical as the Dawn remake: The score is cheesy, and the monotone Hopper isn't quite up to his usual evil-lunatic standard. But what the film lacks in surface style it more than makes up for in creativity. Chomping into their victims with a gusto usually reserved for denizens of the Old Country Buffet, the zombies waste no time in devouring the digits, lower intestines and esophagi of the city's cowering capitalists. Romero eschews the rapid-fire editing of today's filmmakers to linger over every last bit of gore; his film is full of the same sorts of projectile aortic spray and sickening "splat" noises that made the Kill Bill films so intoxicatingly repulsive. Better still, there's an attention to suspense and character that almost seems radical when compared to most Hollywood shock offerings. "It's like they're pretending to be alive," mentions one of our heroes as he watches a slow-moving procession of the undead. Riley replies, "Isn't that what we're doing?" Leave it to Romero to bring some much-needed existentialist dread back to low-budget horror.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].