The heart sinks at the "R" rating for George A. Romero's new zombie flick, Land of the Dead (Universal Pictures). Oh, woe. Oh, hold on: There's some mighty fine gut-munching here. Actually, there's more than I need: Gag me with a garden spade.
True, this zombie cannibalism isn't as anatomically exhaustive as it was in the last Romero Living Dead picture, Day of the Dead (1985), but that's not necessarily a bad thing: However flashy a showcase Day was for FX gruemeister Tom Savini's Vietnam flashbacks, the disembowelments and partial beheadings were, um, overkill. No, Land of the Dead might be dandier for its "R" rating. You could almost say it shows a new refinement. Savini didn't do the FX (although he has a cameo as a machete-wielding ghoul), but the splattery sight gags are very witty. The zombie with the flip-top noggin is an instant classic. And the sociopolitical subtext is good, too.
Romero has quite the legacy to live up to. His Night of the Living Dead (1968) remains one of the masterpieces of the '60s, distilling all the social and racial tensions of that era into one horrific 12-hour farmhouse siege. Authority has collapsed, rifle-toting rednecks roam the countryside, and the nuclear family is imploding: Brother comes incestuously after sister; a little girl feasts on her mommy's flesh. I saw it at age 12, and it didn't just scare the living crap out of me, it turned my world inside out.
The Me-Decade Dawn of the Dead (1978)was less devastating emotionally: It featured zombies as the ultimate conformists/materialists, converging on a mall out of a flickering memory of that American impulse to shop until they drop. (In this case they drop only after getting their brains blown out.) Dawn stretched its joke thin, but it was brilliantly made and set a benchmark for onscreen hemorrhaging.
It has been 20 years since Day of the Dead (1985)—which disappointed me at the time but looked much better on a recent re-viewing. Although hobbled by budget cuts, Romero steered the saga into the '80s, with an overweening military and a mad scientist who uses zombies for hideous experiments, hoping to turn them into domestic servants (among other things).
Land is the first Living Dead picture with name actors, and it's more formulaic than its predecessors; at times, it feels like a hardboiled, code-of-the-macho-man (and -woman) John Carpenter movie. But Romero still has a gift for expressive carnage and for turning zombies into something more than mindless, festering, plague-spreading viscera-chewers (not that they aren't also mindless, festering, plague-spreading viscera-chewers).
Some years after the beginning of the plague, the living dead still eat people, but, left to their own devices in deserted towns, they're struggling toward a higher consciousness, forming bass-ackward social circles, and even raging against the humans who like to blast and torture them for kicks. The most hateful villain is the supercapitalist Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who walls off wealthy white people in a high-rise condominium and keeps the underclass at bay, distracted by sex and drugs and violent spectacle. It's a lefty paranoid fantasy, complete with a largely ineffectual organizer who tries to stir up the proletariat.
The leading man isn't African-American, as he was in the first two films and came close to being in the third. But a black man is still Romero's social conscience. This time, he's a zombie gas-station attendant—identified as "Big Daddy" in the credits and played by Eugene Clark—who moans and roars when he sees the slaughter of his fellow ghouls, who are used for gleeful target practice by the bought-and-paid-for militia. Kaufman's henchman is Cholo (John Leguizamo), who delivers booze and takes out the human garbage, and who dreams of making enough money to move into Kaufman's swanky condo. When told—in so many words—that he's not white enough, he finds himself on the same side as the zombies.
Broad, yes, but no one expects the politics in horror movies to be subtle. The hero, Riley (Simon Baker), is both a stalwart man of action and a liberal who dreams of making a home in the Canadian wilderness. His sidekick, Charlie (Robert Joy), is a burned simpleton—he's very much on the human-zombie continuum. Riley rescues Slack (Asia Argento—not coincidentally the daughter of Italy's great gore maestro Dario) from a zombie cage where she's about to be eaten for the amusement of the rabble. Then the pair and a band of crack zombie-slayers take off after Cholo and his zombie-proof supertank known as "Dead Reckoning." They have to come back when hundreds of vindictive ghouls, led by Big Daddy, crash Kaufman's insular upper-class enclave and start slurping blue blood, while the mogul makes like Fagin and tries to escape with his filthy lucre.
The plotting isn't the thing here, and neither is the acting—although Baker and Argento are charismatic, Leguizamo is surprisingly compelling, and Hopper, for a change, underplays amusingly. Romero's real gift is for urgent montage, for claustrophobia and invasive terror, and for images that transcend the splatter genre. In one scene, Cholo sees, on the video monitor in his tank, a zombie pushing a skeletal lawnmower—maybe a Mexican gardener to some wealthy landowner in a former life. He blows the poor ghoul away with a kind of hatred reserved only for someone who can't manage to escape his cultural and economic disenfranchisement, even in (un)death. (The killing is even more effective for being seen only on that little video screen.)
The living dead are once again fascinating in the tatters of their previous lives: They're cheerleaders, punks, crones, side by side with people so rotted you can't quite tell what they were. In Land of the Dead, humans have learned to distract them with fireworks. They send them up from their tank, and the zombies stop in their tracks, rapt like small children. As the ghouls evolve toward humanity and the humans toward ghouldom, we can appreciate Romero for using horror to show us How We Live Now, and How We're Living Dead now, too.