George A. Romero's Land of the Dead.

Reviews of the latest films.
June 23 2005 5:29 PM

Undead Again

George A. Romero'snew zombie epic.

Click image to expand.
The peasants really ARE revolting

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.

Advertisement

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.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:03 PM Kern Your Enthusiasm: The Ubiquity of Gotham
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.