Screens The way we were 

Romero's latest zombies are recovering their memories and basic motor skills while embattled humans lay waste to each other

It was supposed to be a trilogy. Maybe it didn't start out that way, but George A. Romero's magnum opus certainly made sense in that format: three films - Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead - scattered over 17 years, representing a complete 24-hour cycle (twilight having been covered in the first film, and really, how scary could Dusk of the Dead have been?), attacking their subject from three diverse but nicely balanced angles.

screens-dead1_330jpg
I eat dead people: Zombies take charge in
Land of the Dead.

Now, 20 years after the last installment, the world has called upon the Zombie King to retake his throne. Filmmakers who grew up in Romero's shadow have done so well lately with fantastic fright flicks such as 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and the comic take Shaun of the Dead, some of which were actually mainstream hits, that it would have been wrong for him to let this wave pass him by.

Land of the Dead may jettison the chronological theme of its brothers, but it does follow their lead in cooking up a new angle instead of just rehashing an old plot with fancier special effects. Here, mortals have lived with reanimated corpses for long enough to settle into a routine: They live in fenced- and moated-off cities defended by armies and supplied by scavengers who drive tanks out to zombie-inhabited surrounding towns to bring back food.

Romero's zombie films have always contained a layer of social critique, and this one's no different. The filmmaker imagines a post-apocalyptic scenario that is ridiculous but not implausible: The dead outnumber the living, danger is everywhere, and yet somehow, paper money still matters. Those who have it hole up in a high-rise called Fiddler's Green, whose ground floors support fashionable boutiques and fancy restaurants, while the have-nots teem through grimy streets and live on crumbs. The latter talk about revolution but, like a few Democrats we know, haven't yet found the cojones to take much action.

The plot concerns a few of those professional scavengers. One has saved enough to buy a car, hoping to flee to the unpopulated north; one has done enough of the rich folks' dirty work to become rich himself, and hopes to buy his way into their enclave. Both plans hit snags, as if the whole dead-coming-back thing wasn't enough to contend with.

Land of the Dead
Dir. and writ. George A. Romero; feat. Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark, Joanne Boland (R)
If the dynamics between the characters feel slightly more business-as-usual than in your average zombie film (double-crosses and competition weigh more heavily than the "we've got to pull together and survive" vibe), Romero compensates by upping the ante on the monster front. He gives us living dead who are beginning to remember some of the things they could do in their old lives. These decaying dudes show the first sign of being able to use tools - guns, even, though they fall far short of assembling a militia of their own. They also show signs of emotion and thought - one zombie in particular can motivate the others wordlessly, marching on the city of the living as if its existence is a great injustice to be rectified.

That overarching goal may not lend much drama to the film, but Romero delivers plenty of good scares along the way. Even by horror standards, this is an unusually gory picture, and some scenes of corpses feeding on one another are almost disturbing. George Romero may not have returned with the epoch-defining zombie film his followers have hoped for, but it's a perfectly enjoyable addition to a wave of movies that is already something of an embarrassment of riches for horror fans.

By John DeFore


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