Land of the Dead. Universal presents a film written and directed by George Romero. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated R (for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use). Starring Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Dennis Hopper, Eugene Clark.

Land of the Dead

"I’m not sure if you showed this movie at the White House that anybody would get it, except when the money burns at the end - then they might feel a little pang of sadness."
- George A. Romero, in the
LA Weekly

George A. Romero's Land of the Dead envisions a world in which the undead walk an Earth of only the poor. The richest citizens have holed themselves up in a newly zombie-free Pittsburgh, in Fiddler's Green, a skyscraper that has been turned into a sort of country club. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), a Trump-esque opportunist in charge of the Green, observes from his office the poor citizens, living in slums and shanties, protected only by electric fences and Kaufman's military henchmen.

One of these henchmen, an assassin named Cholo (John Leguizamo), tries to get into the Green but is turned down. He has the money, but not the status; no one that uncultured, that Hispanic, could ever be allowed in. Cholo steals a massive tank and holds the city ransom, threatening to destroy the Green if he doesn't get what he wants. Another mercenary, Riley (Simon Baker), is sent by Kaufman to take Cholo down and return the tank.

Romero's politics have always informed his films. From the black protagonist in Night to the consumer culture zombies in Dawn, he has always been just as concerned with the social and political satire beneath his horror as with the horror itself. In the original Dead trilogy, the zombies stood for the problems facing society, problems made unsolvable due to mankind's stupidity, greed and cruelty.

Led by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a previous auto mechanic, the undead in Land are beginning to work together to take down the fences and get into Pittsburgh. Once this happens, the humans, disjointed and split, have very little chance. Here the zombies stand for the world's dispossessed, rising up against the greedy and the corrupt.

This uprising can also be read as an allegory for the Iraqi insurgency. Romero goes to great lengths to draw comparisons to the war and its aftermath; captured zombies are submitted to street carnival humiliations straight out of Abu Ghraib, and Kaufman and friends can easily be seen as government officials, watching and exploiting a conflict that they aren't involved in and don't understand.

Romero's growing sympathy for the undead comes to a head here, and although he never asks us to forgive their flesh-eating ways, but he does request our understanding. The film's emotional base comes not from the human heroes but from the undead, from Big Daddy screaming in anguish while watching his brethren being slaughtered to the zombies finally shrugging off the distraction of the mass media - here taking the form of fireworks - and going to work. "What right do you have?" Kaufman cries to Big Daddy when they finally come face to face, and Big Daddy's wordless response is probably something along the same lines.

The performances are, of course, perfunctory, but they get the job done. Baker, last seen in The Ring Two, makes for a compelling hero, and, on the other side, Hopper is perfectly slimey as Kaufman. The most well-rounded character is Cholo, and Leguizamo does his best to tone down his typically annoying tics; this is one of his best controlled and most believable performances. The supporting cast - from Asia Argento (daughter of Italian horror director Dario Argento) to Clark - is solid across the board.

But, you say, what about the horror? A film can't survive on subtext alone, and, while rarely scary, Land of the Dead is never less than suitably gruesome; several deaths - one involving a misplaced grenade, the other a seemingly decapitated corpse - are among the most inventive and gratifying I've seen. The movie's smart - and that's the best reason to see it - but it's certainly never boring.

© 2005 Matt Noller, not that anyone would ever want to steal this