A Review by Noah Antwiler
This isn't a zombie movie. This is an extended political commentary with zombies thrown in it. George Romero is known for making social satire with his previous films, but in Land of the Dead the subtext is the main-text, and it's all about as subtle as a sledgehammer. My expectations were low, and this movie managed to exceed them, but not by a whole hell of a lot.
Land of the Dead doesn't really fit in continuity with the rest of the series, and anyone who says different is kidding themselves. If it inherits the continuity of any movie, it's ironically closest to the Dawn of the Dead remake. You can tell because of the high level of technology evident in the film, far beyond what is seen in Night of the Living Dead (which featured blocky radios and black-and-white televisions, or even the more modern Day of the Dead. The characters in this movie are very modern, employing PDAs, GPS devices, state-of-the-art firearms, and cutting-edge communication devices.
Further, it doesn't really mesh with Day of the Dead in the sense that the movie takes place near a stronghold called Fiddler's Green, a skyscraper and its surrounding slums that represents one of several survivor holdouts. Another such place is Cleveland, I believe. We're led to believe in Day of the Dead that there's just nobody out there anymore, and surely if there were strongholds still standing they'd be able to receive long-range radio communications, and eager to accept new people.
Fiddler's Green has, apparently, managed to keep the whole zombie holocaust thing under a measure of control. They're well fortified, surrounded on its sides by water. The bridges are walled off, and the only way in is a death-trap. They're set, as long as a plucky group of mercenaries is able to raid the fallen cities for supplies. They do this in an armored Megaweapon vehicle called Dead Reckoning, a mobile tank bristling with rockets, machine guns, and fireworks.
Yeah, fireworks. The dead love 'em. "Oooooooh....Aaaaaaaahhhh....braaaaaaiiinnnnss...."
The leader of these mercs is perhaps the most generic milquetoast white hero ever to blunder into the apocalypse, Riley. He's a completely unrealistic optimistic do-gooder so bland that even he admits that he's got no interesting personal history to speak of. He dreams one day to move to Canada so he can experience an all-new kind of hell of being fucking cold all the time, and not watching hockey. There's nothing there, of course, which to Riley is exactly the point. He figures he can scrum himself silly on salvaged maple syrup until the day he dies.
Unlike his more conniving buddy Cholo, played by John Leguizamo, a man who desperately needs to be beaten with a wiffle bat. Oddly enough, this is probably his best (and not coincidentally, his most restrained) performance of his LIFE, and for once I liked him in a film. Cholo wants to move into Fiddler's Green, and he figures that since he's been doing The Man's dirty work for years, he's earned his spot.
Not so, says Mr. Kaufman, the administrator of Fiddler's Green. Kaufman represents the wealthy interests of white, white people, and the first of Romero's political themes. Naturally Kaufman doesn't want some working-class Latino bringing his jive-talk into Wonder Bread Land. There's no place for blue-collars or colored folk in the Republican Party-- I mean, Fiddler's Green.
Everyone inside the skyscraper is the (white) social elite, skimming the best of everything off the top and leaving everyone (not a WASP) outside to wallow in filth and depravity. Kaufman runs that too, behind the scenes. He has Cholo running in booze, and Kaufman runs the prostitution, drug, and liquor rackets to keep the unwashed masses pacified. Everyone in Fiddler's Green goes about life well-protected in their ivory tower, still doing the same inane brunches and shopping trips. They're blissful that as long as the zombie apocalypse is out of sight, it's out of mind. Enter political subtext #2. We pretend the rest of the world isn't suffering because we consciously ignore it.
I'm hard on conservatives, but I'm not much of a fan of this "we should care about everybody" liberal bullshit either. This subtext is really dropping on the audience like a ton of bricks.
Anyway, Kaufman tells Cholo to take a hike until he somehow becomes white and affluent. Slightly miffed, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and holds the city ransom. He wants $5 million, but I really have to wonder what use cash is, considering there's no economy anymore. Kaufman, being the greedy little bastard that he is, thinks "Homey don't play dat" and responds "We don't negotiate with terrorists." (SUBTEXT! SUBTEXT! SUBTEXT!)
And if all that wasn't subtle enough for you, Cholo tells his buddies, "I'm gonna go jihad on his ass!" Just shoot me.
The rest of the movie is standard zombie-stalking fare. Riley goes to get Dead Reckoning back, most of the characters you think are dead meat die horribly, and the zombies manage to breach the defenses of the city when they learn how to use weapons, and realize that water is not a barrier to them. Even in this regard, Land of the Dead has long been surpassed by its imitators, and just isn't as good as the sublime Shaun of the Dead or even 28 Days Later. Sure, there are some creative kills here and there, and it's interesting to see the zombies evolve and even develop personality, but it's just all been done before and better.
The main message of the film is over-done and irritating, about the white man keepin' the brotha down. It's all over the movie. Kaufman has a simpering black manservant who leaves his massah to his comeuppance when the zombies come for him. The "leader" zombie is a working-class hulking black dude who feels rage at the exploitation and slaughter of his own kind.
The second key message is a ludicrous realization that the zombies are people too. Riley utters some of the dumbest Lucasian dialogue such as "Don't shoot. They're just looking for a place to go. Like us." or...
Buddy: "It's like they're pretending to be alive."
Riley: "Isn't that what we're doing?"
GAG. Just shut the hell up with this. They're zombies. They fucking eat people. Oh I GET what they're saying, that on a primal level we're all just animals. But it was much better said and MUCH more subtle in Aliens when Ripley said "You know Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage."
There are some scares, and the movie is surprisingly effective considering its ham-fisted dialogue and plot. The ending is too cheery, and the plot is full of holes. There are no surprises here; everyone who is a goody-goody lives, and everyone who acts like an asshole will get eaten. Still, the production values manage to save what would have been an awful movie and there are some legitimately creepy moments, and even a cheer-filled cameo by Sex Machine. It's not really a bad movie, it's just not very good. And for Romero fans, it's sure to be a hell of a disappointing 90 minutes.