In the crafting of "Land of the Dead," the latest installment in his long-running zombie movie franchise, veteran director George A. Romero faces a problem: The genre he created four decades ago has gotten pretty played out. With Danny Boyle's superb "28 Days Later," last year's remake of Romero's own "Dawn of the Dead" and the British spoof "Shaun of the Dead," the zombie market has been flooded with imitators during Romero's 20-year absence. But this has not stopped Romero from delivering a consistently thrilling, funny film and possibly the best entry in the series since his original 1968 classic.
"Land of the Dead" apparently takes place in something close to present day (while the story's situation has clearly been going on for some time, it seems doubtful that the audience is expected to assume that it began in the late 1960s, the setting of the original film). For reasons unknown, the recently dead have begun returning to life, rising in the form of slow-moving, flesh-eating "zombies." (This term has been used only twice across the four films; in this movie, they're called "stenches.") Any person who is bitten by one of the creatures will die within hours and return in undead form. The only way to stop them is by decapitation or a shot to the head.
"Land of the Dead" focuses on three distinct sets of survivors of this apocalypse, each of them somehow tied to the greedy Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), a corrupt executive who has taken control of a high-rise complex called Fiddler's Green. With his band of wealthy advisers and ruthless thugs, Kaufman offers refuge in the building for a ridiculous fee, allowing only upper class survivors to stay there. Members of the lower class, who remain within the walled city but are relegated to poverty in the streets, suffer from disease and hunger. Tying the groups together is a band of scavengers led by altruistic Riley (Simon Baker, "The Ring Two") and arrogant Cholo (John Leguizamo, "Summer of Sam"). As tensions mount between Kaufman and the other survivors, the zombies begin to figure out a way past the city's barriers.
In addition to being thrilling horror tales, each film in Romero's "Dead" series has social commentary. The original "Night of the Living Dead," notable for being one of the first films to have an African-American hero, turned into a sly statement on post-civil rights racism. "Dawn of the Dead," which followed a band of survivors sheltered in a shopping mall, was a scathing critique of consumer culture and materialism. The poorly received "Day of the Dead" satirized the military mindset with its characters' attempts to turn the zombies into subordinates.
The social commentary in "Land of the Dead" is probably the least subtle of any of the four installments, focusing on social class differences with an emphasis on greed and post-9/11 hysteria (Hopper's character seems at least partially intended to represent President Bush, and the questionable relationship between Kaufman and the other survivors—referred to as "terrorists" after a betrayal—calls attention to contemporary doubt and distrust between social groups). The film presents class differences as a brutal, necessary fact, suggesting that they will emerge in even the most dire of circumstances, while stating, rather predictably, that the wealthy are far more dependant on the poor than they may realize.
While "Land of the Dead" is ultimately not frightening enough (despite several good scares, it lacks the deep-seated dread of the earlier films), it manages to be an efficient, fun and stylistically rich summer movie, in addition to being Romero's long-awaited return to the horror scene. Overwhelmingly dark and unapologetically violent, "Land of the Dead" is an enjoyable, qualified success. Though not quite as iconic or unforgettable as his black-and-white classic, "Land of the Dead" leaves plenty of room for another sequel, which will likely be as just as intense and socially relevant as each of his "thinking man's" horror films has been.