By now it's a custom for critics, especially web/blog-based critics, to open their reviews of "Land of The Dead" with a paragraph or more laying out how familiar they are with George Romero's "dead" cycle as a way of establishing their respective "geek cred." I think my geek cred is established enough already, so I'll break with that custom to a degree. Bottom line: This is a you-do-or-you-don't sort of thing. Either the name George A. Romero means something to you or it doesn't. Either you're excited by the prospect of Mr. Romero shooting another zombie movie, or you're not.
Whichever camp you fall into, you still ought to give this a look regardless. Amid all of the niche-targeted hype that the genre's "creator" has made "his ultimate zombie masterpiece," and the pages and pages of digital debate over old-school slow zombies (used here) versus the newfangled running zombies (seen elsewhere,) is the simple fact that this is a sharp, funny, scary horror movie that's also leagues smarter and more character driven than most any offering we get in the summertime from any genre.
To recap: In three prior, loosely-connected films ("Night of The Living Dead," "Dawn of The Dead," "Day of The Dead,") Romero imagined a slow-burn apocalypse occuring as an unexplained zombie plague sweeps the planet. As "Land" opens, the end of the world "as we know it" has come and gone. The zombies have more or less overrun the globe, and all that remains of human civilization has walled itself up inside a secure, unspecified city. Here, most of the citizens live a harsh, impoverished existance, but there is still an elite upper-class that rules over the place in pre-armageddon oppulence from the skyscraper-ensconed "community" of Fiddler's Green. The upper-class, in turn, are ruled over by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper.)
The main heroes of the piece are among the scavenger-soldiers Kaufman employs to trek out into the zombie-infested wilderness for the food, medicine and other supplies he uses to maintain order and power. When high-level soldier Cholo (John Leguizamo) sees his plan to join the ranks of Fiddler's Green cut down by Kaufman, he hijacks the armored anti-zombie assault-vehicle Dead Reckoning and tries to hold the city for ransom. As this occurs during and eventually amplifies an uptick in zombie aggression, Kaufman sends a team of colorful rogues out to retrieve Dead Reckoning. To say that nothing goes exactly according to plan is a given, no?
Oh, and the zombies? In the film's sharpest moment of inspiration, the zombies themselves are off on their own paralell story until the final act. Until then, Romero makes good at paying off the notion of "evolution" among the walking dead he's been hinting at since "Dawn": Having claimed much of the world for themselves, the zombies are now content to shamble about pantomiming crude approximations of the lingering memories of their prior existance. A turning point comes when one zombie, a lumbering one-time gas station attendant the film credits only as "Big Daddy," apparently develops a sense of... well, anger at the Dead Reckoning crew's slaughter of his "people." Making like a half-rotted Spartacus, Big Daddy organizes his fellow zombies into a march on Fiddler's Green, during the course of which they are able to re-learn the use of tools... And weapons. Including guns.
As you may surmise, much of the film follows the side-by-side stories of the human heroes seeking to avert Cholo's "terrorist" threat and Big Daddy's undead horde questing for vengeance. The two lines are, of course, set to collide as Cholo's rash scheme allows Big Daddy an entry-point to his target city... but Romero takes his time getting there; prefering instead to focus on the strong suits of the franchise: Elaborate, endlessly-inventive gore, allegorical social commentary and development of colorful characters. In especially that last area, the film is easily the strongest of the series since "Dawn," as the wide-scale surrealism of a "zombie planet" allows the human characters room to be drawn with broad eccentricity: Our good-guys include a one-eyed, mentally-retarded but super-accurate sniper, a plump Samoan tough guy named Pillsbury and Asia Argento as a prostitute rescued from being fed to zombies colloseum-style.
But the standout character, and the element that puts the film up over the top into horror movie greatness, is Big Daddy (played, for the record, by veteran character actor Eugene Clark.) The masterstroke here is that Romero has turned the idea of the zombies' "simpleness" back over onto itself: While all of the human heroes are initially running on shifting, complex, semi-selfish impulses for situational-morality or self-preservation, Big Daddy's "simple" instinct to rally his people in defense against outside plunderers eventually renders unto him a kind of classical heroic nobility: An undead Obi-Wan cast opposite a half-dozen human Han Solos. With an almost invisible subtlety, Romero uses Big Daddy to transform the "rules" of zombie behavior into a whole new paradigm: by simply changing the context, the zombie moans and grunts become roars of anguished defiance; while the slow, deliberate shuffling Romero's undead hordes are famous for become here an image of determination.
On the gore side, the reliable KNB give their collective imaginations a work out. Without spoiling a thing, those of you who thought you'd seen zombies and humans tear one another apart in just about every way possible after nearly half a century of these films... think again. There's at least two "no way!" kills on display here. And yes, continuity fans, a character from the prior installments makes a showpiece appearance. You'll have to see it to see who.
"Smart horror movie" isn't as much of an oxymoron as some would have you think, but they don't come much smarter or as well-made as "Land of The Dead." A longtime-coming love letter to the genre and it's fans this may be, but it's accessible and well worth your time whether you're a diehard who can spot every cameo or a newcomer who doesn't know George Romero from Ceasar Romero.
FINAL RATING: 9/10