It has been twenty years since George A Romero directed Day of the Dead, the third film in his zombie trilogy, and concluded a series which confirmed his status as a legendary figure among horror directors. Now, after the box-office success of 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and a remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead, it was perhaps inevitable that the original zombie movie maestro would be invited to revisit the genre he made his own and scare us all over again. Unfortunately, Romero’s inspiration has deserted him on this occasion and Land of the Dead comes off looking like a pale imitation of his earlier work. The things that you expect to find in a Romero zombie flick are present and correct - Land of the Dead doesn’t stray too far from the tried and trusted template of blood, dark humour and social satire - but these elements seem duller and more forced than they did before.
Romero’s latest takes place in a nameless, ruined city where the undead have already been out in force for years and humans have learned to live with it. Most of the surviving population scrape a living in slums and ghettos which are guarded round-the-clock by armed forces, but the wealthier members of society take refuge in a gleaming skyscraper run by a nasty cliché named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Kaufman has a group of mercenaries (led by Simon Baker and John Leguizamo) who venture outside the city limits in an indestructible tank named ‘Dead Reckoning’ to retrieve various food and medical supplies. It’s a system which has been working rather well up to now but things are about to change; the undead are starting to develop communication skills and the ability to use weapons. Now they have united under the command of one zombie (Eugene Clark) to begin a major assault on the city.
So far so good, but Land of the Dead has hardly shuffled into its stride when some major flaws become apparent. Chief among these is some dreadful casting which cripples the movie almost instantly. In the lead role of Riley, Simon Baker is astonishingly bland and lacks any kind of presence whatsoever. His character is admittedly a fairly dull conception, but Baker brings nothing to the party and delivers an utterly forgettable performance. The rest of his team aren’t particularly memorable either, with Robert Joy failing to make his dim-witted character much more than a poor comic relief and Asia Argento displaying once again that speaking isn’t her forte. As the villain of the piece, Dennis Hopper sleepwalks through the picture and it’s left to John Leguizamo to carry the torch. Lord knows I’m no fan of Leguizamo, but he at least provided a little energy to this listless picture and his presence was always something of a relief.
On top of the poor performances and often dreadful dialogue (“They’re just looking for a place to go - just like us”, says Riley of the zombies), Romero has also lost his touch when it comes to the satirical elements of the script. His earlier Dead movies always contained a dose of thinly-veiled social commentary, but in Land of the Dead Romero makes his points in an obvious and heavy-handed fashion. The wealthy and privileged are safely enclosed in an ivory tower while the rest of the population is left to fend for itself in the ghetto below, Hopper’s Kaufman says “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”, Leguizamo threatens to “go jihad on his ass” and there is much talk about the amount of fatalities which would be caused if the tower were subject to a terrorist attack.
This isn’t really subtext anymore, Romero’s intentions are pushed right to the forefront of the picture where, frankly, they’re not wanted. The use of the human population’s reaction to the zombies as a metaphor for the way we live now is a device which feels tired and laboured and his relentless use of 9/11 references is an unnecessary and overused aspect of the muddled screenplay. All of this simply gets in the way of what people have come to see, some good old-fashioned zombie action.
And the zombies certainly are fun for a while, Romero still knows how to effectively stage his undead attacks and many of these scenes are occasionally tense and satisfyingly gory. But the director fails to make the most of one of his most interesting ideas, the notion that the zombies in this film have started to communicate and work together. At one point, the leader of these creatures stumbles across a field where a number of zombies have been strung up for target practice, and he lets out a roar of fury, sadness, dismay. Do the zombies have feelings now? Do they think and feel? We never find out, because whatever emotions they have developed are only fleetingly explored and for most of the time they are the same shambling, flesh-eating monsters we’ve seen so many times before.
It’s a sad fact, but it seems that Romero isn’t able to keep up with his imitators these days. Everything about Land of the Dead is sluggish and feels like it’s been recycled from Romero’s earlier, better films. Some of the climactic sequences, when the zombies break into the gleaming Fiddler’s Green tower, often feel like they’ve been ripped off wholesale from Dawn of the Dead’s shopping mall setting. Expectations were high for Romero's return to the genre and this is a huge disappointment. When Land of the Dead is over most viewers will be left with little more than a feeling of déjà vu, a creeping sense of boredom and the realisation that this is one franchise which should have stayed dead.