Fun with zombies

Zombie originator George Romero returns to genre with Land of the Dead

REGULAR OR UNDEAD Beware the full-service attendant who wants to make you drink from the nozzle.

REGULAR OR UNDEAD Beware the full-service attendant who wants to make you drink from the nozzle.

Land of the Dead
Starring Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo. Directed by George Romero. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Since the 1968 release of the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, horror auteur George Romero can be relied on to pop up once a decade to use the zombie flick as a metaphoric state-of-the-nation address.

With Land of the Dead, the lines are drawn with thick pen: America is dead (well, so is the rest of the world, but who cares?).

Perhaps the last outpost of the living is in that three-rivers city, Pittsburgh. Hometown Security firmly in place, with the bridges disabled and land access laced with live wires, the populace of the city lives in hand-to-mouth squalor. Aside, that is, from the ruling class, who carry on as if nothing has really changed, sequestered in the womb of a secured high rise called Fiddler’s Green. Constant infomercials blare from monitors reminding them how fortunate they are, and feeds into the ghetto remind the poor of what they can attain if they just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Yeah, right.

Years after the initial rise of the dead, the city has been picked clean of useful supplies, forcing the wealthy (represented here by an unusually subdued Dennis Hopper standing in for Donald Rumsfeld) to send out an armored battlewagon to glean surrounding communities of such essential extravagances as cigars and bourbon (metaphorically known as Oil). The parallels to contemporary America are overt: The dead represent the homeless, the disenfranchised. The attention of the living working class is kept diverted by primal distractions, and the wealthy are hermetically sealed off from contamination. The middle class? What middle class?

As a horror film, Land of the Dead isn’t really all that effective. As tongue-in-cheekiness abounds, the chills are nipped in the bud. As a dark comedy action vehicle, it delivers. The zombies are shifted back into lurch-and-moan mode, with each invested with back-story attire.

The twist here (implied in Day of the Dead) is that the Dead are becoming sentient, in essence born again. Which means there’s trouble comin’ to Three Rivers City, and that starts with T, which rhymes with Z, and that means hardcore zombie action as the ghouls next door drop in for a late-night snack.

As zombie flicks have become a genre staple in the past few years, from Resident Evil and 28 Days Later to the satirical Shaun of the Dead, studios have felt obliged to invest more effects bucks into the budgets. As a result, Romero’s zombies here seem almost quaint. But at least they don’t squeal like cheetahs and run across the ceiling.

Given a decent budget for a change, Romero invests it well to produce the glossiest entry in his series, obtaining confident performances from his entire cast. And while seemingly lost in the wake of his now countless imitators, Romero has still delivered with a perfectly adequate continuation of the mythos he created.