The 1990's had to have been tough for George Romero. While the Godfather of Ghouls spent the decade working on various projects that languished in development hell, a generation of filmmakers influenced by the DEAD trilogy produced an onslaught of homages, rip-offs, and outright steals (I've always been curious what Romero thought of John Russo's 30th Anniversary "Special Edition" of NIGHT that incorporated newly-shot footage into the original). When zombies became hot again in the new millennium, Romero finally got the chance to produce his long-awaited fourth installment of his classic series, bringing his dead into the post-9/11 landscape with mixed results.
Perhaps it's the inclusion of digital effects--never as effective here as the practical ones, and in the case of the fliptop-headed zombie priest, pretty damned stupid--or a plot that places emphasis on action over horror, but LAND OF THE DEAD feels more like a film inspired by Romero than a continuation of his zombie saga. This imitative feeling hangs over nearly aspect of the film; in getting a big-budget studio sheen and a name cast, Romero loses the gritty, apocalyptic feel of the previous movies.
Even the story's through-line--essentially, billionaire Dennis Hopper hires renegade zombie-killer Simon Baker to reclaim Dead Reckoning, a tank-like transport stolen by John Leguizamo--feels more like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK crossed with a post-nuke MAD MAX rip-off, adding a Carpenter-esque score in lieu Donald Rubenstein's more resonant offering from DAY. Romero short-changes his cast as well, populating the script with one-dimensional supporting characters while giving little in the way of depth to his leads (particularly Asia Argento, who's introduced as a potentially interesting protagonist, but serves mostly as eye candy).
It may be minor, but there is one quibble I would like to point out: the majority of characters' motivations, primarily Hopper's and John Leguizamo's Cholo, is fueled by greed. I realize that each of the DEAD films has been satirical in some way, but wasn't it established in DAWN that cash was virtually worthless in a zombified world? Either Romero overlooked this detail, or chose to contradict it in favor of making a statement. (Or perhaps I'm just too analytical.)
Many fans voiced their displeasure over the upgrade Romero gives his undead this time out, giving them the ability to think, reason, and communicate, but it's clear from the previous films that Romero has intended his zombies to evolve. These cause-and-effect-conscious zombies are a direct extension of DAY OF THE DEAD's Bub.
Though easily the most lightweight of Romero's films, LAND at least makes for some breezy entertainment. The gore is plentiful, and after a slow first act the movie rolls along at a nice pace. There are a couple of amusing cameos to be found (SHAUN OF THE DEAD's Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright show up as zombies, as does Tom Savini in a bit that recalls his role in DAWN), and the full-scale zombie assault is often impressive, utilizing concepts that were left behind when DAY's budget was slashed.
LAND OF THE DEAD ranks as a disappointment, but it at least got Romero behind the camera again. Perhaps his upcoming DIARY OF THE DEAD will allow him to focus on the more cerebral aspects of this series that have made it such a classic.
(Special thanks to Dustin Stewart for his help in preparing this blog.)