A groaning buffet table of cannibalistic carnage and cheesy dialogue, “Land of the Dead” unevenly masks its stale plot elements with campy winks and a dash of humor. The extreme carnivore’s ultimate popcorn genre, the zombie flick, is back in the trustworthy hands of legendary cult-movie director, George Romero, although some might not recognize his touch, cloaked as it is in a big fat budget. This movie is not for sensitive audiences of any age: as a litmus test, if you ever felt queasy hearing a friend describe a medical procedure, this movie is not for you.
Inured to the now-predictable threat of zombies, a city has walled itself off, protected on three sides by water and the fourth by electric fences. Hired scavengers led by Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) foray into surrounding towns in armored trucks to scavenge food and medical supplies while distracting the zombies with fireworks. Back in the city, all-powerful Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) runs the city as a three-class system with the “haves” shopping and amusing themselves in a central tower named “Fiddler’s Green” (wink), the “have-nots” providing services (wink-wink) and amusements to the “haves” and the security teams who protect the perimeter.
Riley and slow-talking burn-victim, Charlie (Robert Joy), observe a handful of zombies in one town who demonstrate some basic intelligence and communication, lead by “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark). A confrontation between Cholo and Mr. Kaufman results in Fiddler’s Green being held hostage as these new, “thinking” zombies advance on the city. The last twenty minutes brings an explosion of gore, violence and frantic races by the living to escape an array of gruesome deaths. The penultimate scene is so hokey that getting eaten alive by the undead suddenly might not seem so bad, however, for the most part the movie feels exactly like a summer screamer should feel – mindless, gross and perversely fun.
Romero is the Godfather of zombie flicks, having made his name with the horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its more popular sequel Dawn of the Dead(1978). Clearly someone who appreciates scabs, scars, ingestion of body parts, and things that make others say “ewwwww”, Romero gleefully turns the camera to zombies tearing the flesh off bones or pawing through a corpse’s chest cavity to extract the juiciest organs. Parents should know that there is more butchery here –- of the walking undead and of the ill-used living—then in most abattoirs. Explicit depictions of human flesh being consumed make this inappropriate fare even for many mature viewers.
While the undead zombies are predictable in their behavior, the living exhibit all sorts of reprehensible behavior. Characters kill for financial and political gain. The most dependable and loyal character is mocked and called names, and those who cheat or lie die horrible deaths. There is a brief scene of two women kissing, of a barroom stripper topless, and of a character caged for the amusement of onlookers. Parents should be aware that there is frequent and strong profanity as well as several slurs on ethnicity and intelligence. Some characters drink and smoke.
Families who watch this film might want to discuss the political allusions to revolution as well as to several current events. How are the immoral punished and how are the people who keep their word rewarded? They might want to laugh together at all the nicknames people go by and what they would call themselves if they lived in a b-movie such as this one.
Families who enjoy this genre of movie might consider other Romero zombie flicks, keeping in mind that the special effects now look quite dated, or 28 Days Later, a grittier and more intelligent movie (with zombies who move very quickly). Similarly, they will want to check out Shaun of the Dead or Army of Darkness, both of which have a strong measure of humor caged for the amusement of onlookers. Both, of course, have intense and graphic violence and other mature material.
Many thanks to guest critic AME.