Land of the Dead

on June 24, 2005 by Tim Cogshell
The seminal 1968 George Romero film “Night of the Living Dead” was, in addition to being a horror classic, one of the most socially and politically astute films of a socially and politically disturbing era. On the eve of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, amidst the simmering war in Vietnam and swelling unrest in the streets, savvy filmgoers took from that movie an insight into a world gone awry in ways only marginally different from the insanity played out in the film. While the dead had not risen to feast on human brains, it was a mess out there. “Land of the Dead” is but one in a number of sequels and knock-offs from the “Dead” series (“Day of Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead” “Return of the Living Dead,” etc), but it is the only one amongst that group that approaches the original in socially and politically informed content. It is that distinction that makes this installment worthy of the mantle established by the original -- along, of course, with the copious amounts of brain-munching gore.

Three generations after the dead first rose to pursue a taste for human flesh, humans have retreated to fortress cities where the elite live in barricaded towers and ordinary people live in squalor. Teams of Collectors venture into abandoned towns to retrieve goods to sell to the power elite, ultimately creating the quintessential class society. The Living Dead, meanwhile, are evolving. They are becoming aware, smarter about their pursuit of brain-food, and even develop emotions. Riley (Simon Baker, “The Ring 2”) heads one of the Collector teams, alongside Cholo (John Leguizamo, “Assault on Precinct 13”), bringing supplies to the tower where Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) oversees a society divided into the haves, the have-nots and the dead. The twist being that it is the living that is actually at the bottom of the food chain. When he is rejected for a spot inside the tower, Cholo steals a specially developed battle vehicle called Dead Reckoning and threatens to bring down the rich, literally, and hand over to the closing hoards of undead all the snack food they can handle. Riley and his small band of stalwart Collectors are charged with stopping him.

There is indeed a lot of people-eating, with entrails spilling loosely, in “Land of the Dead,” but for those paying close attention, there is a good deal more going on. Note that Ben (Duane Jones), the resourceful voice of reason from the original movie, was a black man, which was a deliberate choice in casting at the time, and the leader of the enlightened dead here is also black, an equally deliberate choice. At the end of the original film a mob mentality is rampant and man's inhumanity to man (even dead men) has reared its ugly head. In “Land of the Dead,” this state of affairs has progressed to its natural end -- the dead are used for twisted entertainment that suggest shades social depravity not so far from events found in the headlines of today -- and, as it turns out, they don't like it.

“Land of the Dead” may be just a horror movie, but while the dead don't walk the earth wreaking havoc, havoc is at hand, and man's brutal inhumanity isn't so unfamiliar to those who follow the headlines and have come away with a sense that something has gone terribly wrong in the world. Starring Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento and Robert Joy. Directed and written by George A. Romero. Produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldman and Peter Grunwald. A Universal release. Horror. Rated R for pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use. Running time: 95 min

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