Throughout the first three films, small bastions of humanity have holed up in - respectively - rural/agricultural, materialist/consumerist and military/scientific environments, and been defeated, from within and without, in each case. Indeed, so welcome is the massacre of the testosterone-drenched foul-mouthed soldiers in ‘Day of the Dead’, that you almost find yourselves rooting for the zombies.
‘Land of the Dead’, Romero’s return to the series after a twenty year hiatus, not only develops the theme but takes it to a new level. Here, his besieged group of survivors become a microcosm of America itself. The setting is a Manhattan-like island, protected from the zombie-infested city and outlying townships by a river. At the centre of the island is a luxuriously appointed tower block overseen by the highfalutin Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Those allowed into this self-contained paradise are those with money. Those without are forced to scratch out a living for themselves in the ghetto at the foot of the tower.
Amongst these lesser-fortunate individuals are Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo), both employed as foot-soldiers by Kaufman. It’s their job to lead combat units into the mainland and bring back supplies. As the movie opens, Riley becomes increasingly sickened by Cholo’s macho heroics and obsession with black marketeering, by which he intends to buy himself into Kaufman’s enclave. Riley, meanwhile, yearns for somewhere open and free: it’s not zombies he wants to flee from, but other people.
As with the previous films, the survivors bring about their own downfall while the zombies gather outside. Only this time, the stakes are higher in both cases. Cholo absconds with Dead Reckoning, the heavily-armoured strike vehicle that Riley designed, threatening to launch on Kaufman’s tower block if his fiscal demands are not met. Kaufman doesn’t even have to respond with “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” in order to make the post-9/11 subtext clear.
In the meantime, the zombies get organised. Like the mall-dwellers in ‘Dawn of the Dead’, they have begun to remember where they used to go and what they used to do. Like Bub in ‘Day’, they figure out how to arm themselves. It’s when they take a quite literal leap and figure out how to cross the river that the human populace, no matter what their social or economic standing, have to pay the price.
Satirical, political, provocative, tense and edgy, ‘Land of the Dead’ provided what I thought at the time was a fine conclusion to the saga, the fact that Romero even elicited a degree of sympathy for the zombies proving how far the series had come.
Then he only bloody went and re-invented the saga …