Right from the opening, as the camera pans across an archetypal American neon sign flashing Eats into a graveyard of corpse-munching zombies, you know the godfather of zombie films is out for fun.
George A. Romero’s first zombie movie was Night Of The Living Dead back in 1968 and his latest, Land Of The Dead, is filled with the kind of slyly satirical humour that earned his earlier zombie flicks a slot on the film classics shelf.
Romero has made four zombie features -“ Dawn Of The Dead in 1979 and Day Of The Dead in 1985 -“ and in each he took the hacksaw to a social issue of the era, from the Vietnam War to consumerism to the crumbling family unit. Now, 20 years on, it’s the rise of corporate power and gated communities, the haves versus have-nots, and fear of terrorism and pandemic disease.
The world as we knew it is now a shadow, replaced by a post-apocalyptic landscape divided into three zones. At its epicentre is Fiddler’s Green, a sky-scraping gated-community run by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) and filled with wealthy residents who live securely in a retail-therapeutic trance. Kaufman runs the whole thing with the benevolence of a corporate CEO, firing -“ make that firing on -“ anyone who rocks the boat.
Outside is the wilderness where the stenches, one of the film’s many aromatic nicknames for zombies, roam in search of food -“ folks like you and me. When they catch us, we’ll become zombies like them. Also prowling the wilderness in the massive armoured truck Dead Reckoning are mercenaries, led by Riley (Aussie Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo), collecting supplies and food for the residents of Fiddler’s Green.
In between is a massive slum for everyone else. Of course, there’s unrest everywhere. The slum-survivors are locked into a sort of buffet zone between the rich and the zombies -“ protected only by electric fences and a handful of snipers. So they’re organising a revolt. When Kaufman refuses to let Cholo buy his way into Fiddler’s Green, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and blackmails Kaufman.
Meanwhile, the zombies are evolving. No longer mere flesh-shredding brainless automatons, they begin to communicate and organise retribution after one zombie (Eugene Clark) witnesses one of Riley and Cholo’s gory zombie shooting gallery visits to the wilderness. So they start heading into town for a feed. You feel there’s a plague-like inevitability that almost everyone will be bitten by a zombie -“ it’s just a matter of when.
The whole thing is yards of fun and filled with plenty of tense seat-jumping moments. And thankfully, old-school George doesn’t cheat with CGI graphics -“ instead using prosthetics and special effects make-up to create his zombie army. There’s some hilarious over-acting from the zombie cast, which happens to include the guys who made the British comedy tribute Shawn Of The Dead, who appear as Photo Booth Zombies.