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George A. Romero's Land of the Dead

Romero Returns to His First Love -- Flesh-Eating Zombies

Twenty years after the lackluster Day of the Dead, director George A. Romero has returned to steer his zombie franchise into a dreary future in which the dead have taken over the world, leaving the living and breathing to fortify themselves behind concrete walls and barbed-wire fences. It's not pretty -- the sight of flesh-eating ghouls ripping their victims to shreds rarely makes for an appetizing spectacle -- but it's riveting entertainment and smart social satire cloaked in the guise of a blood-splattered gorefest.

Land of the Dead finds the survivors of the zombie holocaust barricaded inside an unnamed city in which the rich and powerful, led by the insidious Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), have taken over a plush apartment complex called Fiddler's Green. The less fortunate, of which there are plenty, live more or less at their mercy, subject to their arbitrary laws and left to scrape by on the city streets. It's a fascist society ruled by wealthy interests, and a bleak indictment of post-9/11 America from a master filmmaker who's always used the horror genre as a platform for social critique.

Evolution has not simply affected the ranks of the living in Romero's futuristic vision. This time around, his zombies have begun to learn, mimicking the behavior of their breathing counterparts and becoming increasingly resentful of the annual raids on their precious turf. Their leader, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), is tired of watching his undead comrades suffer brutal decapitations at the hands of Kaufman's hired heavies, who periodically scour the land for food and drink. When Daddy picks up his first automatic rifle, it's clear that trouble awaits the inhabitants of Fiddler's Green.

Luckily, Kaufman's soldiers are equipped with enough firepower to protect the city -- or destroy it, whichever comes first. Riley (Simon Baker) the leader of the community's first line of defense is calm, sane and self-assured, but his only ambition is to earn enough to escape north to Canada where he and his friends can live quietly and peacefully in a wilderness untouched by the rotting hands of walking corpses. His second-in-command, Cholo (John Leguizamo), is a bit more ambitious -- and quite a bit more reckless. He wants a taste of the good life; when Kaufman denies him the pleasure, the hotheaded Cholo threatens to burn his posh high-rise to the ground.

As has always been the case in the franchise Romero set in motion with 1968's terrifying Night of the Living Dead, the living in Land of the Dead are too busy fighting amongst themselves to guard themselves against the threat of extinction, and their selfish, petty behavior leads to a bloodbath. Indeed, there is no shortage of detailed evisceration in this chilling installment, so much so that it's hard to understand how the zombies continue to bolster their ranks, given their tendency to tear victims limb from juicy limb.

No matter. Land of the Dead is a grisly fantasy, and while it's hardly Romero's scariest achievement, it is a thrilling, disturbing commentary on a man-eat-man world that hits just close enough to home to give viewers an uncomfortable pause. It also presents an intriguing thesis on the plodding manner in which our society could be rebuilt should a race of cannibalistic corpses invade. He's hoping we never find out if it's the right one

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars