The prospect of a brand-new living-dead picture written and directed by George A. Romero is more than enough to flood your zombie nostalgia receptors, and the nostalgia isn’t just for the cannibalistic freakout willies that a Romero movie once provided. It’s for an entire era in which gruesome B horror flicks emerged from the kicky underground — an era when limb-tearing, face-chewing nightmares could still tickle taboos. Today, our Hollywood blockbuster culture is essentially dominated by lavishly over-expensive B movies, and so it’s no longer enough for a zombie thriller like Land of the Dead to serve up a few shocks and gross-outs layered with a dollop of hip-absurdist videogame nihilism. You need flair and originality and pizzazz, without which the undead tend to chomp and lurch along a little too easily on their own legend.
Thirty-seven years after he first brought his hungry macabre flesh-stalkers to the screen in Night of the Living Dead, Romero may be the last person alive who still thinks they’re a metaphor for something important. ”They’re trying to be us,” declares one of the still-living horde in Land of the Dead, evoking the most famous line in Dawn of the Dead (”They’re us”). Several of the skulking corpses now carry guns; one even screams to the heavens in what might be a fit of metaphysical rage. (Either that or that last bite of intestine didn’t agree with him.) I was willing to forgive Romero for recycling his ghouls-are-us portentousness — at least, until a character responded, with two-ton irony, ”It’s like we’re pretending to be alive.” Okay! The living dead are symbols of a world that no longer values life! Our world! Now can we please get to the good parts?
I’m compelled to report that in Land of the Dead there are virtually no good parts. The movie is listless and uninspired: bereft of scares, shot on sets that look like something out of Escape From Pittsburgh III, full of grindingly paced scenes in which actors like John Leguizamo, as a hollow-eyed parasite of a survivor, grouse at other, far more anonymous actors, establishing that camaraderie among humans has fallen by the wayside — and tautly understated genre heroics along with it. Dennis Hopper is on hand as the corrupt cliché who owns a posh, walled-off urban apartment complex, a structure that might have been the equivalent of the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead had Romero made canny logistical (or satirical) use of its physical space. I’m tempted to say that the zombie horror film should be given its last rites, except that 28 Days Later, the scandalously funny Shaun of the Dead, and last year’s blitzkrieg-of-fear remake of Romero’s own Dawn all injected new life into the form. With Land of the Dead, it falls back into rigor mortis.