Framed against a wall of windows high above the landscape of an unnamed city, Dennis Hopper makes his first appearance in Land Of The Dead looking like a man with no questions left to ask. Sitting in a luxurious apartment, listening to Mozart (Requiem, of course) he could be a post-apocalyptic descendant of The Third Man's Harry Lime. Who is he to care if one of those dots stops moving? And from that distance, who can tell the difference between the living and the undead—which, in this fourth entry in George Romero's Dead series, now overwhelmingly outnumber the living?
There's a lot going on in Land Of The Dead—including a shocking amount of the gut-munching that's made the series a gore-hound favorite—but the thrust of the plot concerns the circumstances that drag Hopper down to earth. With his misplaced moral certitude and his willingness to confuse the greater good with his own gains, he makes an effective stand-in for any number of public figures, and an exact analog for none. Romero's zombie films are as justly famous for their social commentary as their violence and rotting flesh. If he's entertained any thoughts that the racism, mindless consumerism, and militarism he portrayed in Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead, and Day Of The Dead have improved in the past few decades, there's nothing in the film to suggest it. In Land Of The Dead, humans have learned to distract zombies with fireworks. Hopkins keeps the masses that live outside his high-rise paradise entertained with sport and vice. Land Of The Dead is about what happens when the bread and circuses stop working.
As usual, Romero's sympathies aren't always with the living, or at least not all of them. Simon Baker plays one of the few whose humanity hasn't been extinguished by the need to survive. With mildly retarded marksman Robert Joy, he runs patrols into the outlying area, scavenging canned goods and antibiotics. He wants only to save enough money to buy a car and set out on his own, but when his plan takes a wrong turn, he winds up enlisted in the hunt for John Leguizamo, a former ally who, having been shut out of the good life by Hopper, plans to take out his frustration by hijacking a deadly, explosive-filled vehicle. (Hopper's explanation for bringing him down: "We don't negotiate with terrorists.") What nobody counts on, however, is the arrival of Eugene Clark, a kind of zombie Che Guevara who slowly leads a march on the city.
It would be easy for Romero to coast. The past few years have seen a slew of Romero-wannabes—some of them quite good—do fine box office. But there isn't a whiff of reunion-tour mediocrity here. The story takes the world of Romero's films to the next logical step, the satire is headline-fresh, the action scenes keep pace with summer blockbusters, and no one shoots an evisceration with as much skill. (The presence of a capable cast—rounded out by Asia Argento—doesn't hurt either.) But the lyrical moments make Land Of The Dead, like its predecessors, much more than anyone thought a zombie movie could be. An explosion sends the walls of civilization crashing down, and there's panic in the city streets. Fireworks flash across the sky, and a sea of undead faces turn to meet them with the open-mouthed fascination of Fourth of July celebrants. It's easy to recognize our own reflection, even when it has blood in its teeth.