It had been a long 20 years since George Romero's "Day of the Dead" snored its way across screens worldwide. Now something of a classic in 2005, "Day" is a pretty ponderous zombie film. Romero had wanted to make a much bigger budgeted film as his follow up to the mega-classic "Dawn of the Dead," but a slim budget made "Day" a zombie film with precious few zombies to go around.
Twenty years later, with Romero's films enjoying massive cult status among whole new generations of DVD-watching fans, Universal ponied up the megabucks so that Romero could make a third sequel to the ultra-masterpiece "Night of the Living Dead." Set in the same universe, where the walking cannibal dead have taken over the Earth, "Land" feels like a movie written for the eighties somehow. Perhaps because it looks and feels a bit like John Carpenter's "Escape From New York."
"Land" is a major, major step up from "Day," because Romero actually had a budget, and even some real actors, like Dennis Hopper and Asia Argento (daughter of Dario Argento, who co-produced the original "Dawn of the Dead" with Romero). What made the film possible was the popularity of two other zombie films -- the "Dawn" remake and "28 Days Later" -- both of which featured running, rabid zombies. This film takes us back to the slow lumbering dead of the late 1970s.
Some years after the events of the first three films, a sizeable chunk of humanity is alive and living in a city that's surrounded by water. Cigar-smoking aristocrat Dennis Hopper is the leader, who runs the place not unlike the way corrupt cities are run everywhere -- with his finger in every pie. Prostitutes, killings for hire, gladiator-like matches pitting zombies against one another, and even money rule the day. Outside, zombies are kept at bay by a tank-like vehicle known as the "Dead Reckoning" (which was going to be the original title of the movie). A sort of lower-middle-class of blue-collar types are hired by Hopper to drive the Dead Reckoning around in the outside world, picking up booze and other supplies, while killing off zombies.
When the Dead Reckoning is "kidnapped" by a disgruntled former employee, the storyline of "Land" really begins, with a group of "good guys" sent out to repossess the vehicle. Meanwhile, the zombies are being led by an intelligent living dead dude -- who even cries when his comrades are gunned down by Dead Reckoning. They are becoming smart enough to use tools and finally figure out a way to cross the waters to get into the city. Their crossing is a highlight of the movie, and a reminder that Romero actually had money for this one.
"Land" continues some of the themes of "Dawn of the Dead" by making the walled in city something of a shopping mall, where the residents don't want to worry about the living dead in their midst just outside. Everyone still wants a piece of the consumer life, even after an apocalypse has struck humanity. The city is very class-based, with money still in circulation, and poor people prostituting themselves on the streets while the rich get drunk and smoke cigars.
"Land" has plenty of zombie action, although one can always wish it had a tad more. It does at time feel a bit like a standard, non-zombie film with a plotline about a stolen tank. The version that hit theaters was R-rated, with less gore than was filmed, so it wasn't the "director's cut." But, gore aside, "Land" doesn't have quite the dread that "Dawn" had, where characters were thrust into a universe where we all knew they had little to no chance of survival. "Land" is a bit too optimistic for its own good. You never have the nagging suspicion that these characters are doomed like you did with "Night" and "Dawn," part of what made those films terrifying.
As a sci-fi film, it delivers quite nicely, with an apocalyptic walled-in city barely populated by humans and an outside world crawling with the walking dead. This is the kind of nice, end-of-the-world freakdom we enjoyed from "Last Man on Earth" and, of course, Romero's original three zombie films.
"Land" isn't scary like "Night" or "Dawn" so it loses some points there, but it is Romero's best film in a quarter century, and certainly the best zombie film in that period too. It is better than the "Dawn" remake simply because it is a real zombie film. Zombies should lumber, not run at people.