Is he bit?
— Riley (Simon Baker)
Asia Argento makes her grandish entrance into Land of the Dead inside a cage. Wearing black fishnet on her legs and midriff, her eyes darkened with kohl and her jetblack hair drooping over one of them, she’s imposing, taunting, and in big trouble. This cage, which recalls Thunderdome, has her pitted against two hulking, hungry zombies, who proceed to stagger toward her with something approximating a vengeance.
That’s not to say that the zombies quite comprehend vengeance as a concept. But they do seem mad. And that’s the new nightmare scenario at the center of the long-awaited fourth film in George A. Romero’s living dead franchise. The zombies — now the majority population on earth and called stenches by the human survivors — are beginning to understand themselves as a group, and with that new self-knowledge comes an appreciation of tools, teamwork, and weapons, not to mention a new notion of humans’ differences from them, not just as food, though that still rules, but also as identifiable enemies who want to do them harm.
Predictably macabre, darkly comic, and grimly class conscious, like its predecessors, Land of the Dead imagines a world where ruthless humans turn against each other when facing dreadful fates. This time, the zombies have overrun the earth, such that humans’ space is limited and the look of that space is archetypally post-apocalyptic: they wear black leather, their vehicles are loud, and they’re very crabby, prone to shoot your head off as soon as look at you.
Argento’s part in all this is appropriately complex. Daughter of Dario, one of the great Italian horror directors and a colleague of Romero’s, she brings her own legacy and a considered appreciation of the living dead. For the Land in particular, she plays Slack, a former military recruit (and crack shot) turned prostitute. And so she is victimized by everyone — men and stenches — but refuses to cave. Like so many other humans in the film, she’s of the lower class, and as mumbles her story to her new cellmate, Riley (Simon Baker) one evening, it sounds like “they” decided she was more useful as a hooker than as a soldier; when she resisted, they went on to use her as zombie-food by way of entertainment. She’s only saved from what seems an inevitably gruesome end when Riley walks into the gritty club where the cage is center stage, and begins shooting zombies. Their friendship is sealed when she saves his life in turn, and both are hauled off to jail.
Their brief, incarcerated tête-à-tête takes place during one of the few downtimes in Land. While the zombies remain the sluggish, non-running lurches that they have been throughout Romero’s arc, the conflicts are multiple, especially between humans. No longer do they form a single front united against the flesh-eating creatures. Instead, they are divided, essentially into rich and poor. While Riley and Slack represent the savvy poor — or at least the scrappy scavengers — the willfully ignorant wealthy are embodied by Gucci-bag-hauling Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). He lives in the penthouse atop Fiddler’s Green, a luxury fortress city featuring a mall (of course) and protected by rivers (the only one of the franchise films to be shot outside of Pittsburgh, that is, in Toronto, the film maintains a show of Romero’s roots).
This upscale-ish, highly restricted community is serviced by scrappy scavengers, including Riley, Cholo (John Leguizamo), and Charlie (Robert Joy), who venture into areas now populated by “walkers” to bring back food, liquor, gas, medicine, and other supplies. The distinction between these human classes is only a step up from the next division, between humans and zombies. The rough-riders, living in shacks and tents and making extensive use of the “vice” Kaufman sells them, also deploy the zombies for distraction: zombies are shot at or loosed on disposable humans (like Slack) for sport, or chained up just short enough so they can’t bite, so humans can pose for photos with ghoulish others dripping and growling, providing freakish backdrops to fantasies of danger. Like a similar scenario in 28 Days Later, where Private Mailer (Marvin Campbell) is chained up and as an object of outrageous, animalizing study, the practice in Land underlines the atrocity of the new order, premised on distrust, abuse, and slavery.
While the movie provides plenty of gore (heads crack, brains splat, intestines are ripped out, arms splinter, eyes pop, and yes, Tom Savini’s zombie character, Machete Blade, makes another brief appearance, testament to his innovative makeup effects on so many films), it also grants Slack and Riley a chance to do some right things. This despite his inclination — also predictable — to take the loner route, to agree to Kaufman’s terms for a minute (in this case, recover a $2 million armored vehicle called Dead Reckoning from Cholo, who has stolen it to blow up the Fiddler’s Green that will never let him inside) in order to head “up north,” where there are, supposedly, no people.
Slack and Riley view the situation similarly, despising Kaufman but also recognizing his vision (“If you can drink it, shoot it up, fuck it, or gamble with it, it belongs to him,” notes Slack, herself a former possession). To Mr. K’s mind, what he’s done is ingenious — he’s seen immediate needs and exploited them to his own advantage (as he phrases it, he gave the people “games and vices”), the usual corporate saga. But in this devastated world, he’s taken that routine to another level too, such that he’s now the chief executive/monster, worse than the stenches because for him, bodies are not sustenance, but calculations.
And so Land‘s carnage and brutality follow the living dead legacy, mounting a political critique of human culture by likening the zombies to us. Here the zombie most likely to seem human is a gas station attendant zombie with an apt name patch on his coveralls: Big Daddy (Eugene Clark). Spotted by Riley during the film’s opening, Big Daddy reappears throughout, spotlighted as he learns new skills and absorbs actual concepts — how to shoot a gun, how to use a power drill, how to lead a crew of zombies against humans as a class, and how to walk into and through the river’s water, to enter Fiddler’s Green. As the living dead can’t die by drowning, this last discovery is especially resonant, as the zombies arrive on shore like immigrants, seeking only opportunity, seeking what humans have, wanting to be like humans. “They’re pretending to be alive,” sneers Cholo early on. “Isn’t that what we do?” asks Riley, “Pretend to be alive?”