'Land of the Dead': Yuppies Add Zest to a Zombie Feast

George Romero's iron-deficient zombie horde wades into Pittsburgh.
George Romero's iron-deficient zombie horde wades into Pittsburgh. (By Michael Gibson -- Universal Studios Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005

The dead are back, but they don't want to party anymore. Now, like everyone else, they want to make a killing in real estate.

They've got their eye on a fixer-upper, too. "Two million bdrms, 750,000 bthrms, 3 riv vu." It's called Pittsburgh.

Thus, "George A. Romero's Land of the Dead" in which the zombies take the Iron City.

As Romero has it -- extrapolating into the near future from his famous (or infamous) zombie canon, "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead" -- the recently deceased, all 6 billion of them, have turned into shuffling, flesh-eating bags of putrefying, jellified flesh with really nasty hygiene, teeth and wardrobes, some even wearing white after Labor Day. Now they've taken over the world, except for the City of the Three Rivers. There, a few remaining humans have barricaded themselves off from the universal death. But that society itself is riven: Yuppies and haute-bourgie high-livers occupy a tower, protected from reality by soldiers; this elite, Romero lets us know in tropes that go back as far as De Mille, is corrupt in its pleasure and its indifference. The streets, meanwhile, are a bazaar of prostitution, weird haircuts and black markets, filled with scalawags, hustlers, reformers and assorted other riffraff. In other words: every movie future from "Metropolis" to "Blade Runner."

Underneath the film is that grim old staple from, oh, what was it called, you know, that book, I think it was . . . oh yeah, the Bible. It's the one about Sodom and Gomorrah, cities of sin, and while we may weep crocodile tears at the fate of the nominal victims, the secret pleasures of the tale are seeing those who got too much pleasure too cheaply being repaid by the righteous sword of vengeance. So on that primitive level, "George A. Romero's Land of the Dead" could be said to satisfy: Yes, it shows us cannibal zombies eating yuppies. Along with gunsight camera footage and Wile E. Coyote cartoons, I could watch that all day.

Romero focuses on political squabbling in the last city. Between the corrupt rich and the hardscrabble poor are a class of freebooters one could only call the Cool. The Cool are the guys and gals who go out into the hinterlands and scavenge for necessities of life, like Courvoisier and Band-Aids. They dress raffishly and have neat guns, low-cut jeans and insouciant, sexy manners; they're the only ones who seem to have a lot of fun.

The plot takes off when a dinner-jacketed dictator named Kaufman (played by a silky Dennis Hopper) betrays one of his scavengers, Cholo (John Leguizamo), and orders him killed. Cholo, hardened by years of mowing down zombies, is too quick for his assassin, however. He escapes with the city's only armored trailer truck and heads out of town, where he threatens to use that truck -- helpfully, it's rocket-armed -- to blow up Pittsburgh if he's not paid off. So Kaufman sends a squad, led by Riley (handsome-but-dull Simon Baker) to take him out.

Meanwhile, the dead have begun to notice things. Like the apes in "2001: A Space Odyssey," they tumble to the idea of a tool, except the tool they tumble to isn't a bone club, it's a Steyr AUG assault rifle that uses 5.56mm NATO ammunition. This is not good. Now they're not just ugly, hungry and dead, but also heavily armed. They head to the three rivers and take another leap up the learning curve. It occurs to them: We may stink and our heads may occasionally fall off, but the one advantage we have is that we don't have to breathe. We can walk under the rivers.

The movie isn't particularly scary. It's not about fear and it has almost no startles, no long stalking scenes, no ritualized, fetishized deaths. It never reaches the squalid fury of "Night of the Living Dead," and it hasn't the sarcastic wit of "Dawn of the Dead." But it has something.

It has zombies. They're weirdly impressive, not just in the various states of decay that Romero's makeup artists are able to create. But that insistent shamble, without panic, without speed, without focus: remorseless, stoical, unstoppable, even when those around them are being chopped down by gunfire. There's something satisfying in the zombies' progress, almost poignant. Though they will eat us -- Romero loves to show us zombies feeding grossly on the only recently killed, faces and fingers bright with blood -- there's nothing personal about it. They bear us no ill will, they don't hate us or eat us from envy or malice; they just need to supplement their diets with iron, and what's a man but a walking iron tablet?

Romero also has got a lyrical streak, as if there's a Japanese watercolorist lurking sensitively under the zombiemeister. Many of the images have a surprising beauty to them. One shot, for example, of the zombies on their ceaseless, pointless nightwalks as glimpsed through a screen of fog and trees, has an almost ethereal sense to it. And he can do things with the carnage that are more stunning than horrifying: Two dead boys play tug-of-war with an arm until it splits slowly lengthwise, and as repulsive as that sounds, it's oddly impressive, even haunting, on-screen.

Too bad the plot held no surprises and the acting no revelations. No actor could be said to stand out and the movie never acquires much tension or momentum. The finale, in which those walls come tumbling down and Pittsburgh is Sodomized, is powerful, but it has nothing to do with the drama we've been witnessing; it's powerful as spectacle, not story.

George A. Romero's Land of the Dead (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme gore, drug references and sexual innuendo.

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