I went to see this film with a mix of trepidation and excitement. After 20 years away from the genre, would Romero be able to recapture the feeling of his first three Dead films? Would the jaded attitude that taints modern horror have seeped into his work? And most importantly, would it be a good movie?
Last question first. Yes, I think this was a good movie. Romero has not lost his ability to comment on social issues under the surface of a gory horror film, giving Land of the Dead depth that other horror films lack. The target this time is the upper class, living blissfully in their isolated community while ignoring the needs of the very people that support their way of life. Dennis Hopper plays Kaufman, head honcho in a city fenced away from the zombies roaming the surrounding countryside. He and the other rich folks live in a tower where everything is clean and all their needs are met. I would say that they look down on the rest of the people in the city, the middle and lower classes, but I actually think that they don't pay them much mind at all. However, the rich folks couldn't survive without the lower classes, since they're the ones guarding the fence and raiding nearby abandoned towns for supplies. In short, they're the ones dealing with the zombies.
Trouble looms when the head raider, Riley (Simon Baker), notices that some of the zombies seem a little smarter than they used to be. There's even a leader emerging, a zombie gas station attendant (Eugene Clark, labeled in the credits as Big Daddy) who seems to be catching on to the idea of tool use. Riley's quitting so he can move further north, but his concerns are ignored by his second-in-command, Cholo (John Leguizamo), who is thinking more about how he can get to live in the big tower with the rich folks. Nevertheless, the zombies march on the city, armed with their new tool knowledge and almost with a new sense of purpose. Chaos ensues.
I really liked the character of Big Daddy. He takes the place of Bub from Day of the Dead as Most Improved Zombie in my Zombie Oscars. He figures out how to use tools, particularly guns, but more importantly, he is aware of the difference between himself and humans, and he has a sense of race identity. During the movie, he's not so much trying to eat people as he is trying to better the lot of his fellow zombies. Romero hinted at this potential in zombies in Day of the Dead, but we see it come to fruition here.
What's missing from the film is atmosphere: the sense of claustrophobia that marked the first three films, especially Night of the Living Dead. Except for a few moments in the film, there is no sense of dread; the story is really more about Riley and Cholo and their interactions with Kaufman. That's not to say there's no action. There's plenty of zombie fighting, gut munching, limb tearing, and decapitating. But the atmosphere is more like that of Resident Evil: Apocalypse than the original Dead series.
Does this make it a bad movie? No, I actually did enjoy it. Is there any reason Romero can't try and branch out, and make a different kind of zombie film? No. It's just that a horror film that is genuinely suspensful is a rare treat, one that Romero has shown himself capable of in the past. Action horror is enjoyable in its own right, but I was hoping for something a little better.