Filmmaking legend George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead is a reclamation, a pioneer’s homecoming to the genre. Prominently featuring Latino actor John Leguizamo in a rare co-leading role, it’s an action-oriented horror film decidedly different than most other zombie movies, even within Romero’s oeuvre. While it would prove to be a box office success, Land remains somewhat forgotten and ignominiously snubbed, unable to jockey into classic stature with the preceding Dead films, or even enjoy comparable success to the Dawn of the Dead remake or Shaun of the Dead, both of which pay deference to the Latino filmmaker.
Class critique and social commentary have been synonymous with Romero’s work since the start, but Land of the Dead (2005) employs these insights with a uniquely undisguised approach. Deploying characters of color in a topical story critical of gentrification and class disparity, it’s a far cry from the original Night of the Living Dead, whose casting of Duane Jones as the African-American lead was (according to Romero) unintentionally timely. While Leguizamo isn’t Land of the Dead’s true lead (that falls to Riley Denbo, played by Simon Baker, pre-The Mentalist), he’s arguably given the most profoundly meaningful character arc.
As intro credits roll, the zombie plague established in the preceding Dead films is considered modern American history, with a concentrated bastion of civilization localized in downtown Pittsburgh. Flanked on two sides by rivers with a guarded electrified fence on the third, this survivor society persists in its firmly realized “new normal,” a standard of living that’s a vision of exacerbated class disparity. This means that slum life overtakes the streets below Fiddler’s Green, a high-rise community of moneyed elites beguiled by their own shared hallucination of casual consumption.
Thirteen years later, it’s hard not to read Dennis Hopper’s character Kaufman as a stand-in for the present POTUS (though Hopper claimed that he adapted the characterization from Donald Rumsfeld). He’s shielded from the threatening realities of the era, ensconced in his gilded tower and surrounded by harried fragile accomplices whose allegiances are purchased outright, something that only makes him more distrusting and nervous. Even Fiddler’s Green itself is, technically, a lie in practice, as it’s the only building that doesn't exist in downtown Pittsburgh’s real-life skyline — it’s as if Kaufman presides over a phantom kingdom.
Some modern readings of Land of the Dead have trivialized its take on a post-9/11 nation (Romero claims that his initial script was actually pitched days before the tragedy occurred), or claim that a certain heavy-handedness weakens the intentional commentary. I would posit that one could liken the Dead films to the Alien franchise, and that Land of the Dead is Romero’s Aliens. Or, in other words, it’s a story that is less concerned with the creeping reveal of the supernatural threat (it’s already here and humankind comprehends it, to an extent) and deliberately shirks conventional hero development tropes (the main characters come equipped with guns and know how to use them). This allows for a focus on newer ideas, like the zombie evolution, where the “stenches” slowly acquire increased communication, coordination, and other fragmented characteristics of humanity under the guidance of Big Daddy, their rebel leader.
People of color have been frequently included in Romero’s work since the very beginning, but Land of the Dead doubles down on the racial representation and analysis. That inclusion isn’t particularly kind or sugarcoated, though, and characterizations like Kaufman’s African-American butler seem intentionally abrasive (although he thankfully survives on the screen). Leguizamo’s Cholo presents a blend of intentional Latino stereotyping; the actor is Colombian, his moniker is decidedly Mexican in common usage, and Kaufman snidely refers to him by a sole derogatory slur.
No matter how many boxes of champagne and cigars are brought to his liege in tribute, Cholo is made to internalize the harsh lesson that he will never be granted access to the other side, a poignant realization that disputes class-crossover and recontextualizes Leguizamo’s zombie turn. By that point, he has wizened up and enlisted with the resistance of his own accord, making him one of, if not the only, Romero characters to join the undead horde with agency intact.
But maybe the real hero isn’t Cholo or Denbo or Asia Argento, but Eugene A. Clark’s Big Daddy. A gas station mechanic turned zombie, Big Daddy is the catalytic force for the new uprising, and the film’s decision to subvert the expectant last-stand, hero versus villain brawl is one of its most inspired choices. Big Daddy survives to shepherd his people onward after laying waste to the city, a revolution which allows the impoverished survivors to reclaim it. Denbo could easily decimate Big Daddy’s horde in the film’s final moments, but decides to spare them. “They’re just looking for a place to go,” he mutters. “Same as us.”
The number of zombie films seemed to explode after Shaun of the Dead, an impressive critical and financial success which tumbled the genre’s conventions through a slacker sense of humor. As a result, the timing of Romero’s film couldn’t help but seem like an insincere money-grab on renewed audience interest in zombie cinema. Combined with the fact that it had been 20 years since its predecessor hit theaters, I feel like Land has been wrongfully evaluated as the lesser Dead entry, and offer several immediate counters to this critique:
- Land of the Dead is the series finale. There is no “Dead trilogy,” it’s an unambiguous quadrilogy.
- Romero’s subsequent two zombie films represent a series reboot. As a result, Land should never be included alongside them.
- At approximately $16 million, Land of the Dead is the most expensive production ever helmed by Romero, and it’s evident in the outstanding array of special effects and gore, most of which were practically designed in spite of the encroaching trend of computer-animated effects work in film by 2005.
- With specialized cameos by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (mostly unrecognizable, they play zombies shackled for photo opp amusement), Land of the Dead might also be understood as a passing of the torch to the new guard. Romero even went so far as to feature the zombified Pegg and Wright in promotional movie posters and artwork.
Romero was never shy about the messaging in his films, but that makes the most politically articulate scenarios in Land of the Dead seem particularly unrestrained. Consider the hapless victims living and shopping in Fiddler’s Green, and how they are shown as willful participants in a social delusion who stumble into the film’s most daunting irony: those electrified gates. A wall erected by their chosen figures of authority which allows them to luxuriate in their delusions is revealed as the precise obstacle to their freedom, in the end.
We lost a visionary film hero when George A. Romero passed last July, and while Land of the Dead greatly preempts our present political reality, there’s no better time to rediscover it than right now.