Who says you can’t learn anything on summer vacation? Here’s what I learned about zombies from George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead.
• Zombies become “walking dead” when their flesh is eaten by other zombies. They’re not truly dead until a bullet goes through them. (Of course, this is old news now, with the advent of the TV series “The Walking Dead,” but it wasn’t in 2005, when this movie was released.)
• Zombies are endlessly fascinated by fireworks, referred to in this movie as “sky flowers.” A fireworks display could save a zombie-ravaged town singlehandedly.
• As long as they don’t bite you, zombies can be trained as sideshow freaks. In Land, tourists even take souvenir photos of themselves with chained-up zombies.
Unfortunately, the existence of zombies has created a caste system. On the one hand are the wealthy residents of Fiddler’s Green, an indoor mall where the wealthy can live. (Fiddler’s Green is led by Dennis Hopper, so you know it can’t be nice.) Outside Fiddler’s Green are the lower-class citizens who do what they can to survive, including hunting down zombies.
The main plotline is that a go-fer of Hopper’s (John Leguizamo) expresses his resentment at being denied residence in Fiddler’s Green. So he is fired and plans revenge on Hopper. Meanwhile, the zombies have issues of their own. They’re not content to stay in their place, and before long, they’re heading for Fiddler’s Green to have a very dramatic labor dispute with Hopper.
It’s at just this level of semi-seriousness that Land of the Dead surprisingly succeeds. Within this limited milieu, Romero is peerless. There are some great overhead shots of the zombies descending upon the city like flies upon a corpse. And as gory as the movie is, it’s so over-the-top, you start to enjoy the varied and imaginative ways in which this walking-dead-vs.-live-snobs class war is worked out.
The entire cast, especially Simon Baker as a sort of human/zombie mitigater, have miraculously found the right tone for this silliness. However, special commendation must go to Eugene Clark as Big Daddy, the macho zombie leader. In Clark, the spirit of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein thrives.
Land of the Dead is rated R for much adult language, graphic gore, and intense action.