Land of the Dead, the fourth movie in George Romero's Dead series, is a bit like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Okay, I'm sure you're all looking at me strangely for that. After all, the two movies have virtually nothing in common. However, the comparison encapsulates my opinion regarding the two movies' value. Land of the Dead is not quite as good as its iconic predecessors but it's a worthy addition to the series.
In fact, Land of the Dead is my favorite of the Dead series. It's the one I've watched the most, having seen it five or six times. By contrast, I've only seen Night of the Living Dead once and Dawn of the Dead three or so times (I've only seen Day of the Dead once and that was enough). If it confuses you why I prefer Land of the Dead, it's difficult to explain. I guess it's because the movie is easier to watch and, weirdly, more upbeat.
Land of the Dead is a good movie and it has a lot to say about a number of subjects. Still, it lacks the emotional gut punches of the first two Dead movies. It's an improvement over the many missteps in Day of the Dead, a movie I unabashedly hate, but it's not heavy cinema.
You won't find great moral questions raised and it's not a movie where people go slowly insane from trauma. Instead, it's a film designed to answer many of the questions raised by the previous three films. Not, 'how did the zombie plague begin' or 'will humanity survive' but more like 'what are these movies really about' and 'is humanity worth it'?
I considered doing another social satire posts regarding Land of the Dead but I'm not sure it's necessary. All of the satire is front and center. The movie makes no attempt to hide what it's about. Most of the Romero movies are pretty clear about what they're about in fact. Night of the Living Dead is about how humanity reacts in a crisis. Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism. I'm not sure what Day of the Dead is about, so it's the odd duck out, but Land of the Dead is about class division.
The premise is simple. Human ingenuity has walled off part of Pittsburgh and created Fiddler's Green. Fiddler's Green is, for all intents and purposes, America Pre-Zombie Apocalypse. The citizens use paper currency, the rich live in fancy apartments, the poor live in slums, and minorities do most of the heavy lifting. In short, like Shaun of the Dead suggested would happen, the populace has managed to get the zombie situation under control so it can avoid learning anything.
The community of Fiddler's Green survives by looting the surrounding zombie-infested towns for supplies. The people who do the dangerous grunt work, like soldiers in our world, aren't appropriately compensated. Big surprise. This is a problem dating back to the Stone Age. As in our world, if you press the people with weapons too hard, bad things happen for both sides. Really, the zombies are almost incidental despite the fact they're remembering more and more of their past lives.
In a way, Fiddler's Green represents the antithesis of anarchist thought. Were I to simplify anarchist philosophy, it's all about tearing down the existing social order to build something better. The Zombie Apocalypse, the ultimate disruption of the social order, has taught humanity absolutely nothing. Kaufman, played by Dennis Hopper, lords over Fiddler's Green as one part king and one part Donald Trump. He has created a bubble of the Old World in the middle in the Dead world. Beneath him, providing the conflict of the story, is his personal henchman Cholo (played by John Leguizamo). Cholo wants to move up in the world and is unaware that's not allowed for non-Whites.*
Land of the Dead is different from the first two movies since it has pretty easily identified heroes and villains. Kaufman and Cholo are understandable in their motivations but they're definitely bastards. Riley and Slack are probably as good as people come in the Post-Apocalypse world. This is in contrast to the fact everyone was sympathetic in the original Night of the Living Dead while the protagonists of Dawn of the Dead were murderers and thieves. Morality is clearer in Land of the Dead because civilization has returned to a semblance of 'normality', so to speak.
Despite this, no one is a caricature. Even Kaufman, who is so much an embodiment of 'The Man' you might think he's Satan himself, is entirely too believable. It stands to reason someone would be smart enough to start organizing survivors and the goal of such a person might just be to make sure they lived as comfortable a life as possible. Cholo, by contrast, is a much more sympathetic character than the ostensible hero of Riley. We empathize with his desire to get his due, even if he's responsible for horrific acts.
Land of the Dead is the most hopeful of the Dead films. Mankind has managed has to restore some semblance of civilization after the Zombie Apocalypse. It's a crappy civilization but preferable to violent death. Zombies are a fact of life, especially since everyone still becomes one when they die, but people have learned to adapt. In short, mankind is capable of dealing with the problems facing it, it just won't be pretty. Humanity will continue to make the same mistakes which resulted in the zombies nearly destroying us but, honestly, we'll just rebuild again.
I could describe the acting, plot, storytelling, or visuals but they're all just okay. Hopper and Leguizamo are the only two actors who really distinguish themselves. Really, it's the message that got to me. Land of the Dead is a poem to the human race. Yes, we're violent mindless consumers whether we're human or zombie. Still, maybe there's value in us despite that. If zombies are us, maybe zombies have value too. It makes me want to sit down with a zombie and toast marshmallows, you know, before he eats me.
* Incidentally, I don't even think it was just racism which got Cholo rejected from the upper class. Romero is too smart for that. Instead, Cholo can't disguise the fact he's earned his money. Class, in real life and in fiction, is more than just wealth. As a person who comes from money, I know it is based on your ability to hide you've ever worked a day in your life. Seriously, that's it.