Twenty years after last addressing issues of the flesh in Day of the Dead -- not to mention countless imitations and a pair of remakes later -- the filmmaker who first brought the dead back to torment the living returns with a belated fourth entry into the legendary Dead Series. While for some die-hard fans this lean and fast-paced installment may not convey the epic sense of dread and desperation that elevated previous entries to classic status, George A. Romero's latest entry is a thinking man's gut-muncher that is clearly the work of a filmmaker with much on his mind -- and the courage to let his rotting flesh-eaters sink their teeth into larger issues often too tender to be approached in a straightforward manner. Anyone familiar with Romero's cinematic past even outside the Dead Series knows that he's always been a filmmaker with a keen eye for social commentary and satire. While longstanding fans will be happy to note that his knives are sharper than ever when it comes to such issues as complacency, greed, and the destructive effects of capitalism gone horribly awry, even those looking for nothing more than 93 minutes of shocking, creatively gruesome flesh-munching are sure to be pleased with the bloodletting on display here. As innovative as Romero continues to be in finding inventive new ways to deconstruct the human anatomy, though, it's the filmmaker's ability to follow through on themes presented in previous entries that truly separates this film from the endless horde of zombie movies shuffling mindlessly into theaters and onto home video.
When audiences last ventured into Romero's nightmarish apocalypse, a scientist was attempting to train zombies so that they might be domesticated and cater to the needs of the living; now the same creatures are using the ability to learn not for the benefit of humankind, but to truly solidify their claim on the Earth. As with the first man who realized the destructive power of a simple stick or stone, Romero's creatures evolve to realize the power and importance of weapons and tools in stalking their human prey -- a discovery that makes for some pretty chilling imagery. While the bloodthirsty undead may be the walking embodiment of fear in Romero's dark alternate universe, it's the corpses with fresh blood still running through their veins who represent the true monsters. In one of his better performances following a series of seemingly phoned-in low-budget disappointments, aging rebel Dennis Hopper is deliciously devious as Kaufman, the dollar-obsessed founder of "Fiddler's Green" -- a ritzy fortified tower where those with the right connections and plenty of money can afford to escape a grim existence with the dwindling masses on the streets below. While performances by such other players as Simon Baker, Asia Argento, and John Leguizamo are generally solid all around, it's Leguizamo in particular who shines in the role of Kaufman's nemesis -- a low-level grunt who hungers for a taste of the good life and quickly turns Kaufman's world upside down when his down payment on a place in Fiddler's Green is coolly rejected.
In regards to the soundtrack, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek's score is largely functional but fairly forgettable, offering an appropriately militant beat for the march of the undead with little of the playful flair that Goblin delivered in Dawn of the Dead or John Harrison offered in his dated but enjoyable score for Day of the Dead. Along with his decision to eschew the increasingly grating trend of filling the soundtrack with the latest radio-friendly, overly crunchy nu-metal hits, Romero has also seen fit to stick with his simple but effective editing style that favors extended takes and steady pacing over the strobe-light MTV style of fast, incoherent cutting and quick shocks. Overall, Land of the Dead has the feel of the perfect hybrid of old and new, an ideal continuation of the themes and ideas that Romero has developed over the years mixed with the perfect amount of modern sensibility. If anyone doubted George A. Romero's ability to remain effective in an era in which Resident Evil allows kids to wage battle with the undead on a daily basis, they're in for a happy -- and gruesomely fun -- surprise.