In the annals of zombie cinema, it would be foolish to even suggest another auteur ever standing on a higher pedestal than George A. Romero. Some subgenres simply have this kind of foundational figure, whose seminal works shaped everything to come in the decades that followed. The greatest zombie films made in the more than half century since 1968’s Night of the Living Dead are all indebted to Romero’s original vision of horror and the subsequent evolution of that concept through several sequels. There’s simply no way to separate modern zombie fiction, and its themes, from the template Romero gifted us with.
With that said, however, the back half of Romero’s iconic “of the dead” series certainly doesn’t receive the same attention as the initial three films: 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead. Those three were considered a near-perfect “trilogy” by many for 20 years before the arrival of 2005’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead and 2009’s Survival of the Dead asked fans to consider a Romero zombie epilogue, and the reception was mixed to say the least. The truth of the matter is that Diary and Survival in particular didn’t possess the incisive cultural relevance the series was known for, being both insular and burdened with the expectations of fandom. But Land of the Dead … well, now that’s a more interesting case. This is perhaps Romero’s strangest, most uneven zombie film, but it’s also the last entry in the series to truly contain a spark of the divine. It’s also the only one of the 2000s efforts to genuinely pick up where the themes of Day of the Dead left off, and for this in particular it deserves its place in the zombie movie pantheon.
On the most basic level of continuity, Land of the Dead is important because Romero chooses to directly continue the same timeline we first saw in Night of the Living Dead, which occurs in the opening hours and days of the zombie outbreak. Dawn of the Dead moves the timeline forward a few weeks, as members of the police and media desperately try to hold the country together in the face of seemingly imminent collapse. Day of the Dead vaults forward again, depicting an America swept clean by the zombie hordes, with only a handful of human survivors cowering in bunkers and struggling with the overwhelming malaise of knowing that no one is coming to rescue them. This trilogy of films builds in a direction of ever-mounting hopelessness, as it seems humanity is destined for eventual extinction … or at the very least, obsolescence.
Land of the Dead makes an interesting choice here—years have apparently passed, and it depicts a setting where humanity has seemingly clawed its way back from the brink, at least in some locations. The people now living in the walled city of Pittsburgh may lead a shabby, dingy existence if they’re not part of the small, ruling aristocracy ensconced in the comfort of the “Fiddler’s Green” high-rise ruled over by a scenery chewing Dennis Hopper, but at least they have a reliable barrier between themselves and the threat of being eaten alive on a daily basis. For the first time in what is likely years or decades in this setting, we’re seeing human beings in Romero’s universe with lives that are more than just a never-ending defensive against the living dead. These people have some meager creature comforts, and as they begin to have aspirations beyond surviving one more day, they’re also susceptible to greed and a lust for upward mobility. In other words, Land of the Dead depicts that all of humanity’s worst pre-apocalypse attributes managed to survive the coming of the zombies intact, to torment us once again in the moment when we’ve allowed our hubris to rebuild itself. The horror is the possibility that we didn’t learn anything from the experience.
All throughout this post-apocalypse version of Pittsburgh, we see mankind’s new contempt and lack of concern over the living dead, those creatures that put our entire species’ collective backs against the wall only years earlier. The guards manning the walls have grown lazy and complacent, secure in their confidence that the witless zombies pose them no particular risk. Within the walls, ghouls are collected and used as jesters and tools of recreation, pitted against people in games and pelted with debris by children. The residents here have ceased to see the walking dead as a symbol of humanity’s degradation and destruction, and come to instead regard them as yet another resource put on Earth for our own private consumption. It’s arrogant in the extreme.
It’s only natural, then, that the zombies themselves should become more sympathetic in the process, and here Romero continues the other main narrative evolution he’s been hinting at ever since Dawn of the Dead in 1978. From that first sequel onward, each subsequent installment has progressively made the zombies more empathetic. It starts slowly, with the characters of Dawn lazily shooting zombies to amuse themselves rather than out of any driving need for protection. In idle conversation, they theorize that zombies return to the shopping mall because it was once “an important place in their lives,” implying a certain stored kernel of memory exists within the zombie consciousness, which might be reached again.
This same theme gets much more overt in Day of the Dead via the character of Bub, a captive zombie who is literally shown learning and demonstrating a faint memory of past life, albeit with greatly reduced capacities. But it’s a shocking revelation for what it implies about the moral landscape of humans existing in a world alongside zombies, which had always been depicted as unthinking automatons whose only goal was to consume human flesh. When we see that those ghouls are in fact capable of remembering elements of their past lives, and can re-learn basic skills if given the chance, it amplifies the sense of tragedy in what has happened to them, and freshly raises the question of whether it’s truly acceptable to kill them, especially in scenarios that aren’t life and death. How can it be moral to kill a poor, afflicted creature that still contains some spark of sentience? What if they can be led all the way back to their former selves? Who are we to decide if a zombie dies a second death?
Land of the Dead takes that evolution and continues to run with it, imagining its zombies not just as pitiable, but genuinely proactive characters who are slowly evolving into secondary protagonists in their own right. Actor Eugene Clark portrays the zombie dubbed “Big Daddy,” a former gas station attendant who seems horrified both by his own zombified condition and the way Pittsburgh’s humans casually exterminate his kind without a second thought. With great effort, you can see the gears turning in his mind as he fights past the impediment of being … well, dead, in order to string together a plan that is not only rational, but tactical. Rallying the other impressionable zombies to his side, Big Daddy strikes out to seek justice for the atrocities being committed against his “people.” He’s not technically the “main character” of the film—that’s a considerably more forgettable Simon Baker—but the arc of Big Daddy carries George Romero’s themes of racial and socioeconomic oppression and revolution to their logical zenith.
These zombies are portrayed in a truly unique way, as they march beside Big Daddy on a mission whose aim could be described as either vengeance or justice. There’s a moment, as the living dead peer through a hole in a fence, when another zombie face shows up on the other side and Big Daddy’s crew recoil in genuine surprise and fear from the same jump scare aimed at the theater audience. Think about that for a second—these zombies are apparently capable of not just problem-solving intelligence, but FEAR of the world around them. This of course implies that these ghouls have a palpable sense of self-preservation, which is just about the least “zombie” trait imaginable. The living dead are meant to be a manifestation of pure id, no ego. But four films into this series, we’re not dealing with the ghouls of Night of the Living Dead anymore. As time passes, they’ve grown and changed, and they’ve become more indistinguishable from us than ever. Land of the Dead is the single most “human” cinematic depiction of zombies until perhaps the likes of Warm Bodies, when that similarity is being used as justification for a human-zombie romance. But here, treated a bit more seriously, the effect is zombification as tragedy, albeit with an undercurrent of hope for the future if the zombies themselves can show us the error of our ways.
This evolution in the portrayal of the living dead is sadly lost or underutilized in the two additional films in the series that Romero would go on to direct in rapid succession, 2007’s Diary of the Dead and 2009’s Survival of the Dead, with both seeming to surrender to expedience rather than proper storytelling inspiration. Diary in particular feels like a response to the wave of found footage horror movies that followed in the wake of Paranormal Activity, and it chooses to scrub Romero’s existing continuity in pursuit of depicting the original zombie outbreak from a slightly different vantage point. That makes for a fairly nondescript, POV zombie film, of which there have subsequently been many, and this “alternate reality” timeline then extends into Romero’s final film Survival of the Dead, which feels more like a family drama than anything, with the zombies reduced to a tertiary role. Neither film is really interested in continuing to plumb the depths of human behavior and depravity, or the terrifying evolution of what it means to be a zombie
And now, with Romero gone, Land of the Dead stands as the great auteur’s final, unexpectedly hopeful word on the subject. For 20 years, the bleak nihilism of Day of the Dead seemed to suggest that humanity’s own worst impulses would prevent rebirth from ever being a possibility. Land of the Dead confirms the danger of those pitfalls, but simultaneously suggests that perhaps we do have a route back to civilization, and it involves the reclamation of those we thought were lost forever. We just have to be open to the possibility that people can come back.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.