The sales pitch for George A. Romero's Land of the Dead reads, "The legendary filmmaker brings you his ultimate zombie masterpiece." I'm glad it didn't say his penultimate. I could be content with what my Merriam-Webster's defines as "the last degree or stage of a long process beyond which further progress or change is impossible." I would not be so serene if all it meant, by an alternative definition, was "the best or most extreme of its kind." Four zombie films -- and not just four zombie films, but a tetralogy of zombie films, a zombie film and three sequels -- are more than enough for a single filmmaking career, even one that stretches clear back to the Sixties, and even with an interval of twenty years between the third and the fourth. I am less glad about the "masterpiece." I should have preferred, simply, respectable piece of work, job well done.
You can scarcely blame Romero for returning to the genre with which he is most closely identified. (Some would say, speaking carelessly, the genre he invented.) Always a marginal figure, provided the Hollywood margin extends wide enough to encompass his Pittsburgh home base, he was well on his way to becoming a completely negligible figure in the aftermath of the critical and popular failure of Day of the Dead, the aforementioned third. (Bruiser, his most recent effort, five years ago, and his only effort in the past dozen years, went straight to video and into oblivion.) Remakes, by other people, of the first and second of his zombie films, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, not to forget the left-handed tribute to him in the knockabout Shaun of the Dead, have perhaps kept his name alive as "legendary." But no one, or no one with finances, was beating down his door to find out whether the legend still had any growth in him. He was more or less in the position of the classic rock-and-roller from whom nothing is wanted but oldies. Romero means zombies, though not vice versa. Zombies can stumble on without him.
Zombies, however, at least as envisioned in Night of the Living Dead, surely one of the most influential horror films in history (moviegoers insulated from grindhouse Italian cinema will have no idea), are inherently less interesting, less multifaceted, less malleable than vampires, for example, or ghosts. Romero pretty much said what he had to say about them in the first film, and then he said it again, more fluently, at greater length, with more humor, and in glorious gory color, in the second. The third was already redundant, although the missile-silo setting might have made it plainer, if the metaphors of cannibalism and consumerism hadn't made it plain by then, that what he was talking about was the end of civilization as we know it, the end of the world.
It is to Romero's credit that, after sitting on it for a couple of decades, he has striven to advance the idea in Land of the Dead, even if only by inches. The world of "today," as distinguished from the "some time ago" prologue that reprises the events of Night... , is very much an alternative world: the world that would have been, if the contagious living dead had climbed out of their graves in 1969. Or alternatively yet again, the world of tomorrow. The zombies, colloquially called "walkers" and derogatorily called "stenches," have the run of the country, going about their daily business, aping the activities of normal human beings, "pretending to be alive." The remaining normals, or the only ones we know about, are fortified within the moatlike three rivers of Pittsburgh (though the film was shot, against Romero's pattern and principles, in Canada), a privileged few residing in the high-rise condominium complex cum shopping mall of Fiddler's Green (advertising slogan: "Life Goes On"), the less fortunate scavenging in the streets outside, and a handful of well-compensated but disreputable mercenaries venturing out into zombie territory, on motorcycles and in an armored bus christened Dead Reckoning, to bring back booty for the pleasure of the privileged.
This parody of a class system -- the Haves, Have-Nots, and, quite literally, Untouchables -- stresses the science-fictional impulse at the root of the entire series. (The traditional zombie film, White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie, was straight horror.) Along that line of thought, the incremental progress of the zombies, now beginning to think, to organize, to arm themselves, represents a parody of the rising Third World, the massing underclass. Romero, who always finds a prominent role for a black actor, puts him this time at the head of the zombie revolution, the Marxian mastermind, despite the communication skills of a caveman. (Splendid shots of him and his army standing at the water's edge, pondering the question of how to get across. And a splendid solution, too: they are, as they come to realize, already dead; they're not going to drown.)
It is again to Romero's credit that he hasn't injected his zombies with the steroidal strength and speed of their bastard offspring in last year's remake of Dawn... ; again to his credit that he hasn't accompanied them with the headbanging heavy metal that seems, everywhere else, to have become their obligatory musical motif (Romero isn't a teenager, he's in his mid-sixties); again to his credit that he has rejected any trendy razzle-dazzle technique in favor of solid old-fashioned craftsmanship; and finally to his credit that, notwithstanding the zombie cameos offered good-naturedly to the makers of Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, he hasn't caved in to self-mockery. He is still, let's remember, talking about the end of the world. He is, in his own way, serious. He does not seek here to "top" himself, only to maintain. (The quick-hitting gore is indisputably extreme and yet somehow blasé.) And if the evolution of his idea -- the evolution of his zombies -- is not particularly inspired, neither has it been in any way perverted.