Land of the Dead (15)

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The Independent Culture

Arguably Land of the Dead - the fourth in the series - is less of a straight horror film than its predecessors, playing down the gruesome shocks in favour of its vision of Western apocalypse. One image shows a recently zombified soldier chomping on his own bloodied limb: in the hands of any other horror director, this would be routine gross-out shock, but from Romero, it looks like a Goya-esque cartoon of American military power in desperate straits.

For the most part the horror here is fairly discreet, flashed up briefly rather than savoured at slavering length. Land of the Dead is more sci-fi action adventure than conventional scarer: in many ways, it feels less like a Romero film than one by Walter Hill or John Carpenter. At heart, it's a funky, economical, no-nonsense B-movie, but that only sharpens its satirical edge.

The true source of horror here is not so much the marauding risen as the dehumanised living. The dead still shamble through the wilderness, hungry for the blood of the living who, once bitten, turn into zombies themselves. The survivors, meanwhile, huddle in enclosed settlements, the more privileged among them in luxury fortresses. One such is Fiddler's Green, the ultimate gated community - an urban tower-block citadel ruled by magnate Kaufman (a suavely manic Dennis Hopper). The community survives on guerilla sorties into the zombie-riddled outlands, where raiders like Riley (Simon Baker) and the self-serving Cholo (John Leguizamo) scour for supplies. At the base of the city is a medina-like encampment of the excluded proleteriat. But the true underclass are the dead, who are not just feared but exploited, used as target practice or as gladiatorial beasts in mortal-combat sports.

Romero's previous chapters established that there's no great honour in merely being alive, and that the zombies are nothing if not parodic representations of the worst in humanity: Land of the Dead introduces a new twist: what if the dead, no longer content with mindless flesh-chomping, began to feel righteous stirrings of rage? What if they started a revolution? As the film starts, the zombies appear to be experiencing glimmers of life-like intelligence. What's stirring, Romero proposes, is a political consciousness: the revenants' Che, as it were, is Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), an African-American gas station owner, who howls in compassionate rage as he sees his brethren used for target practice. Where the zombies formerly bared their teeth only to sink them into living necks, Big Daddy bares his at social injustice.

In the film's most powerful sequence, Big Daddy leads his dead army as they ford the river that protects the city: as they move shoulder-deep towards the enemy stronghold, Romero's image has, quite fortuitously, become horribly resonant. It's impossible not to be reminded of the thousands wading for life through the New Orleans flood, abandoned by a government whose lofty indifference to the underprivileged is scarcely different from Kaufman gazing smugly down on a devastated America from his penthouse eyrie.

The social comment is often explicit. Kaufman maintains power, he tells an aide, by keeping the living proletariat in their place, drugged on amusements: "I kept the people off the streets by giving them games and vices." One example of those games has an especially harsh resonance: in the city's shanty-town depths, we see a stall where punters can be photographed for laughs with captive zombies: is this any more callous than the real-life amusements that US guards treated themselves to with prisoners in Abu Ghraib? When the zombies break into the stronghold's glittering malls, there's a moment when we might expect to feel concern for the living: we see a distressed crowd of ordinary Americans, moneyed, well-dressed, routinely bourgeois types, exactly the people we normally expect to empathise with in horror films. But we have no interest in their survival: Romero makes it clear they've forfeited any claim to compassion. We do, however, care about the embattled proles on the ground, and for the plucky team led by the honourable, cowboy-like Riley and tough hooker Slack (Asia Argento). Meanwhile, Big Daddy, the film's standard-bearer for doom and destruction, isn't an object of fear at all, but an embodiment of social retribution at its most pitiless. Land of the Dead may be an enjoyably grisly, often drily witty horror comic, but you could also think of it as an impassioned call to arms - even if they are severed ones.