Land of the Dead
dir. Romero Opens Fri June 24
Various Theaters

Land of the Dead is being billed as George A. Romero's "ultimate zombie masterpiece." That's a goddamn lie. Truthfully, Land of the Dead isn't that great compared to Romero's previous zombie films. Largely responsible for the modern zombie genre, Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead and 1978's Dawn of the Dead are classics--hell, even 1985's so-so Day of the Dead is still pretty cool.

So maybe expectations were too high. Or maybe zombie fans have been waiting too long for Romero's return, especially since everyone else is either remaking Romero (2004's Dawn of the Dead), dumbing him down (Resident Evil), ripping him off (28 Days Later), or giving him props (Shaun of the Dead). Regardless, Land of the Dead doesn't quite cut it.

Asking himself what would happen during a protracted zombie infestation, Romero's answer is lucid and cynical: Barricading themselves in a fancy-pants skyscraper, the richest survivors (led by a happily amoral Dennis Hopper) live in safety and luxury. But the poor--including the noble Riley (Simon Baker), the hot Slack (Asia Argento), and the not-so-noble Cholo (John Leguizamo)--live in ground-level slums, fetching supplies for the rich and fending off the undead. Unfortunately, the previously brain-dead zombies are getting smarter. (Finally, there's something cooler than a zombie: A zombie who can use a machine gun!)

Between gruesome/hilarious shots of gore (check the zombie priest, and those with pierced belly buttons should get ready to wince), Romero deals with themes of class disparity, urban decay, and societies' inherent weaknesses. And for a while, it's great--just as with Night's take on racism and Dead's riffs on consumerism, Land of the Dead hits some solid allegorical points in the midst of its bloody action.

But throughout, there's something more distressing: Optimism. It's a sensation at odds with Romero's typical nihilism, and even his intense fright sequences and pitch-black humor can't counteract a too-easy plot and a sappy ending. While Land of the Dead has all the superficial trappings of a great zombie flick, its smarter subtext is slighted. That might be good enough for Romero's slew of imitators, but it's pretty underwhelming when it comes from the master himself.