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One of my all-time favorite movie quotes comes from David Arquette as Dewey Riley in Scream 2 when he says, “How do you know that my dimwitted inexperience isn’t merely a subtle form of manipulation, used to lower people’s expectations, thereby enhancing my ability to effectively maneuver within any given situation?”

There’s something about Land of Dead that just screams this quote at me. Pardon the pun. My point is that George A. Romero’s 2005 zombie return looks on the surface like any B-movie fly-by-night mid-2000s zombie fest. And it’s dressed that way on purpose. Those familiar with the subtle and effective way Romero was able to land haymakers in our faces without ever telegraphing as much as a jab will assume I’m talking about the socio-political nuances of the film. While true that Romero is a master at that, I will leave that to those smarter than myself. What I mean is that as far as pure entertainment goes, Land of the Dead came to the party with more money than Romero ever had to play with along with ingenious ideas that turned the entire zombie subgenre on its head… and it showed up there wearing a tuxedo t-shirt holding a six-pack of PBR’s.

Land of the Dead is way smarter (and better) than it lets on.

The film takes place with the zombie virus already having blazed its trail of destruction across the world. Romero drops us right into the thick of things with a sweet opening credits sequence and some explanation that ALL of the dead are coming back as flesh-eating zombies. And if you happen to be bitten by one? You’ll turn even faster. We’re then introduced to our cast of scavengers at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Enter John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper.

Hopper plays Kaufman, an uber-powerful, super dick of a villain pulling the strings from his high rise in a barricaded, rich-person utopia where only the powerful and socially acceptable are allowed to live while all others suffer. Leguizamo plays Cholo, who has been doing dirty work for Kaufman for years and accruing his financial empire with the hopes he can move in and be a member of their society. When rebuked, he goes full rampage mode and steals a giant armored vehicle called “The Reckoning” that can move through the streets and cause tons of destruction to zombies and humans alike. Cholo threatens to use the vehicle and its ammunition against Kaufman’s version of Elysium unless he’s given five million dollars for his troubles.

This operation also involves the “good guy” of the bunch, Riley (Simon Baker), his forever loyal and half-burned sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy), and a rescued ex-prostitute named Slack (Asia Argento). Their travels lead them on a very Star Wars-esque quest to subvert each side of this feud and save the innocent people of the city. They are even able at one point to turn the film’s “Death Star” in the “Dead Reckoning” into their own “Millennium Falcon.”

Back to my previous quote, there is a lot more going on here in Land of the Dead than just some zombies ripping off skin in a myriad of disgusting and awesome ways. But there is that, too! A special effects crew that included the likes of Greg Nicotero and Christopher Nelson made sure there was plenty of amazing unrated Romero-worthy blood splatter to go around for everyone. The only complaint in that avenue would be the use of CGI blood splatter sporadically in the film… but the real stuff was still there by the bucket full.

All this and I still haven’t mentioned the most original and entertaining part of Land of the Dead. The motherfuckin’ zombies.

Romero takes the opportunity all these years after his previous zombie film twenty years prior to completely flip the script and have the plot focus just as much on the zombies as it does the humans. This leads to what is, in my opinion, one of the most purely entertaining zombie flicks of all time. At this point in this post-apocalyptic world, as is the case in many disaster flicks, the zombies aren’t really the main concern to the humans anymore… the humans are. The rich and powerful are either using them for paintball and carnival games or have locked them out using various barricading methods and a water-locked area the zombies can’t get to because they cannot swim. On the outskirts, our ragtag crew shoots fireworks into the sky because they’ve learned the zombies are unable to resist their awe and will stare dumbly at them while they either scoot around them or use them for target practice.

Next, Romero asks a frightening question that could be applied to so many things in the real world. He essentially says, “Congratulations! You’ve overcome your demons. Now, what will what’s left of you do when you no longer respect and fear them and they, in turn, evolve?”

As we watch our human beings struggle to exist in any capacity, we also watch the zombies slowly start to take notice of things. How we distract them. How we shoot guns. How we disrespect them. This storyline follows one zombie in particular, credited as “Big Daddy” and played memorably by Eugene Clark. He leads the charge of some of the most memorable and entertaining zombies out there. And it all culminates in a scene that starts hilarious but ends up badass (a running theme for a lot of things in the movie) when he decides to test the water out by dumbly falling into it but emerges on the other side like Jason Voorhees in a Navy Seals commercial along with a shitload of other curious zombies. In a plot development no one could have expected, this singular zombie ends up hunting down the most powerful man in the movie and then outsmarting and surprising him in the end.

With Land of the Dead, Romero had a million smart and thoughtful things to say about different issues between human beings in our real world, and he tossed that all into a blender with fun gore, intentional comedy that feels unintentional, badass characters, action, explosions, and a few jump-scares for good measure. His crowd-pleasing summer event was secretly just as smart as any “elevated horror”-tagged film you can think of.

It’s just way more fun to party with.

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