It's been well-established by now that George Romero doesn't make zombie movies-he makes sociological studies that happen to feature lots and lots of zombies. Each entry in his seminal Dead series comments on some aspect of American culture. Think of the racial politics at play in the original Night of the Living Dead, or the consumerist satire in his masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, or his pointed jabs at the military in the deeply flawed but still intriguing Day of the Dead. So what's left to explore? Why class, of course! Land of the Dead, Romero's triumphant return to the genre he reinvented, is a smart and funny critique about the divide between the haves and the have-nots and how that gap inevitably sows the seeds for a working-class revolution. But don't worry, gore-hounds-the movie is also an instructive lesson in all the creative ways one can dispatch a member of the walking dead. After 37 years and four movies, you'd think Romero would have used up all his best gross-out tricks. I'm happy to say he hasn't; there were at least four or five moments that had the audience screaming and applauding at the same time. If this does turn out to be the 65-year-old director's last foray into this territory, it's a great note to go out on.

One of the interesting things about the Dead movies is that while they aren't direct sequels (each one is set in a different location with a new cast of characters), they do present a continuous timeline. The dead first start to rise in Night, and by the end of Day, they've more or less seized control of the planet. Land of the Dead picks up in the present day, where small pockets of humans have managed to carve out a meager existence for themselves while living in constant fear of the "stenches." One of these pockets is Fiddler's Green, a luxury apartment building where the wealthy still live and play. But a vastly different society exists on the streets surrounding the complex: Here, an assortment of gamblers, prostitutes, mercenaries and a few average Joes struggle for every morsel of food. The king of this "city" is Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), a wealthy tycoon who employs a well-armed band of hunters and gatherers to make frequent trips beyond the barricades and steal supplies from the surrounding zombie-infested towns.

Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) are the leaders of the pack and both have bigger plans for their lives. Riley wants to try his luck up north in Canada, while Cholo aims to buy his way into Fiddler's Green. But when he informs Kaufman of his desires, he's tossed out on his ear. In retaliation, Cholo hijacks the crew's ride, a zombie-killing tank called "Dead Reckoning," and threatens to blow the rich man's tower to smithereens. So Kaufman enlists Riley to stop his former partner by any means necessary. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city, an army of zombies is amassing to take revenge on a society that treats them like cannon fodder. Led by the aptly named Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), these soldiers keep marching closer and closer to Fiddler's Green...

It's hard to deny that Romero is strictly a B-level filmmaker when it comes to setting up shots and directing actors. Despite being handed the biggest budget of his career for Land ($17 million, which was probably the cost of Angelina Jolie's wardrobe for Mr. and Mrs. Smith), the finished product is still filled with clunky moments and boring production design. What really makes Romero a favorite among horror fans-and critics-is his devilish wit and obvious ambition. With each movie in the Dead quadrilogy, he's raised the bar both thematically and in the special-effects department. Remember that great bit in Dawn when a zombie gets his head chopped off by a whirling pair of helicopter blades? Let's just say that there's an equally memorable scene here involving a zombie who is already partially decapitated. It's also fun to watch how Romero has allowed the zombies to evolve as characters over the course of the four movies. After starting out as mindless beasts in Night, the undead have progressively grown more sympathetic. Now in Land, we have our first honest-to-god zombie hero in the form of Big Daddy, who is not only the movie's most likeable character-he's also the smartest.

In a perfect world, Land of the Dead would be a commercial smash that would also give American horror cinema the shot in the arm it so desperately needs. Unfortunately, although the movie is sure to make a tidy profit, Romero's wickedly intelligent approach to the genre is out of step with Hollywood's current infatuation with teenybopper slasher flicks and sloppy remakes of superior Asian fright-fests. That's why a certain tinge of sadness accompanies the film; as exciting as it is, it's also a kind of eulogy for a vanishing breed of horror movie. Only most eulogies probably wouldn't feature exploding zombie heads.
-Ethan Alter