Years after a zombie apocalypse, survivors have set up outposts across the United States. One outpost in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, contains a feudal-like government. Bordered on two sides by rivers and on the third by an electric fence, the city has become a sanctuary. The rich and powerful live in a luxury high-rise called Fiddler's Green, while the rest of the population subsists in squalor. Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the city's ruthless ruler, has sponsored Dead Reckoning, an armored personnel vehicle that can travel through the zombie-infested areas with ease.
Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) is the designer and commander of Dead Reckoning. Unlike Kaufman, Riley is respected for his work in protecting the citizens, as well as providing them with food and medical supplies that the citizens can no longer safely acquire themselves. Using Dead Reckoning, Riley and his crew venture into areas overrun with zombies to scavenge for supplies. On one mission, they notice many zombies exhibiting intelligent behavior. One such zombie is "Big Daddy" (Eugene Clark), formerly a gas station owner.
After the mission, Riley retires from commanding Dead Reckoning. Back in the city, he visits Chihuahua's (Phil Fondacaro) bar. There, he sees a hooker named Slack (Asia Argento) being forced into a cage with some zombies to entertain guests. Riley and Charlie (Robert Joy) save Slack; Charlie kills Chihuahua in the ensuing chaos. Riley, Charlie and Slack are arrested. Slack reveals that Kaufman ordered her execution, for helping Mulligan (Bruce McFee) to instigate rebellion among the poor.
Meanwhile, Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), Dead Reckoning's second in command, is denied an apartment in Fiddler's Green despite his service to Kaufman. In retaliation, Cholo takes over Dead Reckoning and threatens to destroy Fiddler's Green with it. Kaufman approaches Riley and tasks him, as well as Charlie and Slack, to retrieve Dead Reckoning. They are supervised by Manolete (Sasha Roiz), Motown (Krista Bridges), and Pillsbury (Pedro Miguel Arce).
On the way, Manolete is bitten and then killed by Slack. After catching up with Dead Reckoning, Riley approaches the vehicle alone. Charlie, Slack, and Pillsbury follow him after subduing Motown and leaving her behind. Realising Riley is working for Kaufman, Cholo holds both Riley and Charlie at gunpoint. As he prepares to fire Dead Reckoning's missiles at Fiddler's Green, Riley uses a small device and deactivates Dead Reckoning's weapons systems; he then destroys the device. Motown, who had regained consciousness, opens fire and nearly kills both Riley and Cholo (who is maimed by one of the gunshots). She is bitten by a zombie and killed by Slack. Riley convinces Cholo to allow him escape North and to join him, but the latter decides to return to Fiddler's Green to deal with Kaufman; his partner, Foxy (Tony Nappo) accompanies him. While en route, Cholo is bitten by a zombie and leaves to kill Kaufman by himself. Riley takes over Dead Reckoning once again and returns to Fiddler's Green.
Elsewhere, Big Daddy (who has gathered a large group of zombies) learns that they can walk safely underwater. He leads the zombies to cross the river to the human city. They take the guards by surprise and begin massacring the people. As a result of the zombies making it into the city, the electric fences that once kept the zombies out have now become a wall to trap them and the humans inside. Seeing the city overrun, Kaufman runs with his money, and encounters a zombie Cholo in the parking garage. As the two struggle, Big Daddy kills both with a propane tank.
Riley's group arrives at the city only to come upon a raised drawbridge. Riley leaves to bring the bridge down, but a small group of zombies begin to attack Dead Reckoning. Riley and the others manage to dispose of and evade the zombies. After crossing the bridge, they helplessly witness people being killed by the zombies. Realizing it is too late to save them, they mercy kill them with missiles. It is then revealed that most of the poor people were led to safety by Mulligan, thus surviving the assault. Riley and Mulligan share a well-meaning goodbye as they split up with their groups. As they see Big Daddy and the zombies (who are, curiously, not attacking the surviving humans) leaving the city, Riley decides to leave them alone, citing that they are just looking for a place to go, too. While lighting up the rest of the fireworks (which were earlier used to distract the zombies but are now useless since they don't distract the horde anymore), Riley's group set off for Canada on Dead Reckoning.
Earlier script titles included Twilight of the Dead, Dead City, and Dead Reckoning (the same as the military vehicle used in the film). Romero said in an interview that one of the first potential film studios (20th Century Fox) wanted the film to be titled Night of the Living Dead. He refused, wanting to use the title Dead Reckoning, and the studio then wanted to title it Night of the Living Dead: Dead Reckoning. It turned out that Fox sought to own the rights to the Night of the Living Dead franchise, and Romero decided not to do business with them. The film is the highest budgeted film in the series to date.
The film draws on some elements from the original script for Day of the Dead.
Filming took place in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Land of the Dead is the first film in the series to receive an MPAA rating for its theatrical release. Romero had said for years that he would film two versions; an R rated cut for theatrical release and first DVD, and an unrated cut for the second DVD release. Both DVDs were released in the U.S. on October 18, 2005. Rumors suggested that Romero shot alternate, less explicit, gore scenes for the theatrical release, but this is not entirely accurate. The more extreme instances of gore (e.g. a woman having her navel piercing graphically torn out by a zombie) were obscured by foreground elements filmed on bluescreen, so that these overlaid elements could be easily removed for the unrated DVD. Other ways to obscure blood in order to get an R-rating were achieved by simply trimming the grislier shots by a few seconds, by digitally repainting blood so that it is more black than red, or by digitally painting the blood out altogether.
The Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario gave both the theatrical version and DVD version a rating of 18A, though it was only given a 13+ rating in Quebec.
In the UK, the BBFC gave both the theatrical version and the unrated version a 15 certificate for strong language, violence, horror and gore. Every UK release bar the UMD version were rated 18 overall due to a bonus feature (a highlights reel of the goriest moments called Scenes of Carnage).
In Germany, both the theatrical and unrated versions were rated 18 anyway. As such, only the unrated version was widely available in Germany.
The film was banned in Ukraine.
The film received positive reviews upon release. It was released one year and three months after the release of the remake Dawn of the Dead. The film grossed over $40 million and is second behind Dawn of the Dead with the highest-grossing revenue (unadjusted for inflation) in the Living Dead series (not including the remakes), the two lowest being Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Diary of the Dead (2008). The film opened the MTV Saturday Horror block on February 27, 2010.
Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four for what he considered its skillful and creative allusions, something that he argued was pervasive among Romero's previous three installments, which contained numerous satirical metaphors to American life. Ebert noted this installment's distinction between the rich and poor, those that live in Fiddler's Green and those that live in the slums, something he considered to be Romero's take on the rising gap between rich and poor in the United States. John Lutz, in Zombies of the world, unite: Class struggle and alienation in land of the dead, drew comparisons between the fireworks which were set off to distract the zombies in Land of the Dead to the US military 'shock and awe' displays seen in multiple incursions. Michael Wilmington of Chicago Tribune awarded the film four stars, writing, "It's another hard-edged, funny, playfully perverse and violent exercise in movie fear and loathing, with an increasingly dark take on a world spinning out of control. By now, Romero has become a classicist who uses character and dialogue as much as stomach-turning special effects to achieve his shivers." The New York Sun declared it "the American movie of the year."
Several filmmakers, including John Landis, Eli Roth, Clive Barker, and Guillermo del Toro, paid tribute to Romero in a Land of the Dead special. Guillermo del Toro said: "Finally someone was smart enough to realize that it was about time, and gave George the tools. It should be a cause of celebration amongst all of us that Michelangelo has started another ceiling. It's really a momentous occasion ..."
Overall critical reaction was mostly positive; the film received very favorable reviews from The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Premiere, Variety, Slate and the Los Angeles Times. The film earned a 74% "Certified Fresh" positive rating at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. The site's consensus says, "George A. Romero's latest entry in his much-vaunted Dead series is not as fresh as his genre-inventing original, Night of the Living Dead. But Land of the Dead does deliver on the gore and zombies-feasting-on-flesh action."