The most touching thing about ''George A. Romero's Land of the Dead" is how much the post-apocalyptic sets look like the urban ruins from one of John Carpenter's ''Escape from . . ." pictures.
This is also what's most disappointing about the film. Romero is the pioneer responsible for directing ''Night of the Living Dead," ''Dawn of the Dead," and ''Day of the Dead" -- seminal movies that put an original, largely intelligent face on schlock horror. This new movie looks and feels like someone else's better-made schlock.
Sure, the sensibility is all Romero (he has real affection for his zombies). But the filmmaker can't quite bring himself to take his material as seriously as he did, especially in the first two installments. He appears to be laughing and winking throughout this new movie, which brings it much too close to Carpenter's action pictures. The result is a shambles of shootouts and gore.
Through three ''Dead" films, Romero had realized a trenchant vision in which civilization was backsliding into savagery. This fourth film lazily extends that notion, while embracing the videogaming culture his movies have helped foster: zombies with keypads exterminating zombies.
The future in ''Land of the Dead" is one in which America has pretty much eaten itself. Zombies have become a fact of life. They live on the margins of an unnamed city, which is surrounded by an electric fence designed to keep them out. (A bite from them turns human into the undead.) The zombies' part of town is a blah-suburban ghetto, which mercenaries frequently invade to retrieve food and other necessities for the impoverished humans living in their own slum.
The remaining outpost of bourgeois humanity is located in a Trump-like tower called Fiddler's Green. Part mall, part studio soundstage, it's a luxury enclave where the rich can ignore that the world has come to a pretty grim slowdown. (The wait list is 3,000 people long.) The Green is run by a greedy overseer named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), and he's been using the mercenaries to return with goodies that the rich will buy at a considerable markup.
The central action gets underway when a head mercenary, Cholo (John Leguizamo), learns that Kaufman won't let him into the luxury co-op and steals the big train-like tank they use to plow into the zombie zones (the vehicle's name is Dead Reckoning). Cholo holds it hostage in a bid to extort millions from Kaufman. He, in turn, hires Cholo's good-hearted co-worker, Riley (Simon Baker), to retrieve the tank.
Riley is looking for a world where there are no fences. When this is all over, he's moving to Canada.
In the meantime, the dead have discovered (very slowly) how to arm themselves and strike back at Kaufman's empire. The film's setup has a promising ring, but Romero's smart bombs never detonate. The zombie underclass metaphor is obvious, yet as the movie wears on Romero seems to want to evoke the current presidential administration (''We don't negotiate with terrorists!" Kaufman barks at one point), turning the mobilized zombies into crypto-insurgents.
But Romero's allegorical skills aren't as sharp as they used to be. The 1968 ''Night of the Living Dead" was bold and provocative about interracial cooperation during the civil rights era. ''Dawn of the Dead" held up a mirror to our rampant consumerism. ''Land of the Dead" flirts with the idea of standing for pointed rebellion but opts instead to have a good time playing with the zombies.
Those zombies are terribly made up and can barely hold the screen. But they do demonstrate how human flesh, when gnawed into, can pull like taffy.
Thankfully, the casting is not so bad that the creatures steal the show. Asia Argento does. She plays a prostitute who winds up helping Riley get back Dead Reckoning and defend the city. A movie this gory would seem right up the alley of an actress whose father is the Italian horror visionary Dario Argento. She could have played the part in a coma, but she brings pleasing zip, danger, and more than one facial expression to the proceedings.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.