Some time ago, an unimaginable disaster destroyed much of human civilization. The recently dead, for an unknown reason, had returned to life and taken the lives of their living siblings. These "zombies" multiplied rapidly by adding to their ranks with every new victim. Many years later, the still-living in the vicinity have fled to the city of Salyersville, Kentucky, where a feudal-like government has taken over. Bordered on three sides by rivers and on the other by an electric barricade, the city has become a sanctuary against the undead threat. Fiddler's Green, the center of this fortress city, is where the rich and powerful live in luxury while the rest of the local survivors live in poverty around them. Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), a tyrannical businessman, rules with an iron fist and overwhelming firepower.
In order to ensure his dominance and upscale lifestyle, Kaufman financed the construction of Dead Reckoning, a heavily armored vehicle that can venture out into the zombie-populated territory with relative ease. Armed with heavy remote-controlled external machine guns and video cameras to spot zombies on the sides, Dead Reckoning primarily functions as a moving fireworks display base: zombies are fascinated by fireworks, and (just like humans) will stare up at the sky gaping at them while ignoring the humans moving through the streets around them. Riley Denbo (Simon Baker), the designer of Dead Reckoning and leader of the expeditions to retrieve salvageable goods, has decided to retire and leave the safety of the city. Unlike Kaufman, Riley is respected by the citizens of the fortress city for his work to protect them from a dangerous world. However, after a series of incidents, Riley winds up in jail with his best friend Charlie Houk (Robert Joy), a slow witted member of the Dead Reckoning team who happens to be a crack shot with his old M1 Carbine, and Slack (Asia Argento), a female soldier who has been pressed into prostitution and who was almost killed in a recent cage match with a pair of zombies.
Meanwhile, Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), the cocky second in command of the Dead Reckoning team, having been denied the opportunity to buy an apartment in Fiddler's Green by Kaufman, has gone renegade. Having his dreams to live in Fiddler's Green shattered by Kaufman - for whom he has been secretly employed (one of his tasks being the disposal of the corpses of Kaufman's murdered enemies) Cholo is out to even the score. He threatens to destroy Fiddler's Green with Dead Reckoning, which along with some of it's crew, he manages to hijack - unless his demands are met. Kaufman turns to Riley to stop Cholo, which is how Riley, Slack, and Charlie are released from prison. A trio of soldiers, Pilsbury, Motown, and Manolete, are assigned to assist them, but their mission is to recapture Dead Reckoning, whether Riley and his allies want them to or not. Manolete is soon bitten, and Motown later tries to kill Cholo only to be killed herself by a zombie, while Pilsbury changes sides and starts helping Charlie and Slack. As Riley finally catches Cholo, he convinces him to allow him to take Dead Reckoning and leave the city to head north, leaving Cholo and his "partner in crime," Fox, with a truck to go west. Shortly after this Cholo is bitten by a zombie. Rather than be shot immediately and never become a zombie, Cholo chooses to "See how the other Half Lives." Riley and his crew then notice fires in the city and head back to try and save the city.
Meanwhile, in the zombie-infested outside world, something unusual is going on. Zombies seem to have resumed aspects of their past lives: a former brass band blows ineffectively on their aging horns, a cheerleader carries her pompoms, a dead couple walk hand-in-hand. A leader has risen among their ranks; a former gas station owner with the name tag "Big Daddy" who continues to amble out to the pumps every time a fellow zombie causes the bell to ring, takes center stage as the undead protagonist. Unusually aware and intelligent, Big Daddy (in a continuance of the "Bub" plot-line from Day of the Dead) directs some of his fellow zombies to use firearms and overcome the more rudimentary human defenses. The zombies are beginning to learn, adapt, and even to communicate with primitive moans and grunts. In retaliation for the constant raids carried out by Dead Reckoning, Big Daddy ultimately leads the zombies in a massive assault on the human city, when Big Daddy realizes that the zombies can simply walk on the bottom of the riverbed, underneath the water. The center of the carnage takes place at Fiddler's Green. Kaufman witnesses his kingdom disintegrating before his very eyes as the zombies overcome the humans in a bloody massacre. As the zombies overtake the city, the humans discover the electric fence defenses used to keep the zombies out have become walls preventing their escape.
As retribution after being shot by Kaufman, Big Daddy trails the fleeing despot to an underground garage where Kaufman plans to escape in a Lincoln Continental. Big Daddy finds Kaufman's car next to a gas pump and, in a moment of undead "revelation," begins pumping gas into the cab through a hole in the windshield. Apparently satisfied, he lumbers out of the garage.
Now a member of the undead, Cholo has located Kaufman. Cholo shoots at Kaufman (poorly) before grappling with him, then prepares to carry out his revenge with an ineffective bite. However, Big Daddy is not finished and displays his intelligence once again when he rolls a burning road flare toward Kaufman's gasoline-soaked vehicle. It explodes hurling Kaufman and the undead Cholo away from the blast.
Meanwhile, Denbo and Dead Reckoning have fought to free the inhabitants of the now-overun city. At the electric fence, the crew discovers a massacre; with nowhere to run, impoverished and elite alike fell victim to the walking dead. After destroying the fence with rockets from Dead Reckoning, the crew is now depressed, as they believe that the zombies killed everybody in the city, and that there were no survivors. However, the crew then finds that most of the city's lower-class inhabitants had hidden elsewhere and were unharmed. After the zombies destroy the class system created by Kaufman by killing most of the city's elite ranks, the playing field is leveled and the zombies withdraw.
Much of the population of the haven-city has survived, and without Kaufman's tyranny, they will rebuild. Riley orders Pretty Boy (Joanne Boland), the navigator of Dead Reckoning to refrain from shooting Big Daddy with the vehicle's weaponry as the zombies leave, because he realizes that like them, he's "just looking for a place to go." Riley and his friends leave the city in Dead Reckoning, striking out for the north. As they leave, they fire all of Dead Reckoning's fireworks (which they won't need anymore now that they have lost their captivating effect on the zombies) in a display of celebration.
|Simon Baker||Riley Denbo|
|John Leguizamo||Cholo DeMora|
|Robert Joy||Charlie Houk|
|Dennis Hopper||Paul Kaufman|
|Eugene Clark||"Big Daddy"|
|Pedro Miguel Arce||"Pillsbury"|
|Joanne Boland||"Pretty Boy"|
Roger Ebert gave the film three stars for what he considered its skillful and creative allusions, something that he argued was pervasive among Romero's previous three installments that contained numerous satirical metaphors to the reality of American life. In this installment Ebert noted the similarities between the fireworks mesmerizing the zombies and the shock and awe tactics applied during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and the movie's distinction between the rich and poor, those that live in Fiddler's Green and those that live in the slums, something he considered Romero's take on the rising gap between rich and poor in America. 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."
Overall critical reaction was mostly positive; the film received very favorable reviews from The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Premiere (magazine), Variety, Slate and Los Angeles Times. The film earned a 74% positive rating at the Rotten Tomatoes movie-review compilation website (though the "Cream of the Crop" critics' reactions were slightly more mixed, giving the film a 68% rating overall).
It is the first movie 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 the theatres and first DVD, and an unrated cut for the second DVD release. Both DVDs were released in the US 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 overlayed 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 it a 15 certificate for both the theatrical version and the unrated version. (The UK "Director's Cut" DVD was rated 18 due to extras being rated higher than the feature itself). In Germany, both the theatrical and unrated versions were rated 18, rendering the purpose of the cut theatrical version redundant. As such, only the unrated version was widely available in Germany.
- Earlier script titles included Dead City and Dead Reckoning. Romero said in an interview  that the film studio 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.
- Asia Argento, who plays Slack in this movie, is the daughter of the famous Italian horror movie director Dario Argento, who was also the producer of Romero's second Dead movie, Dawn of the Dead.
- Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have cameos as the photo zombies, due to Romero's love of their affectionate zombie send-up Shaun of the Dead. They also appear on the official movie poster.
- Tom Savini can be briefly seen as a zombie (credited as "Machete Zombie"), reprising his character Blade from Dawn of the Dead. This marks the first time an actor has reprised a role in a Romero zombie movie.
- It could also be argued that the Santa zombie seen briefly outside Dead Reckoning near the end of the film is the Santa biker from Dawn of the Dead, as Romero alludes to on the DVD commentary.
- The film's working title was "Dead Reckoning". The remnants of this title remain in the movie, as the main transport vehicle for moving through zombie territories is still called the Dead Reckoning, as originally intended.
- Greg Nicotero, who is both second unit director, make-up artist and special effects supervisor on the film, also belongs to the small elite of people who have appeared in more than one of Romero's zombie movies. He is the bridgekeeper zombie in Land of the Dead, while playing Private Johnson in Day of the Dead.
- Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler's Green, a video game based on the movie was released for Xbox and PC on October 18, 2005.
- At the 16th edition of Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights in 2006, a show featuring the vehicle Robosaurus borrowed heavily from the film, including the use of fireworks to distract approaching zombies and the words "Dead Reckoning" painted on the side of Robosaurus.
- Director George Romero's voice can be heard as one of the puppeteers in the "Punch & Judy" stand in the village, shouting "Take that, you smelly zombie!"
- Dennis Hopper's character, Paul Kaufman, is named after fellow director Lloyd Kaufman of Troma studios fame.
- George Romero's daughter, Christina Romero, makes an appearance as a soldier and is credited as the "High noon soldier"
- The film features two Canadian Football League players-turned-actors: Eugene Clark as head zombie Big Daddy and Gene Mack as Kaufman's manservant, Knipp.
- Romero has expressed an interest in making another trilogy picking up after the end of this film (with the rumored title Road of the Dead).
- Simon Baker who starred in Land of the Dead has expressed interest in returning for a fifth film.