In a move long-awaited by moviegoers around the world, writer/director George Romero finally broadens his zombie universe to include ninjas, correcting an oversight that has plagued the zombie genre since the original Night of the Living Dead.
Romero plays the ninja card subtly and close to his chest in Land of the Dead, keeping the focus on the battle between the living dead and a pocket of humans holed up in an urban fortification while still making it clear that long-term survival in an undead world would be impossible without ninja assistance.
Simon Baker stars as the leader of an anti-zombie team, with John Leguizamo as an overly-ambitious hotshot thug and Dennis Hopper as the corrupt leader of the walled city within which they all live. As Baker ponders retiring from the zombie killing/scavanging business, Leguizamo attempts to bargain with Hopper for a position of privilege among the city's elite. When Hopper puts him in his place, Leguizamo turns coat, and gory hilarity ensues. Adding another twist, the zombies are beginning to develop rudimentary intelligence, and begin acting with forethought and weapon-using skills.
Okay, so where are the ninjas?
You're probably aware of Occam's Razor, which (loosely translated) states "never use a complex explanation when a simple one will suffice". Less well known is Occam's Shuriken, which states "since ninjas are invisible shadow warriors, any shadow where you don't see a ninja almost certainly conceals one". There are a lot of dark places in this movie, and the ninjas likely outnumber the humans, if not the zombies. (The word in the ninja community is that Romero hired the entire Shigeru ninja clan of Noto-Hanto Peninsula for this movie. This is the first foray into cinema for this honorable clan, and it looks like we can expect great things from them in the future!)
Additionally, Romero sets up his entire movie on a premise which is only possible through heavy ninja involvement. Even to gaijin this is obvious. A few dead giveaways (pun intended):
* As anyone who has studied battling the undead knows, in a Class 4 zombie outbreak the least-safe place on Earth is in a major city. Mere humans could never hope to clear out every zombie in a dense urban environment, let alone establish a permanent stronghold. This could only be done by ninjas.
* It's established that this fortification has been in place for roughly 20 years (Asia Argento mentions that she'd never been outside the city, even when she was very young before the zombies). Yet the humans clearly have no gasoline shortage, and in every encounter we see between zombies and humans the humans expend absurd amounts of ammunition. The only way they could maintain their ammo and fuel stocks is if they almost never needed them, meaning that some other force was shouldering most of the burden of fending off hungry zombies. Obviously, this would be ninjas.
* Most telling of all, when we first meet our heroes they are on a scavenging sortie to find food, alcohol, and useful items. They find an abundance of this treasure in an area shockingly close to the fortification, indicating that they seldom venture out for supplies. Given that the population of the stronghold must be quite large (we see a lot of people, and their society is large enough to have clear social class stratification), without a steady outside supply of food being delivered they'd starve faster than you can say Hattori Hanzo, and in the post-apocalyptic world of a Class 4 zombie outbreak the only food establishment which would still be delivering is, of course, Ninja Burger. This argument is bolstered by the fact that we never once see a ninja delivering tasty Ninja Burger food, in keeping with company policy.
* There is, in fact, at least one scene with overt ninja activity. Much like earthquakes, volcanos, and other forces of nature, ninjas don't strongly take sides (unless by "take sides" you mean "take the inside of your body and pull it to the outside"). So it is with Land of the Dead. In the massacre scene (It wouldn't be a ninja movie without a massacre! For that matter it wouldn't be a zombie movie either!) after the zombies break into the compound, there is a quick cut of a shadowy figure (see!) pulling the head and spinal column out of a screaming guy with one hand. No zombie is strong enough or skilled enough to pull a spine and head out intact with one hand in the heat of battle. This could only be the work of a ninja!
All in all, Land of the Dead is a worthwhile movie, and brings some much-needed additions to the franchise, but it's otherwise a mixed bag. The remake of Dawn of the Dead raised the bar in zombie movies to an almost unattainable level, and you won't find a better zombie movie anywhere. If like most film enthusiasts, however, you're craving a zombie/ninja movie, you need look no further.