Land of the Dead first published by EyeforFilm, 30 Sept 2005
George A. Romero established himself as the first and greatest auteur of the undead with what has since become affectionately known as his ‘Holy Trinity’, a trilogy of films that laid down both the law and the lore for zombie horror. Mixing his liberal ideology with even more liberal dismemberments, he put the gory in allegory, exposing the hearts, minds and bloody entrails of America’s shifting body politic over three decades.
In Night Of The Living Dead (1968) the subtext was anxieties about racial and generational conflict; in Dawn Of The Dead (1978) it was mindless consumerism, while Day Of The Dead (1985) got its teeth into the machismo and militarism of the Reagan era. Yet all three buried their grand ideas beneath bucket loads of Grand Guignol.
So far, the nostalgic Noughties has been the decade that spawned a thousand Romero imitators, with the dead returning to something like life in 28 Days Later…, followed by the Resident Evil franchise, the Dawn Of The Dead remake, The House Of The Dead, Shaun Of The Dead, Undead, Dead Meat, The Roost and the unauthorised sub-sequel Day Of The Dead 2: Contagium.
True, there is a fair share of rotten material to be found here, but the best of these films are not merely reverential retreads, but sophisticated redevelopments of the territories that Romero first stamped. With so many zombies about, it seemed the right time for the great man to give another of his master classes – yet there are few lessons in Land Of The Dead that have not been fully learnt already and, with expectations unrealistically high, Romero now seems a crusty, if still lovable, teacher who is starting to be outshone by his own talented pupils.
In the centre of a dilapidated city is the luxurious accommodation of Fiddler’s Green, reserved for a pampered elite and ruled over by the ruthless Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Outside its heavily guarded entrance lives a population of labourers and petty criminals, and beyond the electrified fences are masses of zombies who are gradually evolving an ability to communicate, to use tools and to act collectively. These walking dead and many of the living too (like John Leguizamo’s upwardly mobile street punk Cholo), want a taste of the good life for themselves. An uprising is brewing, the word “jihad” is in the air and, as the city’s tower looks set to come toppling down, only Riley (Simon Baker), his loyal band of friends and an armoured truck named Dead Reckoning are there to preserve from this mess what little is left of humanity.
Land Of The Dead is entertaining enough. It has superb make-up effects, occasional splashes of inventively grisly gore and the crowd-pleasing return of SFX- artist Tom Savini to his part (originally seen in Dawn Of The Dead) as a machete-wielding biker who now just happens to be a zombie. It includes commentary on our own times, focusing on social iniquities and their consequences in Bush’s post-9/11 world. And like all Romero’s zombie films, it features a black character in a central role (the evolved zombie leader Big Daddy, played by Eugene Clark) and continues to question whether ravenous zombies, or vicious humans, are the greater threat to our beleaguered species’ survival
Yet somewhere in this familiar mix, Romero has got the balance wrong. Although previously he has been so resistant to censorship that he released the first two Dead sequels unrated in their full gory glory, this time he has agreed to reserve his stronger material for the subsequent home release, while literally tearing the guts out of the theatrical version in pursuit of the increased revenue that a lower certification can bring. The zombies here are relatively minor characters and, while we do see their relentless march on a city, they seem far more interested in political revolution than in the simpler pleasures of chowing down.
If the carnage has been toned down to suit the suits, the political content has been ramped up at the expense of any kind of subtlety. The narrow self-interest of America’s capitalist economics is embodied in Kaufman (named after the German for ‘salesman’), who fiddles (in Fiddler’s Green) while Rome burns, divides up plundered resources amongst an elite of cronies while the rest go without, and brands anyone who is no longer useful to his corrupt grip on power an enemy of the state (“We don’t negotiate with terrorists”, he declares in one scene, echoing George Dubya‘s words regarding the War on Terror: “The only way to deal with these people is to bring them to justice. You can’t talk to them. You can’t negotiate with them.”).
On the other end of the scale, Romero’s mindless, marginalised zombies represent a proletarian underclass, dying for a transformation in the social order, and in case the point is missed, they are first seen getting organised in a place called Uniontown. It is not Romero’s left-leaning geopolitical views that are the problem here, so much as the heavy handedness with which they are dramatised, so that what ought to be a buried subtext instead risks becoming pure agitprop. Indeed, the gleeful spectacle of one of the zombies shoving its hand deep into a victim’s mouth graphically reflects the film’s more general tendency of ramming ideas down the viewer’s throat.
Add to this a cast of characters who are far too cartoonishly sketchy to be engaging, and you have a weak, if fun, appendix protruding out of Romero’s excellent trilogy.
strap: George A. Romero’s extension to the zombie ‘Holy Trinity’ casts an apocalyptic eye over Bush’s polarised post-9/11 America
© Anton Bitel