of the Dead
Another zombie movie from George Romero? Since the late 1960s, Romero has served up a variety of zombies, disquieting and hilarious in equal measure, and always changing in their significance along with the temper of the times: zombies as anti-Vietnam War protestors, as mindless consumers, or as a vast, American underclass. Like George Miller, Romero is unafraid to wipe the slate clean with each new instalment, recasting the premise of the fiction as necessary.
I confess to never having been a rabid fan of Romero's work. His skill as a scriptwriter seemed to me sometimes half-baked, and his ability to flesh out a clever conceit to feature-length often lacking. I half-expected Land of the Dead to be a smarty-pants horror movie in the wake of Scream (1996) and its many woeful imitations.
I was wrong – about Romero, and about this film. After difficult years of projects cancelled or interfered with, all the stars have finally lined up exactly right for Romero, who here calls in help from his massive European fan base (French co-producers and an Italian drawcard in Asia Argento) in order to attack, from within, the staid, conservative, American studio system.
Land of the Dead is, at every moment, a jaw-droppingly audacious film. In fact, it is virtually Marx's Capital on the multiplex screen. Romero's anti-Bush (indeed, anti-American) rhetoric is fearless and unrelenting: when the embodiment of evil capitalism, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), announces "I will not negotiate with terrorists", his opponent, the heavily ethnic Cholo (John Leguizamo), responds with: "I'm gonna put a Jihad on his ass." Only a supposedly trivial zombie horror could manage to fly under the ideological radar so completely.
Romero regards his zombie films more as action-adventure pieces than horror movies. They do not trade in Gothic fear or fright. The action in Land of the Dead is all about one thing: political power. The superbly crafted script plots a complicated situation. The metropolitan centre of Pittsburgh has become a fortress. It keeps the zombies out, but also keeps its vast population down – distracted with "toys and vices", as fat-cat Kaufman proudly boasts. When the zombies breach the perimeter of this awful world, its balance of power shifts.
Romero has dropped his time-of-day titles (Night of the Living Dead , Dawn of the Dead , Day of the Dead ) and moved onto spatial metaphors. This is not a mere flourish: Land of the Dead is among the great films about the social architecture of the modern metropolis.
Traditionally, horror films have portrayed the monster-figure (whether alien, vampire or zombie) as Other – embodying what society excludes, demonises or ignores. But most filmmakers come up hard against the seemingly intractable limit of the genre: ultimately the monster, even if it has generated some sympathy, has to be annihilated, and the status quo restored. Land of the Dead imperiously ignores such conventions.
Romero's stroke of genius here is to make the zombies an evolving species. Every key moment of the plot relates to some way in which these monsters become more conscious, more communicative, more adaptive. The philosophical-political question they raise is exactly the same one facing all the human characters: what are we to become?
In this movie, the zombies no longer signify just one thing. But nor is the quest, for the viewer, to understand their significance the basis of the kind of hermeneutic puzzle that Larry Cohen's films regularly pose (as for instance in the It's Alive series). Romero's zombies are not only crazy, mixed-up kids on a rampage – although Romero serves up some good gags (he must have been storing some of them up for years) for viewers who simply want to enjoy them on that level. They are not simply Monsters from the Id, Freudian-style. More than standing for one nation's underclass, they seem to embody, this time around, the entire 'outside world' that America ignores at its peril. And did I mention that the leader of this zombie brigade is African-American?
When Leonard Cohen was asked his opinion of a recent Bob Dylan album, he replied: "I love to see the old guys lay it out." Romero is now sixty-five, and no one lays it out like he can. Land of the Dead is his most perfectly realised film, awesomely written and directed, and an absolute joy to watch unfold (those turning points are real clinchers). And it is a supremely radical achievement in the context of contemporary mainstream cinema.
MORE Romero: The Dark Half
© Adrian Martin August 2005