Eat the Rich

Land of the Dead

In nightclubs, they’re used for entertainment. If you want, you can have your picture taken with one of them. (It’s chained up, of course, so it can’t hurt you.) Or you can spray-paint its face. Or jeer it in brutal cage matches.

Outside, they’re strung up by their feet and used for target practice. Those that are free are kept in slums where they’re easily entertained and sedated by the colorful spectacle of explosions in the sky. The people with guns hunt them down, partly because they’re dangerous but also for sport.

Is it any wonder the dead are fed up and primed for revolt? Is it any surprise that writer-director George A. Romero is cheering them on in Land of the Dead?

And is it so hard to see these zombies as a blunt allegory for racial minorities, the impoverished, the politically disenfranchised? On the final question, apparently so.

Owen Gleiberman, writing in Entertainment Weekly, echoed many critics expressing Romero-zombie fatigue:

“Thirty-seven years after he first brought his hungry macabre flesh-stalkers to the screen in Night of the Living Dead, Romero may be the last person alive who still thinks they’re a metaphor for something important. ... Okay! The living dead are symbols of a world that no longer values life! Our world! Now can we please get to the good parts?”

This knee-jerk dismissal represents a grossly lazy reading of the movie, yet it’s certainly understandable on one level. Many recent zombie movies have given the undead a new weapon — speed — and as a result Romero’s lumbering corpses look quaint, products of a bygone era.

By keeping ’em slow, Romero has certainly robbed audiences of some terror, but he invests his creations with combustible qualities that are far more intriguing: cognizance, the ability to learn, and anger. The undead are beginning to evolve, and they’re pissed.

The result is a shocking reversal: Romero makes his flesh-eating zombies the heroes of Land of the Dead. My wife complained that after 28 Days Later, she’s looking for her undead movies to have a human element. Granted, Land of the Dead doesn’t; but it has a zombie element that should make a strong connection with the audience — if it’s paying attention.

The difficulty with Romero’s living-dead movies is that most of their meaning is buried. He’s the rare filmmaker who is less concerned with the text — the plot, the characters — than the subtext. He makes scary movies that generally aren’t scary but instead try to speak to the audience in code.

The horror-thriller plot in Land of the Dead is particularly perfunctory but accomplishes two things: It allows for the casting of Dennis Hopper, and it’s a diversionary tactic to keep the audience off the trail of the movie’s real subjects — the plight of the zombies and their response. (Here Romero links the audience and the zombies: Fireworks are to the living dead what the main narrative is to the film’s viewers.)

The nominal protagonists of Land of the Dead, based on their screen time, are a pair of men — I’ll call them “exterminators” — played by Simon Baker and John Leguizamo. Yet the most compelling character is a gas-station attendant who pushes his heretofore stultified companions into action. He is black and, as you might guess, quite dead. But he’s a determined leader, able to keep his moldering troops on-task — which is no mean feat when they’re so easily distracted by pyrotechnics and warm flesh.

Unlike in Romero’s previous Dead movies, chaos doesn’t reign in Land; the world seems to have figured out a system in which the living and the undead can co-exist in relative peace — at least in the sense that the privileged are in no danger of getting chomped on a daily basis.

The wealthy live in a fortress tower called Fiddler’s Green, completely insulated from the horrors around them. The name itself can be read as a pointed detail, a shorthand reference to Nero and the gleeful apathy of the ruling class in times of great crisis.

The rest of the living occupy the central city — protected from the undead by rivers — and live in shanties. The zombies aimlessly roam the outlying areas, where bands of exterminators awe them with fireworks and then blow their brains out so they can grab supplies and food for the rich. The movie’s segregation is striking in adding plausible social stratification to a genre defined by an us-versus-them dichotomy.

But what really distinguishes the movie is its genuine anguish and empathy. Land of the Dead is nothing less than a scream of protest against the exploitation and abuse of the lower classes — and a hopeful claim that the oppressed can rebel against their oppressors through numbers, persistence, anger, and the tools they have available to them. The message: You might be stupid, poor, hungry, black, retarded, disabled, Muslim, or dead, but you’re not powerless. As audio over the opening credits notes, if the zombies ever learn to use tools, humanity — read: the upper class — is fucked.

Romero’s previous zombie sequels — 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead — were each very specific, and minor, in their sociological concerns. In Dawn, zombies represented a consumer class that out of habit bought into a culture of consumption, while Day cast a cynical eye on how militarism devalues life.

Twenty years after Day, much has changed. With an obviously generous budget, Romero proves to be a far more polished filmmaker than anybody could have previously thought, and Land is surprisingly frightening. The dialogue is still shit, and the performances are still undistinguished, but the superior production values give this movie real weight; its professionalism demands that it be taken seriously.

More importantly, the implications of Land of the Dead are much broader than previous efforts, and its tone much more acidic. Over the past two decades, Romero appears to have shifted from aloof commentator to seething activist. The movie’s outrage is palpable, and its message is forceful: Storm the tower, you dumb fuckers, and eat the rich.

For the first time, Romero has found something positive to say. Dawn and Day were hopeless works that offered no solutions, and seemed to believe that none existed. Land is motivated by indignation over our culture’s caste system and treatment of the lower classes; the gas-station attendant literally howls when he sees his fellow zombies enduring yet another profanation.

Land of the Dead emerges as Romero’s most political work, because it not just identifies a problem but demands justice, and offers a credible response. That the solution is largely counterproductive and wholly extreme speaks to the filmmaker’s level of desperation.

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