Zombies, man…Freak me out.
June 29, 2005
I have always held Zombie movies to a special place. The original Night of the Living Dead was one of the very first horror movies I ever had an opportunity to see, late night on channel 11 watching with my father, decidedly not a horror fan. Then, surprisingly, he also rented Dawn of the Dead for myself and my younger brother. This went against the household staunch anti-gore policy. I didn’t see Day until years later, but the first two films in George Romero’s Dead series left a burning hunger for creation in me, perhaps responsible for fueling my writing desire. These films were unlike the other horror films that I scrambled to see in my youth, the frantic attempts to view Halloween II late night on channel 9 with my parents downstairs. These had weight, consequences. These had REAL horror. These days there seems to be this bizarre desire to make zombies bigger, faster, scarier. And while I’ve found a lot of merit in the modern incarnations of the zombie with Resident Evil, 28 Days Later (though technically not a zombie movie) and the Dawn of the Dead remake, which had some really effective and fun stuff in it. Ironically, though, the film that comes closest to capturing the feel of a Romero zombie movie is last year’s romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead which was a very loving tribute to his films. So why is it that these later films don’t have the weight, the gravitas of those that came from George A. Romero? I think it’s that he’s the only one that understands the nature of the zombie film, which is a sub genre that did not exist before Night of the Living Dead. He’s the one that set the rules, kill the head and the body dies. He’s the one that started the trend of EVERYBODY can die in a zombie film. He’s also the one who realizes that zombies are just a metaphor, and they can be a metaphor for anything you want to shut out. It can be race, status, cleverness. Night was about race and civil rights, Dawn was about the greed of consumerism, Day was about the divide between military and civilians. And then comes Land.
Land of the Dead. It’s hard to believe it’s actually here, that it actually exists. It shouldn’t be so hard to fathom, as the zombie film is more popular than ever. Why was it so hard for George Romero to get the money to make Land? Well, I don’t believe studios want social metaphors in their horror films. Just make it gruesome, make it scary, make it funny and put some stars in it. George does all these things effortlessly, and he’s clearly matured in the two decades since zombies saw their day arrive. Land is mean spirited, it’s biting, it’s angry. It has the strongest metaphor in the entire series and, upon more viewings, may wind up to be my favorite film in the series. That’s right, and this is coming from someone who holds Dawn of the Dead up as one of the pinnacle achievements in Horror Film history.
Land of the Dead is about a world where zombies are. They have been since some nebulous time in the past. The world has condensed smaller and smaller, packing themselves into tight communities, hiding behind electric fences and rivers and buildings. Putting themselves into a modern city that basically is a prison. It’s about the division between rich and poor, between the slums and the penthouse. Deep in the center of Pittsburgh is Fiddler’s Green, a massive reinforced structure that is simply a city within a single building. Dennis Hopper is Kaufman, the Donald Trumpian overlord of this richie community. He lets those who have in and forces those who have not to toil in the ongoing slum/red-light district that seems to inhabit the rest of the fortified city of Pittsburgh. Just as the rich pretend that the poor don’t really exist, Kaufman and his Fiddler’s Green brethren have simply forgotten about the zombie menace as they’ve not been exposed to the threat in a long time.
Then there’s the Dead Reckoning, one hell of an armored vehicle. The Dead Reckoning, along with a band of mercenaries go out into the rest of the world to gather supplies for Kaufman, for themselves, and for the black market. As the division between Kaufman and his mercenaries worsens and John Leguizamo’s Cholo steals the Dead Reckoning after being snubbed, not allowed to move into Fiddler’s Green, a strange thing is occurring amongst the zombies. A large and imposing filling station zombie has identified the threat to his kind. First Dead Reckoning, then the city it came from, then the towering pinnacle of light at its center, Fiddler’s Green. In Day of the Dead, Romero dealt with zombies ability to learn. Land shows us zombies that may not be learning, but can reason to a rudimentary degree. The filling station zombie leads an army of zombies right to the city, right towards Kaufman’s sanctuary.
Every element of the film works. The metaphor is chewy and thick. The performances (often the weak point in Romero’s zombie films) are layered and interesting. Especially those of the leads, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Simon Baker and the heartbreaking Robert Joy. The gore is extensive and impressive, with heads getting blown open, guts torn out and all of the extreme stuff we come to expect from a Romero film just barely hampered by an R rating. Incidentally, if you notice a zombie walking in front of an especially gory scene (as happens several times in this film) know the zombie is digitally created and is only there to cut down the gore. They won’t be wandering in front in the uncut DVD.
As I left the theater after seeing Land of the Dead I was filled with a sense of exultation. He did it. He not only didn’t miss the boat, he landed on it and blew it up. George Romero has crafted a zombie film that could tell the world what zombie films are all over again. It’s witty and exiting and, most importantly scary. And it must be seen. Four stars.
Dave Grelck is a writer/photographer/geek from Chicago who occasionally finds time to write articles for Entertainment-Geekly. Most of the time he’s just pimping his geek calendar. What a self serving tool.