If 2004 was the summer of the political documentary, with Fahrenheit 9/11 and the election season documentaries presciently defining the divisive political landscape that still consumes American society, Summer 2005 is shaping up to be just an equally compelling political season at the movies. Of course, while Michael Moore has decided to spend his time this summer setting up a film festival in Traverse City, MI as he works on his upcoming documentary about the American health care system, Hollywood’s biggest films have taken on the political mantle and delivered political parables in the least likely of places. From the denouncement of absolutism craftily planted in the regrettable Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith to the excellent critique of fundamentalism of all stripes in the outstanding Batman Begins, the summer fantasy blockbuster has suddenly become the de rigueur platform for the informal political critique. But no movie this summer packs a bigger political punch than the fourth installment of George Romero’s zombie series, Land of The Dead.
Not that this should come as any surprise. The history of the horror story is soaked in political metaphor, from the aristocratic cannibalism of Dracula to the dread of a communist invasion laying quite visibly on the surface of Invasion of The Body Snatchers. And why not? Political anxiety in the real world manifests itself in actual life and death circumstances; the invasion of Iraq and the fear of terror attacks in the United States have become central to the American experience in the last five years. In the 1970’s, when the gore-filled slasher genre rose to prominence as the central vehicle for scaring the bejeezus out of us, filmmakers were responding to the violence of the Viet Nam era that they had witnessed every night on the television news. It should come as no surprise that George Romero would be the one to get directly to the heart of the matter (literally) and expose the externalization of American anxiety as a vicious circle of violence wrapped neatly in a bow of self-serving greed. Romero’s first film in the series, the 1968 classic Night Of The Living Dead, stands as a powerfully nihilistic analysis of racial attitudes in America that, despite being trotted out on cable every Halloween, still has the power to shock with its spare, beautifully shot story of an African-American hero fighting off a zombie invasion only to survive and be gunned down by a posse that was sent to save him. The social overtones of the original remain in Land of the Dead; America is still a place haunted by the living dead, and still unable to forgo the class, race, and gender distinctions that defined it in the pre-zombie world.
This Land Is Your Land: Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) and Co. take from the rich in George A Romero’s Land Of The Dead
The artistry at work in the film itself, despite much of the critical praise Romero has received for his inventive take on present day political issues, is not much to speak of. There are several shots in the film cribbed directly from other sources; the shadowy, back-lit hand of The Exorcist, a singular head rising out of the dark water ala Apocalypse Now and frequent nods to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. With the constantly increasing tolerance of audiences for violence and gore, watching the film feels like watching someone else play a video game; zombies tear at blood soaked innards, heads explode and are crushed, and bullets and missiles fly remorselessly through the flesh. Romero’s ability to shock audiences with gore in his earlier films (particularly in the low budget, black and white aesthetics at play in Night of The Living Dead) has been usurped by the consumer culture he has continually decried in his films, and so his ability to scare and frighten has been reduced immeasurably to the simple act of surprise. There may not be a single door, cabinet, or out of frame space in the film that does not harbor and eventually reveal — surprise! — a zombie, and by the time our band of heroes face their last attack at the hands of a hungry ghoul, the moment has been so stripped of its power to scare us, Romero ends up playing it for laughs.
All of which is forgivable in the context of the story itself, which focuses less on its diminished gross-out quotient and more on the banality of violence that is the result of social relations between the living and the not-quite dead. The film’s story bounces between several sub-plots that detail the state of human and zombie relations in a world where the groups have co-mingled for decades. Romero’s world is not one where humanity doesn’t know the rules; men have pretty much figured out how to keep the zombies at bay and survive in American cities by using fireworks to distract the zombies from their own desires long enough to plunder what remains of the resources outside the city’s walls. Yes, even zombies get distracted by the bright lights of patriotic symbols. It is only when the zombies get organized by a leader named Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) that they are able to put aside their mindless devotion to the pretty sky-rockets and get down to the business of invading the human’s city fortress. Of course, the city itself is no paradise for men. The urban landscape is divided into the multitudinous ‘have-nots’ (who spend their days too distracted by the struggle for resources and the fun to be had gambling and boozing to do too much about the class divide), and the exclusive ‘haves’ (lead by a perfectly cast Dennis Hopper) who live in a luxury high-rise called Fiddler’s Green (named after the mythical sailor’s paradise). Even money can’t get you into the luxurious world of Fiddler’s Green, and when a hopeful, nuveau-riche Latino named Cholo (the excellent John Leguizamo) learns that money can’t buy you everything (especially access to the land of rich, white yuppies) he decides to hold the tower ransom in order to get what he thinks is coming to him.
Of course, the story comes to a blood-soaked boil when the newly organized zombies cross into the city and take over Fiddler’s Green, eating their way through the yuppie paradise in a sequence that must have been quite a cathartic experience for Romero to shoot. By the time our heroes have escaped the zombie invasion in their fortified killing machine (the wonderfully named Dead Reckoning), they are off to the greener pastures of the apparently zombie-free Canada, shooting their now-impotent fireworks into the night sky as they surrender America to the consumptive hordes of communal zombies. This ending, while hopeful in its promise of safety for the film’s protagonists, may be just as downbeat as the lynch mob ending of Romero’s original film. Unable to stop America from devouring itself with greed and consumption, humanity is forced to abandon the nation to a mob of unthinking, unfeeling zombies. Of course, if you’re like me you felt the exact same way after this last November’s election, so the ending seems less like a nihilistic fantasy and more like a State of the Union address delivered by someone with a sick sense of humor. Which is, after all, the exact response that Romero’s work has always generated. Sometimes it takes an artist holding a devilish mirror up to the nation to show us how things are. Looking at Land of The Dead, it’s not a pretty picture.