Land of the Dead

dir: George A. Romero
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The “master” is back, as if he ever really went away.

Romero is revered as a god of horror films, and many see the zombie genre especially to be his baby. If anyone has the right to screw with the conventions of a genre, you’d think it’d be the guy who built it all up in his own image.

Before Romero’s movies, zombies didn’t crave flesh and brains: they craved strangling people like the Mummy in ancient horror flicks. Post Romero they became the primal, ugly aspect of humanity let loose upon an effete, consumerism-obsessed society.

In 2005, zombies are the excuse for Romero making a film Marx and adherents of the dialectical materialist view of human history would be proud of. Damn proud. It’s enough to make you pull out your old Soviet flag, your copy of Das Kapital, and sing the Internationale, you goddamn pinko commie bastards!

Where the original Dawn was satire (of mindless consumerism, apparently), and last year’s remake was more straightforward action / horror, Land of the Dead is more of a straight allegory. There’s no great subtlety to this, or obscure subtext symbolism: it’s obvious and overt. It doesn’t detract from it, but it certainly is a departure from the other zombie flicks Romero has inflicted upon willing audiences.

I have to say off the bat that I don’t hold any particular reverence for Romero. Sure I like the Dead films, but they’re not absolute classics to me, and I don’t regard Romero as a particularly good director. In fact, I think of him as a pretty ordinary director. From what I’ve heard, he doesn’t think much of me either.

This one has a very different sensibility to the other flicks. There are snapshots of extreme gore, as is to be expected if not demanded, but it seems like more of an afterthought. It’s out of obligation, rather than being the driving force, though there were at least two quick shots of incredibly nasty feasting which turned my stomach.

That’s not to imply there’s any tension, any decent scares or anything ultimately horrific about this here horror flick.

No, Romero is more interested in the allegorical rather than the flesh-rending aspects of the story. In case people haven’t worked this out yet, the “Land” in the title refers to the capitalistic United States in all its glory. The zombies are literally the great unwashed proletariat. The real “baddie” of the flick is Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, whose acting is suitably restrained), a fat-cat owner of the means of production who rules Fiddlers Green, a rarefied skyscraper complex in Pittsburgh, for the benefit of himself, the petty bourgeoisie and no-one else.

He is wealthy and ruthless, though one wonders what possible worth money could still have if the entire infrastructure and economy of the country has collapsed, but thinking about that too much could make your head hurt.

This isn’t a sequel in the strict sense of the word, since it doesn’t follow directly on from any of the other films, or the most recent remake, but clearly it exists in the same graveyard of ideas. As such it is a continuation and an evolution of an idea.

Traditionalists who were ropable over the zombies running fast in recent zom flicks will be heartened and all wet in the gusset over the return to the shambling model. Though they probably won’t care too much for the flick regardless.

The zombies in this are starting to show signs of intelligence, of being able to work together. Well, to continue on with the Marxist stuff Romero is openly admitting to, this represents the expanding class consciousness of the proletariat. I’m not making this up: the movie actually starts in a place called Uniontown.

It is in Uniontown that a zombie who seems smarter than the rest, and who cares about his fellow zombies, brings them together and communicates with them using grunts and howls. Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) clearly represents Big Daddy Karl Marx, who inspires and unionises the other zombie proles into an assault on the palace of the wealthy. Excluded from the riches of society, they want what’s coming to them. So, from evolution arises revolution. Zombies Unite!

Two guys who work for Kaufman, Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo), have very different systems of ethics and class consciousness. Riley wants nothing more than a car and a road out of Pittsburgh; he wants out of the capitalistic system. Cholo, who also kills Kaufman’s living enemies for extra cash, wants a way into Fiddlers Green in order to live the high life.

Kaufman makes it clear to Cholo that he can’t jump classes and join the elite just because he is useful to the Great Leader. Cholo is not white, not wealthy and is not Fiddlers Green material.

Cholo starts to sulk and cry, and threatens Kaufman with destruction by some arbitrary deadline if he isn’t given 5 million dollars. What he could do with it, since the film makes it clear the world is pretty much overrun by the undead, is unclear to me.

Riley, Our Noble Hero, is asked to stop Cholo and save the poor, helpless superfluous people who grasp and beg at the foot of Fiddlers Green, living off their scraps. All the while the zombies get ever closer.

At the start of the film, the private army working for Kaufman raids outlying towns for resources. To save on ammo, they distract on-coming “walkers”, as they call them, with fireworks. Romero belabours the point, making it so obvious that if you didn’t realise he’s saying the American populace can be easily distracted with 4th of July type - hollow patriotism, you’d have to be dumber than most of the zombies on display.

Kaufman himself tells an underling how he keeps the populace around Fiddlers Green pacified and docile with distractions like games, television, booze and drugs to ensure they are never a threat to the elite. Who knew capitalistic tyrants could be so cruel?

Usually zombie films can be pretty unpredictable, since you can’t always pick who is going to die next. Land surprised me only that it left so many people alive.

One of those people is the incredibly skanky looking Asia Argento, daughter of legendary horror director Dario Argento. I marvel at how nasty this woman looks. Who cares about the acting. Marvel at the elaborately frightening pubic tattoos and the piercings on the back of her neck. She’s scarier than any flesh-eating walking dead, at least for my money. Still, oddly compelling.

The acting’s passable, the action’s reasonable, Big Daddy and his crew were more interesting than the humans (especially the girl with the baseball bat, really liked her), and I was happy when they brought down the bourgeoisie. I have to wonder what possible society they will now form: the dictatorship of the proletariat? An Australian Idol – based political process, where political representatives are voted for and then eaten if they don’t get enough votes?

Who knows. It’ll be interesting to see if Romero, who is now in his mid 60s, gets to make more of these. I’d be curious to see where he takes it next.

6 times out of 10 that a zombie should rip out your insides and feast on them every time you say “Wait a second, that plot had more holes in it than your grandmother’s underpants” when you’re talking about zombie movies. They’re zombie movies fer christ’s sake.

“In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word "trouble" loses much of its meaning.” – Kaufman, Land of the Dead