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Non-Review Review: Land of the Dead

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

Zombies, man. They creep me out.

– Kaufman

Land of the Dead is something of a delayed epilogue to Romero’s “dead” trilogy. The first three films were produced roughly once every decade, with The Night of the Living Dead appearing in the sixties, Dawn of the Dead in the seventies and Day of the Dead in the eighties. There was no zombie movie from Romero during the nineties (save a remake of his original film – and even then Romero didn’t direct it – his frequent collaborator Tom Savini was behind the camera. Land of the Dead is a somewhat more controversial film than the first three films Romero produced, perhaps because it’s the first time that it feels like Romero gives his zombies more development than the human survivors. It also plays with the audience’s expectations a bit more than the first three films – and, whiel I’m not convinced that this sort of toying around with the formula works, you have to give the director credit. It isn’t as strong as the earlier films, but it still feels like a director who has something to say about the state of modern society. And that is about good enough for me.

Hopper-ed up...

Land of the Dead is distinct from its predecessors in that it is consciously set “after the end”. The Night of the Living Dead saw the origins of this plague and its two sequels showed humans living under the illusion that all could eventually be salvaged somehow and things could return to normal. The opening credits inform us that this was “some time ago” (so long ago that Romero uses an ancient Universal logo to open the movie and plays news footage like it came from the World Wars). If humanity were to go through the seven stages of grief for the civilisation lost, the society we see here has come to “acceptance”.

The problem is that this immediately makes it hard for the viewer to engage with or relate to. There’s something harrowing about witnessing the fall of our social constructs – be they shopping malls or the military industrial complex. We feel an inherent connection to these things and so it’s horrifying to see them lost. In this film, Romero abandons that horror for a chance to play with post-apocalyptic science-fiction standards – which is an entirely different ballgame.

Although there is an argument that the original three films are better characterised as “science fiction” than as “horror” – from the use of “cosmic radiation” as a cause of the plague or the way that he hints the creatures are evolving to replace mankind – here Romero definitely attempts to seriously redefine his zombie film making more towards the former. It’s a brave and a bold move (a less engaging or adventurous director would have simply given us “more of the same”), and it stands to Romero’s credit.

The most obvious – and divisive – example of this redefining is the way that Romero broaches the subject of zombie evolution. To some people, zombies are zombies. They lurch, moan and consume. That is all they are – they are a faceless threat against the humans holed up somewhere. Some people are very particular about their zombies and what they consider zombies – it’s blasphemy to suggest they can run, or that they are technically alive rather than literally dead. Here, however, Romero develops the themes he hinted at in Day of the Dead – that zombies are eventually capable of higher reasoning and use of complex tools.

A head of the pack?

We’re introduced to a pair of zombies at a bandstand, playing around with a trombone and a tambourine. they aren’t making music yet, but eventually they might learn to bang those instruments a particular manner or pattern with rhythm. “They’re trying to be us,” a human survivor remarks on watching a zombie trying to remember how to run his own petrol station. “They’re learning to be us again,” a colleague observed. They’re “pretending to be alive” – but isn’t that what the survivors are doing? Is this the point at which we pass these creatures on the evolutionary ladder? Us on the way down and them on the way up? 

The movie’s zombie protagonist, “Big Daddy” (it even says his name on his overalls), is becoming more aware. There’s an ominous sign when Big Daddy picks up a machine gun. He’s capable of communication (“it’s like he’s talking to them,” a human remarks of the noises coming from the beast’s decayed vocal chords) and he seems to feel responsible for his little community. When the humans come to town, blasting away, he pushes fellow zombies down and even mercy kills a few wounded colleagues. At one stage, he’s even startled by a zombie popping out of nowhere. When his village is attacked by humans looking for survive, he sets off to lead his fellow undead citizens on a revenge mission.

And it’s as corny as it sounds.

The idea is a fascinating one – the next stage of zombie evolution and the idea that mankind might not always be the dominant species on the planet – but the execution is awkward and cringeworthy. I know that Romero was influenced by I Am Legend in writing the original The Night of the Living Dead. Matheson’s science-fiction opus has yet to be adapted particularly faithfully to the big screen, but it’s key theme (and one hinted at in the Will Smith adaptation) is that the monsters are developing their own sense of community and society – the human is the monster to these creatures. However, Romero’s way of showing it is awkward and distracting.

Along the way, Romero portrays the worst excesses of the human survivors. There are the same sorts of flaws he hinted at in his earlier films. Much like the original film, there’s classism at play here – Chulo is refused admittance to the upper classes in the city, because he’s “the wrong kind” of person. There’s also time for mockery of the materialist drives of modern society, perhaps in homage to the second film in the series. An entire raiding party is put at risk in order to claim booze that can be sold at a huge mark-up (“shop ’til you drop, baby!”). One character even remarks, “I don’t care about love, all I care about is money!”

Romero also takes the time to look at some more modern stuff – the defining issue of the first decade of this century perhaps being the conflict in Iraq and the war on terror. Kaufman, the king of the upper-class Fiddler’s Green, declares in response to an ultimatum, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists!” The “sky flowers” (fireworks) used to distract the zombies during the attacks recalls the “shock and awe” tactics of the Allies in Iraq. Though it isn’t quite as blatant (or as effectively) as the zombies-as-insurgents metaphor at the heart of 28 Weeks Later, it still works a little bit.

Mind if I chew your ear?

This is the first of Romero’s zombie films produced inside the studio system, with the people at Universal – it seems a logical choice, given the studio’s history with classical monsters. It feels right that he finally has the freedom to work with a budget several times larger than he has before – even if it means some dodgy CGI effects along the way (which have actually dated quite poorly). Perhaps the most notable indication of just how establishment Romero finds himself is the fact that the cast is easily recognisable to any pop culture fan – with Simon Baker from The Mentalist and Robert Joy from a whole host of similar exploitation flicks (and CSI: New York), as well as uniting John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper from Super Mario Brothers. Not that anyone would want to remember that. The cast add a fair amount of legitimacy to the film and – while it feels “strange” to see everything so polished – you can’t say Romero hasn’t earned it.

Land of the Dead is not the instant classic that the original three films were, but it’s not bad. It’s nice to see Romero isn’t simply recycling bits and pieces of the mythos he built, but actually continuing to push the boundaries. Even if the results are more than a little mixed (and slightly disappointing), it’s far more interesting than watching the genre retread old ground.

2 Responses

  1. Nice Review.

    This film’s been overlooked for so long it’s nice to see it start to build the reputation it deserves.

    I for one would like more movies to treat the zombie uprising as something that’s already happened. While there is some horror in watching society crumble, I think it’s been pretty well mined.

    And as Kirkman has demonstrated there’s plenty of interesting stuff afterwards.

    • Yep, I am going to commit blasphemy and concede that I liked Diary better, even if it was a much less ambitious little film (and far less creative). There’s a lot about Land that I like (and a great deal I love), but the “Big Daddy” bits feel awkward. Not in a “it’s not a zombie movie anymore!” fanboyish sort of way – I dug Bud in Day of the Dead, for example, and I consider “the infected” from 28 Days Later to be zombies by any other name, so I cast my zombie love wide open – but just because it feels awkward.

      As if, were I a kid and were I acting it out with toys, and I hit upon a great idea, that’s how my inner ten year old would have done it – without a hint of subtlety or tact. Romero has done things so much more skilfully in the past that it just felt diappointing.

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