George A. Romero’s long awaited 2005 return to his stumbling flesheaters, Land of the Dead, was a conundrum. Expectations were unbelievably high, especially on forum-busting threads at all the usual horror haunts, with every new story detail, promotional still, and interview being a slice of zombie euphoria. I honestly can’t remember my first two theatrical viewings. Losing all critical thought upon seeing Romero’s name in the opening credits followed by a slew of various zombies, guts, gunfire, and Asia Argento. The experience was like finally tearing open a gift in a huge box and discovering that what’s inside actually took that large of a box. Though after awhile, I found myself asking the same basic question many were, is the very thing we waited twenty years for actually an intelligent piece of horror filmmaking or merely a pulpit for a beloved director now past his prime to peddle a topical brand of political rhetoric?
Land of the Dead proved challenging for nearly anyone to immediately hail as just as great as the original Dead trilogy without reservations. Romero’s screenplay is tremendously talky, with little care towards the inattentive, and insured the film’s quick slide out of the multiplexes. Details both large and small are often referred to in snappy, terse dialogue and protracted out over the film’s duration to only revolve back around much later…if at all. This isn’t a sign of bottle-necking from Romero’s two decade old sketchbook’s pages yellowing, but a film with a lot on its mind. Much like Dr. Logan’s last frantic plea of “you must listen!”, nearly everything in Land is important. Except for the jabs at the Bush administration. That’s not to say I agree or disagree with the insertion of Bushisms or keywords of the period, but such pointed messages in cinema tend to be temporal. I’m sure even before Land gets to be as old as Day of the Dead (1985) most of the lines in question will be a distant memory or a footnote in history. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” feels tired and less barbed even five years later. This is why it’s important to divorce Romero’s fourth series outing from this aspect, which many of the film’s critics fail to do, and look at it through the cannon of the “proper” …of the Dead series in total.
It’s vital to realize how incredibly bold Romero’s handling of Land‘s narrative truly is. Instead of resting on his laurels and revisiting the basic formula of his prior trilogy, Romero reverses the equation of what his protagonists and antagonists want, thus constructing the ultimate refinement of the allegory he’s been honing for decades. Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead all have their “living” group attempting to stay in a fortified stronghold for whatever reason. For Land, Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) find the means to their ends and eventual respective freedoms in the land of the dead. The despondent Miguel found something similar in his suicidal decision at the climax of Day, but never before in the series has it been so advantageous or desirable for the living to co-exist with the dead.
Emboldened by a sense of dominion, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is essentially the mirror image of the strong African American leads that run through the series–only dead and way more pissed off. Romero and Clark imbue the minority leader of the dead with an “everyman” (“everyzombie”?) vagueness that could be shone upon any zombie. The hulking pump attendant is only one of many that have become bitter with becoming the new marginal segment of society. Big Daddy, along with Cholo, could be seen as peoples of “lesser” status in the status quo striking back against “the man”, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). This aspect slathers Romero’s patented musings on the human condition on top of everything rather than concealed under the surface. The class division theme in the Dead series has gotten so severe that even the dead are willing to forgo basic needs, like feeding, to destroy the system for both themselves and the living.
Kaufman himself is also uniquely different from the human foes in the prior two installments. From the conniving character’s sense of entitlement and what he believes is the best safe haven; he stands along side Harry Cooper’s preoccupation with the basement in Night. Cooper insists on hunkering down underground until help arrives; while Kaufman barricades himself on high with a presumed awareness no help is coming, ever. They differ from Dawn‘s carnage-hungry marauding bikers and Day‘s not-so-fine examples of soldiers because both seek self preservation drenched in indifference to their fellow man especially when situations turn desperate. Ultimately, both Kaufman and Cholo fail in their aims by trying to cling to the now hollow trappings of a long bygone society, much like Cooper’s petty quarrel turned deadly with Ben in Night, while Riley and Big Daddy succeed with their acceptance of the new world order. Romero even slyly illustrates the futility of holding onto the past society in microcosm with the scene in which Cholo is attacked in the liquor store right after saying “I don’t care about love. All I care about is money. That’s all I want.” Humanity’s situation completely changed upon the very first pallid hand wrenching its way out of the dirt.
A new world order that involves the undead wielding tools, employing simple use of guns, and pouring a sinewy 40 for their slain brethren. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine, in fact, it’s awesome and this writer is still sick of the flame wars that ensued over Big Daddy’s “heart wrenching” roars and squeezes of a machine gun trigger. Zombie implement of destruction use is nothing new to the subgenre. Little zombified Karen dispatched with trowel before having Mommy du Jour in Night. Along with radio reports, a zombie shattered a window with tire wrench and picked up handfuls of pennies like it just won the lottery in Dawn. Day had oh-so-sad zombies whimpering after being chained up and our main man Bub breaking all the established rules.
Outside of the Romero prism, the inept honeycomb-heads in Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (Le notti del terrore) carried garden tools, the Tarman worked for his din-din of girl by cranking on a winch in Dan ‘O Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead, and Rupert Everett in his only good role had to face off against branch swingin’ and motorcycle resurrectin’ zombos in Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore). So if Big Daddy wants to pump gas down Kaufman’s unscrupulous throat and sling around an unplugged jackhammer than I say have at it, dammit! By 2005, zombies have certainly earned the right to brain you with an axe and there is no guidebook for proper undead etiquette. If there was, guess who’d be the author?
Though the biggest stumbling block in Land of the Dead has to be Romero’s explosion of his “must be bitten to turn” rule. Many took and still take issue with this sudden change, and rightfully so, as the concept seems so “right” that it’s been utilized in countless zombie flicks. It took me a long time to accept this alternation and what changed my mind was simply thinking of how much more frightening the concept is when implanted into Land‘s dire circumstances. Mankind is essentially hanging on “after” the apocalypse. Everything considered normalcy has been voided, and with this change, even the promise of a final peace in a natural death is destroyed. This also drastically raises the stakes in the survival sweepstakes between man and dead man, as the new rotting species that overtook the planet are no longer mere walking dead, but a vehicle for death itself. An absolutely terrifying notion and like the initial origins of the uprising, Romero provides no answers as to why. Perhaps it’s biblical? Viral? Or someone or something wanted to up the ante ever more against mankind’s survival. Perhaps we belong in the land of the dead?
Of course, there’s so much more to talk about in Land of the Dead, but it’s important to exorcise the spectre of malcontent surrounding the film since its release. There’s no doubt many love Romero’s return, yet many of those that lob vitriolic condemnation upon it do so for weak reasons. Materialism, class tension, the dramatic dangers of societal complacency–it’s all there–even in the bleakest days. And just like the others in the series, you can also kick back with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy as cozy junk food without having to dwell on all these heady particulars.
George A. Romero delivers this fourth, and hopefully not last, entry in an astoundingly headstrong yet agreeable package. It’s not a film mimicking what’s popular, but a director striving to subvert the expected, provoke reaction, and challenge himself to challenge viewers to debase their anticipations with big unruly themes. Both casual moviegoers and dyed-in-the-gore fans alike. The battle cries are bigger than the horror genre and equate to an end result that’s amazing for a then sixty five-year-old filmmaker. Five years on, Land of the Dead isn’t perfect, and may never be seen in the same glimmering light as Night and Dawn, but its perceived flaws appear to be softening with age much in the same fashion as the initially maligned Day of the Dead. George A. Romero might be the king of latent impact in the horror genre. That’s what being intuitive enough be ahead of the crimson current will get you.