Such as in the 1960s and ’70s, only in the wake of tragedy has any sort of interest in zombie films surfaced. Thankfully, George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead continues that tradition — a tradition he more or less defined. And just so — before any newly regained interest starts to wane into the 1980s and ’90s land of self-parody, it is only necessary and proper for granddaddy to come around and remind us what it’s all about.
Romero makes no effort to slick his movie out like 28 Days Later (or, for that matter, Steven Spielberg’s cousin to the zombie genre, War of the Worlds). It’s a slick move in itself; a trailblazer should never have to trade on the influence of his successors. So, the story and characters are pure comic book: guys bearing names like Cholo and Pillsbury and women bearing names like Pretty Boy and The Girl scrape for survival in a post-post-apocalyptic land filled to the brim with walking dead. The single oasis of civilization is a city of rebirth bordered on all sides, either by river or by an electric fence, to keep out the undesirables. The city itself is a large slum with an aesthetic picked up at a Thunderdome garage sale, where in the center of town lays Fiddler’s Green, the world’s largest gated-community-cum-high-rise-cum-shopping-mall. There life as we almost used to know it has been almost restored for those who can almost afford it — all at a great profit to Kaufman (an underdone Dennis Hopper), the zillionaire and de-facto financial and political leader who engineered the city’s rebirth and now has the ultimate power over keeping the undesirables, undead or living, out of the Green.
In true movie trailer tradition: In a world ravaged by death… only one man can save humanity… one man… blonde, superhero-jawed Riley (Simon Baker). He’s the one who saves Asia Argento’s hooker from certain doom. He’s the one who still has any hope for peoplekind. He’s the one who’s mighty quick-witted and courageous. Naturally, he’s the chosen one. (He’s also kind of a wet noodle as far as action heroes go, but that’s not Romero’s point.)
Although the story is puréed pulp, Romero is never at a loss for subtext or social commentary. The high rise symbol of freedom comes under attack by an insurgent. The coalition of the living takes an “America, fuck yeah!” approach against the undead civilians. And between Kaufman’s elite and the mad masses placing bets on zombie gladiator matches, there is no clearly defined middle class. It’s dark and cynical, and it’s all there with a brutal simplicity that sits on Sam Fuller’s side of the fence.
Romero does, however, throw in some ingenious ideological wrinkles. One in particular becomes apparent early in the film when the sloppily organized army of the living ploughs through a town overtaken by zombies. We’re re-introduced to an idea begun in Day of the Dead, that of zombies learning — or re-learning — certain human traits. Namely, an undead gas station attendant dubbed “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark), who emerges by force of habit to pump gas when someone comes to his station. But as the careless army obnoxiously rolls through town, mowing down his friends and neighbors, Big Daddy reveals that he’s also re-learned something else — emotion — as he wails in despair at the pillaging of his world.
Movies are not unfamiliar to evil rich white men puffing on cigars and dismissing the masses from castles made of sand. But sympathetic zombies? At this point it isn’t clear whether Romero’s zombies are the black-and-white terrorists they were in Night of the Living Dead, the sorry reflections of us that they were in Dawn of the Dead, or the occupied and terrified citizens of one certain Middle Eastern country today.
It’s important to note that the film’s most affecting performance comes from Big Daddy, whose pantomime and Stanley Kowalski wail leads us in a new direction. Indeed, Big Daddy is not just the only one who is not a stock a movie character, he’s the only one who beckons others to break free of their mold — that being the other undead — and rise up. Doubly indeed, he is the one who gets the righteous joy of disposing of the movie’s real villain(s). Perhaps then, Land of the Dead’s zombies are once again a sly reflection of ourselves. Perhaps they are not only oppressed and occupied Iraqis but also oppressed and complacent Americans. That is, they are all people, no different from the movie’s living people, who have been kept from their just dues by a crazed and fearful leader who hides behind a phony notion of freedom.
Perhaps. The beauty of the zombie movie, particularly in its post-Sept. 11 form, is that it is perhaps a lot of things. Perhaps it is simply another vehicle to destroy the Us vs. Them notion that so many still harbor. Perhaps it is the answer to Romero’s seemingly undying saga, not how to eradicate the zombies and survive but how two peoples with wholly disparate belief systems — the living and the living dead — can comfortably co-exist.