Sunday, October 02, 2005

Land of the Dead

Directed by George Romero, 2005

(This review and related discussion were written a few months ago on my LiveJournal, and have been adapted for the Zomploitation archive.)

The movie was mediocre as movies go, but I'm full of love for the undead. Romero keeps changing the basic tenants of zombiedom, which means the genre is actually evolving. This is as important as when vampires shifted from grotesque carrion feeders to attractive seducers. This means our horror archetypes are shifting, which is fascinating to me. But more importantly—and along the lines of why you should care—is that this kind of cultural change affects more than cinema.

This is hardly the first film to use zombies as political metaphor (the Nazi zombies of Zombie Lake are a pretty obvious political statement, and racial conflict is always as issue in films like Serpent and the Rainbow and Zombi 2) but it's the most overt class war film I've seen yet. Other reviewers have already pointed this out, but I’ll restate it because I love it: even when humans settle into a typical upper/lower class structure, zombies will always permit the lowest classes to feel superior. Zombies create a natural middle class, which is not a standard component of post-apocalyptic societies.

Zombie explanation: I believe that one of Romero's most clever ideas was to remove the importance of origin. His last three Dead films have begun in a world already overrun. This permits room for characterization, broader storytelling, and a social scope generally unknown in zombie movies.

Contribution to the zombie canon:Naturally, I'm delighted in the continuing evolution of zombies first hinted at in Day of the Dead. It goes against one of the basic reasons zombies are scary. Instead of a mindless automaton obedient only to primal human instincts of rage and hunger, these zombies are forming packs and solving simple problems. (And yes, attacking the human city is only a series of smaller problems to be solved; only one zombie needed to be cognizant of the larger goal.) Any species evolves based on its ability to eat and reproduce. Zombies do both in one messy act (though their control of zombie reproduction is shoddy at best). When feeding is at stake, they evolve. I admit that this isn’t my favorite zombie theory but it’s fun to play with. Besides, Romero is the acknowledged master of the genre and therefore can do whatever he wants to do with zombies.

Favorite moment: Just when you think you've seen every physical zombie mutation, Romero and Savini invent something utterly new and terrifying like the head-flip zombie.

Additional commentary:
Jordan: Also, maybe the reason that Riley let the zombies go free at the end is that their society is so more obviously egalaterian than that of the humans. Big Daddy was a zombie PATRIOT - he was working for the good of his flock as much as for vengeance or delicious human flesh. Kaufman, on the other hand, was engaging in economic cannibalism.

Madolan: Once again you prove yourself a clever and incisive zombie theorist. You’ve hit upon an explanation that solves that “happy ending” problem. Recognizing and respecting Big Daddy’s protective instincts was very much in Riley’s character, even if abetting his vengeance wasn’t. But in the end it’s the Cholos and Kaufmans and Big Daddys that matter in this kind of movie; the Rileys and Slacks are largely unnecessary. That kind of bothers me, actually. In Day of the Dead, the lead characters were significant. Theirs were the experiences you empathized with, and their personalities informed their zombie interactions. These guys were action hero stock characters.

Jordan: If I wanted to be very generous to this movie, I would say that perhaps this is intentional. Both Day and Dawn had great lead characters whose strengths were optimism and empathy. In LotD on the other hand, all of the human characters were basically unlikeable or ciphers. Maybe this is the point, since it's basically about "the world moving on" and zombie culture winning out?

Madolan: You're a genius. That's a great excuse in context of greater zombie meaning, though I still think Riley and Charlie were pretty generic. It's almost always more interesting to explore the depraved and wicked characters. Even Cholo's opportunism was more compelling than Riley's optimism, and frankly makes more sense.

You know, I'm gonna go ahead and disagree with you about zombies winning. I'll point to Mulligan and the underground resistance as evidence that the political message was really anti-capitalism and instead hints at socialism as the key to a new civilization.

...Of course, the only true socialist society would have to be a society of zombies. And the LotD zombies were clearly moving toward a respectful meritocracy instead.

Jordan: Brilliant. Perhaps the zombies and the resistance will be able to coexist peacefully? Or maybe the resistance will undergo zombie transformation voluntarily in order to foster a socialist peace?

Madolan: I know that’s what the movie implied, but I can’t justify—- even in the context of zombie movies—- a peaceful coexistence between two groups with an inherent and inescapable predator-prey relationship. Of course, I also accept zombie evolution on a personal level (i.e. Bub in Day) but not so much on a widespread level (i.e. Land). Sure, Bub and Big Daddy can remember how to shoot a gun. But however many neurons they convince to fire, they’re only going to disintegrate later. I suppose I admit to preferring zombies that eventually wear down and starve to death as in 28 Days Later, or rot away beyond the capacity to threaten humans, like in Walking Dead. I’d prefer to think that the unexpected organization of the zombie horde was simply a one-time reaction to the massacre. Vengeance achieved, they’ll go back to shuffling through town (and, most importantly, the zombie brass band will be reformed).

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