We’ve had to wait something like twenty years for George Romero’s Land of the Dead; but now it’s finally here, and I couldn’t be happier. The film is a worthy successor to Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) (which three films I wrote about, long ago, in my book The Cinematic Body).
Though the “living dead” films take place in chronological order — each seems to take place a few months or years after the previous one — they explore different realms of social experience. Night is about the implosion of the American (white, middle class) nuclear family; its crude, low-budget visceral shocks (which revolutionized horror filmmaking in general) are grounded in the collapse of patriarchal authority into a kind of grovelling hysteria. The sexual and social “revolutions” of the 1960s were not so much rebellions against a tyrannical paternal despot, or against the rigid repressions of suburban family life, as they were carnivalesque revelations that the emperor had no clothes, that the patriarchal tyrants were toothless, and the suburban hypocrisies nothing more than a thin veneer of stage decor. So the nuclear family holed up in the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead collapses under the weight of its own stupidity, until the child-turned-zombie avidly consumes her parents; the impotence of the father is echoed by the clownishness and impotence of the larger-scale authority figures viewed on television during the zombie siege. Meanwhile, the ravaging zombies outside present a darkly humorous vision of hippie communalism (the preferred refuge of the children of the white middle class). And the movie’s ostensible theme of survivalism is totally undermined by the cynical conclusion, when the film’s only sympathetic character — a black man who has managed to make it through the night unharmed by the zombies — is shot dead by a redneck sheriff’s posse.
Of course the “rebellions” of the 1960s went nowhere — though they are still the object of vilification by the far right and the fundamentalists to this day. But hippies and campus radicals from middle-class backgrounds grew up to be yuppies, and their influence on the larger culture was mostly a matter of an easily saleable “lifestyle.” Once the social upheavals of the 60s had passed, consumerism turned out to be the real winner. So it’s entirely appropriate that Dawn of the Dead takes place largely in a shopping mall: which the zombies are attracted to because it was the place of their happiest moments when they were alive, while the four living characters who hole up inside it alleviate their sense of being besieged by living a fantasy of commodity abundance and frictionless shopping and consuming. The invasion of a paramilitary bikers’ gang looking for loot puts an end to this bourgeois idyll, but not before the exorbitant lust for commodities has been established as the ruling passion of living and dead alike.
Many fans of the earlier films found Day of the Dead disappointing, but to my mind it’s as brilliant and as vital (if that’s the right word for a film about the dead) as the rest of the series. Day is the most philosophical of the “living dead” films, which is part of what I love about it, but which may be part of what turned many viewers off. As befits a film from the Reagan 1980s, the focus shifts from consumerism to the military/scientific complex; it takes place, not in a brightly lit mall, but in a hellishly claustrophobic underground bunker. Pathologically macho soldiers try to keep the zombies at bay, while scientists futilely try to discover the cause of the zombie plague, or else try to “tame” the zombies. The film is relentless in its deconstruction of military authoritarianism and scientific claims to supreme authority (indeed, Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later is entirely indebted to Day in its latter half, when — just as in Romero’s film — the military saviors of civilization come off as worse than the monsters they are trying to fight). Day of the Dead ends up combining a kind of Stoic fatalism (as the few sympathetic living characters do escape the zombies, but in a way that is pointedly fragile and contingent) with a greater sympathy for the zombies than ever before, as they embody a kind of inchoate, but plaintive and oddly innocuous desire, in contrast to the twisted viciousness of the characters who stand for social order.
Land of the Dead is both simpler and more expressionistic than Day: it takes place almost entirely at night, and both the cinematography and the gory special effects have an elegance that goes beyond anything Romero has done before. In Land, as befits our globalized, post-9/11 world (though Romero’s screenplay was apparently mostly finished before 9/11), social class, and indeed class warfare, comes to the foreground, after having been an implicit subtext in the earlier films. Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh is a bastion of humanity against the zombie hordes — just as America today paranoiacally imagines itself as a fortress of “freedom” barred against the Muslims and Mexicans who are always trying to batter their way in. Internally, post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh is almost a parody of rapacious capitalism (though it must be said that “actually existing capitalism” in America is rapidly approaching this terminal parodic state): the ruling class live lives of elegance in the exclusive gated high-rise of “Fiddler’s Green”, while the masses outside scrape by day to day, more or less at a subsistence level, with sex, drugs, violence, and gambling as their only amusments. Add to this a psychotic Bushite dictator (played, inevitably, by Dennis Hopper) whose two main passions are an all-out drive to make the rich richer, and a refusal ever to negotiate with “terrorists”; and the muscle he uses, a cadre of mercenaries who have no ties or loyalties, except (to a limited extent) to one another. Meanwhile, the zombies are treated more sympathetically in Land than they even were in Day: they start to evolve, and develop a sort of memory and intelligence, an ability to plan and to coordinate their actions. They become, in fact, a spontaneously self-organized swarm (they have a sort of leader, but his role is exemplary and inspirational, rather than having any sort of authority). And when they break into the city, it’s as if the proletariat — or more accurately, Negri’s “multitude” — had finally arisen to demand restitution and justice. This zombie invasion is intercut with infighting among the city’s cadres: John Leguizamo starts a self-serving rebellion, because he’s pissed of at not being amply enough rewarded for doing Dennis Hopper’s dirty work. (Hopper will never allow Leguizamo into Fiddler’s Green, because he’s “street,” and even worse, Latino). Simon Baker, the film’s nominal hero, is sent by Hopper to squelch Leguizamo (it’s sort of an offer Baker can’t refuse, though he plans to hijack the process for his own selfish ends anyway). (The fabulous Asia Argento also plays a small but key role). Not to give too much away, or get involved in the minutiae of the plot, but the various strands merge in brilliantly satisfying ways. What makes Land noteworthy, aside from the tightness of its construction and (as I’ve already said) the delights of its (dare I call them understated?) gross-out special effects, is the way that class comes to play a central role — and other oppositions, particularly that between the living and the dead, tend to dissolve or fall away. Is there any American filmmaker working today who is as politically cogent as Romero, and at the same time as affectively powerful, and as committed to pulp/”low” culture values?