Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Land of the Dead

Writer/director George Romero has wrestled over a dozen movies into existence over the past 40 years and none of his favorites feature flesh-eating ghouls, yet he’s known almost exclusively for his zombie movies. “I don't think any of them are wonderful films,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review of his first three. “Every one of them ... the wolf was at the door.”

Romero’s seminal zombie quartet started in 1968 with the rawly unnerving Night of the Living Dead. It continues now, 20 years after the last, with his most technically proficient and arguably most thought-provoking installment, Land of the Dead.

I’m sure it frustrates the director that so few people have seen his beloved Martin or Bruiser while so many have seen Dawn of the Dead, but he ought to be proud of his undead quartet. His zombie movies are uneven, but even the worst have great moments, and they all share a Hitchcockian wit and eye for human foibles, giving you something to think about when you’re not clutching the side of your seat in terror.

His zombie films, Romero told the Pittsburgh paper, are “me showing my political side.” Like a downmarket August Wilson, he uses each one to say something about the decade in which it was filmed. Night of the Living Dead was a Vietnam-era critique of our lack of respect for the dead – and the living. Its downbeat ending and bleak vision of a world perhaps irretrievably out of balance reflected a Sixties cynicism about authority figures and a then-new awareness of our dangerous disconnect from nature. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead lampooned consumer culture, its zombies heading to the mall where they had spent so much of their lives only to stumble around mindlessly, much as they always had. That one also looked at the dumbing down of media, showing the people covering the zombies as a bunch of preening, uninformed boobs. And 1985's Day of the Dead was a cautionary tale about how wrong things can go when technology outstrips ethical standards.

Land of the Dead casts a cold eye on the tendency of America’s increasingly pampered upper classes to insulate themselves from the rest of the world. Like all of Romero’s zombie movies, it takes place in a city modeled on Pittsburgh, where the Bronx-born filmmaker has spent his adult life, but the geography that matters most is a series of concentric circles. In the bull’s eye is a high-rise, multi-use building called Fiddler’s Green, a vertical gated community where the rich live in oblivious luxury. Outside the tower, protected by an electric fence that keeps out the zombies, the people who serve the rich live in slums, face to face every day with the zombies the privileged classes never encounter. And outside the fence are the zombies that have taken over the rest of the country.

The movie’s main hero is Riley (Simon Baker), whose quick wit, even temper, and air of quiet authority make him a natural leader. He and his developmentally disabled sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy) live in the slum and scrape out a living by making forays into abandoned, zombie-infested towns for supplies.

Riley and Charlie shoot zombies only in self-defense, but some of their coworkers, led by the coldly charismatic Cholo (a brilliant John Leguizamo, once again stealing every scene he’s in), get a thrill out of blowing them away or stringing them up for target practice. When Cholo and his boys roar through town on their bikes, blasting away as they go, Romero makes you feel the first stirrings of sympathy for the zombies. After all, they were just minding their business when the raiders invaded.

If the bikers remind you of the besieged, mistrustful U.S. soldiers patrolling Iraq, shooting at whatever moves before it can shoot at them, the reference is intentional. Romero told LA Weekly that the image of “a tank riding through a little village and mowing people down while we wonder why [the zombies] are pissed off at us” is one of the nods to our grim post-9/11 reality that he built into his long-completed script before shooting. The callousness with which captive zombies are treated in the shantytown, where they’re set loose in cages to fight or tied up so people can have their pictures taken with them as they lunge at their chains, is reminiscent of another set of images from Iraq. If that weren’t enough, Dennis Hopper, who plays Kaufman, the contemptuously cool Mr. Big of Fidder’s Green who manipulates the public’s fear to maintain dictatorial control of the city, says he based his portrayal on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

So is Romero equating zombies with Iraqi civilians? I don’t think so. More like arguing that we need to find humane ways to coexist with others – even those who want to harm us. To underscore that point, the movie’s second hero is a zombie, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who suffers on behalf of his more-or-less-people. Romero’s zombies have been undergoing a slow but steady evolution ever since they lumbered into motion in Night of the Living Dead, and this lot can learn by imitation. Soon enough, they follow the precocious Big Daddy as he pursues the marauding humans back to their city, learning to use tools and shoot guns along the way.

Romero has always made zombie movie for liberal-humanist types, and this one's no exception. Land of the Dead isn’t about learning that there are scary things out there trying to kill us and figuring out how to get them first. It’s about accepting them as a fact of life and figuring out how to live with them.

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