THE TURNING POINT: GEORGE ROMERO’S LAND OF THE DEAD

This entry was posted on July 26th, 2013

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by Adrian Martin 

In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word trouble loses much of its meaning.
– Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead (2005) is, at every moment, a jaw-droppingly audacious film. In fact, it is Karl Marx’s Capital on the multiplex screen. George Romero’s anti-Bush (indeed, anti-American) rhetoric is fearless and unrelenting: the embodiment of evil capitalism, Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), announces, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists”; and his opponent, the heavily ethnic Cholo (John Leguizamo), later responds with: “I’m gonna do a Jihad on his ass.” Only a supposedly trivial zombie horror movie – dismissed, overlooked or treated summarily by many mainstream, middlebrow critics – could manage to fly under the ideological radar so completely to work its savage, subversive mischief.

There is something pleasingly vague, confused, mixed about this film’s very nationality. It is not quite American – indeed, it seems built like a Trojan Horse to undermine the American studio system that distributed it around the world. Shot in Canada, it has French co-producers, and actors that come from Italy (Asia Argento) and Australia (Simon Baker). The ethnicities of a multi-culture are constantly stressed: Leguizamo as a ‘Spic’, the Samoan muscle-man, the Latin-American Motown, the “poor Mexican bastard” with a shopping trolley, the African-American leader of the zombies named Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) …

This beyond-America dimension comes as no surprise; Romero was able, after many difficult years of projects cancelled or interfered with, to put this film together precisely because of his international, underground fan base that has spread like a virus around the world over the past four decades. Of all contemporary American directors working within genre cinema, Romero is the most outward looking, the one most open to the wide world. Indeed, the mass of zombies in Land of the Dead above all embody, not the Freudian unconscious, or one nation’s oppressed underclass, or the kind of hermeneutic puzzle that Larry Cohen loves to pose in Q – The Winged Serpent (1982) or his It’s Alive series (1974, 1978 & 1987), but the entire outside world that America ignores at its peril.

The Marxist overtones in Land of the Dead find a very specific contemporary equivalent in the writing of the Australian social theorist, Boris Frankel. In his book Zombies, Lilliputians and Sadists: The Power of the Living Dead and the Future of Australia (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004), Frankel distinguishes three new classes that go far beyond the old social divisions of race, gender or wealth; his analysis has a general applicability to all contemporary Western countries. Zombies are those who have been ground down by the system, by the mindlessness of work, made passive by consumerism – they are still alive and potentially capable of action, but out of touch with the times, nostalgic, hitching their prevailing life-force to perverse religious fundamentalisms or resurgent racisms. Lilliputians are those who think big and spout radical rhetoric (think of the Irish radical in Land of the Dead who vows to “turn this place into what we always wanted it to be”), but never succeed in changing anything – perhaps they even make the status quo worse. Sadists – the true living dead, in which group Frankel includes ex-President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard – are those who find a way to wield power over others, whether through the old, established paths of privilege or acts of sheer brute strength. Frankel’s sociological diagram is virtually identical with the scenario of Land of the Dead – except that, instead of moving backwards into the past, Romero’s zombies turn to revolution.

Even politically intelligent horror movies today often fall into the trap of merely inscribing their meanings in the margins of the film-text – in throwaway, ironic lines of dialogue, or in elements of the décor that provide a subtle counterpoint to the central action (like the ‘No More War’ posters visible at one point in Land of the Dead). The danger here is that such grace notes, essentially external to the film, run the risk of being understood and enjoyed only by those who are already aficionados of the genre, already converted to the cause of critical commentary – while they are missed by most other viewers, who continue to consume the film according to the conventional, conservative formula.

Romero, however, achieves something quite different and far greater. The meaning and force of his film inheres in its deepest narrative structure, in the complex, headlong movement of each scene, plot-point, event and gesture to the next. It is this secret of the most classical American cinema – the cinema of Raoul Walsh, John Ford and especially Howard Hawks (for this is a very Hawksian film) – that Romero has rediscovered, revitalised and placed at the centre of his art in Land of the Dead.

Since the late 1960s, Romero has served up a variety of zombies, disquieting and hilarious in equal measure, and always changing in their significance along with the temper of the times: zombies as anti-Vietnam War protestors; as mindless consumers; or as a vast, American underclass. Like George Miller in the Mad Max films, Romero is unafraid to wipe the slate clean with each new instalment, recasting the premise of the fiction as necessary. In Land of the Dead, he takes a particularly bold step of rewriting: his stroke of genius is to make the zombies, at last, an evolving species. Every key moment of the plot relates to some way in which these monsters become more conscious, more communicative, more adaptive – no longer simply the functional, static, closed beings defined as either stenchers (for how they smell) or walkers (for the sole action of which they are capable).

In terms of cinematic figuration, this, of course, progressively reduces the gap (the difference) between the zombies and every other character in the movie: Charlie (Robert Joy), with his facial disfigurement and mental disability, is easily mistaken for a zombie when we first encounter him; and Cholo ultimately comes to swap his upwards social mobility – his hopeless, deluded dream to live like a rich, protected citizen – for a more radical desire to join the zombie class and “see how the other half lives”. The blurring of zombie and human species leads to a key scene that would be literally impossible, unthinkable in Romero’s previous zombie films: even though Cholo has already transformed fully into a zombie when he confronts Kaufman in the underground car park, he still has the guided intelligence to take his political revenge against the principal embodiment of capitalist evil – and Big Daddy has become smart enough not only to repeat his old gestures of pumping oil into the car, but also, more decisively, rolling in a lighted canister to ignite the murderous flame – a superb moment of narrative economy and resolution.

The philosophical-political question these zombies raise is exactly the same one facing all the human characters: what are we to become? Or as Riley (Simon Baker) puts it in the closing moments: “They’re just looking for a place to go – same as us.” Romero does not end up by asserting the need for a simple re-unification of zombie and human within the one body, but the demonstration, once again, of a new social multiplicity: each group of characters is left, at the film’s conclusion, still on their own road, trying to found their own collectivity and social formation …

The narrative shape of Land of the Dead demands particularly close attention. The film alternates, in a masterful fashion, three threads or trajectories: that of the zombies led by Big Daddy towards the Fiddler’s Green tower; that of Riley and his team; and that of Cholo. Each of these trajectories takes us through and into many different social milieux, in different ways and in different directions. While Riley changes from being a man of the Law to a hired hand, and finally into a visionary individualist searching for a virgin land at the head of a truly Hawksian team (a prostitute, a disabled man … ), Cholo is the secret agent who “takes out the trash” of the system, travels up the social hierarchy, and is then brutally rejected from it – hence left to take his revenge as a zombie, dying in the process. When all three trajectories are combined in the film’s unfolding pattern, the logic of the entire social structure is laid bare, as surely and as systematically as Fritz Lang did in M (1931).

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There is no kind of social space, real or symbolic, which Romero fails to include in this vivid panorama: the trailers and automobiles of the underclass, the official and criminal spaces of work, the aristocratic spaces of leisure compared to the Medieval-style carnivals for the poor and dispossessed (complete with a glimpse of a Punch and Judy show!), the transient non-spaces of car parks, abandoned petrol stations, supermarkets, roads into and out of the city … In fact, it is no mere flourish that Romero has now dropped his time-of-day titles (Night of the Living Dead [1968], Dawn of the Dead [1978], Day of the Dead [1985]) and moved onto spatial metaphors: Land of the Dead is among the great films about the social architecture of the modern metropolis. Observe, for instance, how the metropolitan centre of Pittsburgh is presented as a fortress: it keeps the zombies out, but also keeps its vast population down – distracted with “games and vices”, as Kaufman proudly boasts. Above all, it serves, finally as a prison for both the wealthy and poor alike. But it is precisely the gradual manner in which the zombies come to breach the perimeter of this awful world that shifts the balance of power.

In the language beloved of the Hollywood scriptwriting industry, films should be built on strong turning points – actions or events that take the narrative to the next level of intensity, tension and meaningfulness. Often, the turning points in American movies are banal, predictable and formulaic (as in much of Spielberg’s cinema): a car bomb blows up an innocent family; a hidden menace reveals itself and attacks. Romero uses the narrative system of turning points – clinchers where something both logical and surprising unfolds before our eyes – in an especially brilliant and affecting way. Let us recall the stations along the way (in just under 90 minutes of action-packed narrative) of the zombies’ evolution as a species.

At the 15 minute mark, Big Daddy picks up and straps on a rifle. At the 38th minute, he learns to fire this rifle out of rage. At 56 minutes, the zombies face the Fiddler’s Green Tower across the expanse of water that blocks them; Big Daddy, in a seemingly senseless and suicidal gesture, steps into the water and disappears under the surface, as his comrades remain immobile. After the gap created by an intervening scene, we see, in one of the film’s finest and most rousing moments, first Big Daddy, and then all the other zombies, raise their heads above the water: they have figured out, logically, how to overcome the barriers put in their way by the social formation. At the 63rd minute, Big Daddy transmits the know-how and the ability to fire guns or use other weapons on to his colleagues. At the 71st minute, Big Daddy shows himself capable of an act of compassion: killing a zombie who is on fire, and hence suffering horribly. (This scene is an answer to the question Nicole Brenez once asked à propos John Woo’s action films: must one kill the dead?) At the 74th minute, the zombies use all the tools they have amassed to breach another barrier: the glass doors and windows of the Fiddler’s Green complex.

But the best turning point is left for last. Early in the film, the function of the skyflowers – missiles shot into the sky to produce bewitching fireworks patterns – is established: the mindless zombies are so mesmerised by the spectacle that they can only gaze up at them, transfixed, forgetting whatever murder or mayhem they were about to commit. Late in the narrative, at the 79 minute mark, a particularly bloody imminent devastation of the fleeing city’s human population is seemingly averted, in the nick of time, by the launching of these skyflowers (“Thank God!”, proclaims one briefly individuated citizen.) The zombies stop and look up, as expected. But then, in a terrific coup de cinéma, one zombie looks down, and then all the others look down, to continue with their rampage: now, in evolutionary terms, they are beyond being fooled by this cheap showbiz trick. What this magnificent scene evokes is not horror but a kind of triumph, a celebration: when Romero’s narrative turns around so completely and powerfully, it aligns itself – like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) at its similar table-turning moment of plot revelation – with the oppressed, who now have the brains to take and wield power.

 Romero has stated that he regards his zombie films more as action-adventure pieces than as horror movies per se. They trade little in Gothic fear or fright – beyond a few punctual shock moments that usually register more as Keatonesque black-comedy gags than as manifestations of the abject. The action in Land of the Dead is, as we have seen, all about one thing: political power (or its absence: powerlessness). This has important effects for Romero’s reworking of the horror genre. Traditionally, horror films have portrayed the monster-figure (whether alien, vampire or zombie) as Other – embodying what society excludes, demonises or ignores. The way that conservative thought deals with its manifold Others is to brand and demonise them as Evil – precisely along an axis of evil. But most filmmakers – even if they have a politically radical sympathy for the devil – come up hard against the seemingly intractable limit of the genre: ultimately the monster, even if it has generated some sympathy, has to be annihilated, and the status quo restored (this is the King Kong syndrome). Land of the Dead imperiously ignores such conventions. Although plenty of nameless zombies are – according to the law of the genre – gleefully destroyed along the way so that our nominal heroes can survive, the whole film moves towards the crowning moment when Riley stops the tank gunner from taking aim and destroying Big Daddy as he crosses a bridge with his fellow zombies.

The significance of Land of the Dead in the history of world cinema is already starting to be felt. (Romero’s own subsequent productions, Diary of the Dead [2007] and Survival of the Dead [2009], are good but do not match or surpass it.) It is hard to imagine the political extremity of either Joe Dante’s Homecoming (2005) from the Masters of Horror series – in which cruelly sacrificed American soldiers rise from the grave to vote against their Government in an election! – or Bong Joon-ho’s Korean monster-movie blockbuster The Host (2006)*, a vivid allegory of American interventionism, without the lead that Romero has set.

When Leonard Cohen was asked his opinion of a recent Bob Dylan album, he replied: “I love to see the old guys lay it out”. Romero is now 72, and no one lays it out like he can. Indeed, Land of the Dead – a supremely radical achievement in the context of contemporary mainstream cinema – recalls the declaration, late in life, of another fine left-wing American whose career was blocked even more than Romero’s: Abraham Polonsky. At the end of the documentary Red Hollywood (1996) by Thom Andersen and Noël Burch, Polonsky declares: “Capitalism is crime”. He pauses and comments: “When I was young, that’s what I thought”. Then, with a sly twinkle in his eye, he adds: “Now that I’m old, I know it”. Now, there’s another great turning point. 

* My essay “Taking Over: Notes on The Host”, written for Volume 7 of the Indian journal Silhouette (2009), can be accessed at the website http://silhouette-mag.wikidot.com/

This piece has previously appeared in Spanish translation in Miradas de cine, no. 58 (January 2007), German translation in Ray (June 2007), and French translation in Jean-Baptiste Thoret’s book Politique des zombies: L’Amérique selon George A. Romero (Paris: Ellipses, 2007). This is its first appearance in English.

© Adrian Martin September 2006/May 2013