Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The more things change: George Romero's Land of the Dead

I like George Romero's original Dead trilogy quite a bit. I have an especially fond place in the part of my heart reserved for post-apocalyptic zombie movies for Day of the Dead, the third film in the series, which is generally considered the least of them. It certainly has its problems: although it was made over fifteen years after the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, well into Romero's professional filmmaking career, much of it looks like the work of a bunch of amateurs:

Most of the actors give the kinds of performances you see in those cheesey 1980s sci-fi/fantasy movies ridiculed on MST3K, like Space Mutiny. After the opening sequence, the intensity level stays flat for most of the picture, which works against creating the kind of bunker-mentality-type atmosphere Romero seems to be going for. The middle section of the film stumbles from one badly-acted scene to another: it never really drags, but it never quite focuses either. Partly because of the bad acting and partly because of the lack of focus, the tone of the movie is way off: it seems hokier than it should, certainly hokier than the first two Dead movies.

But then there's that ending.

Day of the Dead's zombie apocalypse ending is lurid and gorey and over-the-top, but it has the same kind of transcendent effect on me that great religious art does. The kind of religious art that deals with hell and suffering and man's frailty, of course.

I was kind of hoping that we'd get more of this in Romero's latest zombie picture, Land of the Dead. I suppose I was looking for the zombie movie equivalent of Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain--something like Kinji Fukasaku's oddly spiritual sci-fi disaster movie Virus (also known as Day of Resurrection). Alas, instead of transcendent horror, Land of the Dead gives us ham-fisted social commentary.

Overall, I had a decent time at Land of the Dead. Mainly, I was glad to see a genuine B-Movie, with a B-Movie plot and B-Movie values, rather than what I normally see at the multiplex, which are B-Movies dressed up to look like A-Movies. I liked the way Romero substituted inventiveness for a budget while designing the movie. I liked the dead-pan, flat performances, especially Dennis Hopper's. And, most of all, I liked all the zombie effects and all the funny splatter-stick moments.

What I didn't like so much was the movie's conventional, boring, and safe Anti-Rich White Guy message. But it isn't just a case of having heard it all before, in the context of the movie, Romero's political and social points don't make any sense.

Some mild spoilers follow...

In the conventional zombie movie, the arrival of the zombies heralds the end of the pre-zombie social structure. In a zombie-filled world your status doesn't depend on what you did in the old world, but rather how well you can deal with the zombie threat. Usually this means that characters in a zombie movie have to throw away their prejudices and preconceptions if they want to survive.

Land of the Dead is about what happens next: it attempts to show what the communities built by the remaining living humans might look like. But what Romero comes up with isn't very interesting: his post-zombie society looks an awful lot like the paranoid fringe left-wing view of America. Dennis Hopper plays a rich white man who is in control of the entire city. He's responsible for all the crime and vice among the lower-class, and he has his enemies secretly assassinated.

Hopper rules the city from atop Fiddler's Green, a completely self-contained condominium/shopping mall complex that only the rich white people are allowed entrance into.

The rest of the population lives in a slum surrounding Fiddler's Green.

But the community in Land of the Dead isn't at all believable, at least by the conventions of the zombie movie genre and by the rules of basic economics.

Romero wants us to believe that a post-zombie world would still have a cash economy. While it might be possible to get one up and running, it would (a) probably take a long time and (b) probably be pretty small scale. But when John Leguizamo's character blackmails Dennis Hopper he asks for cash money, even though he intends to leave the city, never to return. Wouldn't it make more sense to ask for a bunch of useful stuff, like gasoline and bullets?

Likewise, people have to supposedly pay their way into Fiddler's Green, but how exactly would cash money be useful to Hopper? He's in charge of the only human settlement any knows for sure exists. Again, it would make more sense if he wanted useful stuff or useful specialized knowledge in return for residency.

But the people living in Fiddler's Green look like they don't do anything but have lunch. Romero's idea seems to be that they don't actually do any work and live off the lower-classes, but it's never made clear why this is a good idea on Hopper's part.

I could go on with the nitpicking, but the gist is that Romero engages in some pretty lazy-ass world-building. Instead of starting with the conventions of the genre and building a believable post-zombie community, Romero starts with the political points he wants to make and his top-down structure has no foundation.

When Romero's not trying to be political, his direction is spot-on. There a quite a few really nicely done set-pieces. Unfortunately, the incoherence the plot and theme end up undermining the movie and making it feel like a lot less than the sum of its parts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the movie, but given the reviews I've read about it, it seems to me like Romero was reading too many of those "Marxist Critiques" of Dawn of the Dead, etc. They're interesting theories to toy with, but Romero doesn't understand that they're just that-- Play. Making a movie with that type of speculation at its core is making a movie with no "there" there.