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Aiming for the head
Another great zombie film from Romero

One of the revolutionaries in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend says that the only way to overcome the horror of the bourgeoisie is with more horror. Land of the Dead starts from a similar premise about the horror of 21st-century America. As an attempt to smuggle in political criticism under the label of a routine genre exercise, Land of the Dead, the fourth of George A. Romero’s studies of a civilization ravaged by reanimated corpses that feed on living humans, is a compromised film. But Romero wins his bargain with the devil by making the compromise his theme.

In a period of pretentious action sequels that must cost too much in order to meet their box-office goals, Romero’s film stands out by appearing to be no more than adequately budgeted. Tight and economical, the film casts sardonic glances at the inflation that rules the economy of American cinema. One of the main characters, Cholo (John Leguizamo), embittered at being barred from buying a condo in the USA’s last luxury high-rise, steals the USA’s last armored vehicle and demands a ransom of $5 million — as if $5 million could buy anything in this world. For Romero, money is just an artifact, a bad habit, a memory of a lost civilization.

Extending his shopping-mall critique from his 1978 Dawn of the Dead, Romero shows the dead imitating the living (playing music, using tools) even as the living themselves are trapped in an attempt to relive what was already lived. "It’s like they’re pretending to be alive," says someone watching the zombies. "Isn’t that what we’re doing?" replies the film’s dour, competent hero, Riley (an ideal Simon Baker).

The very topography of Land of the Dead looks nostalgic in its expressive clarity: a peninsular city, an arrogant high-rise, the sprawling wasteland. Even the inclusion of a political subtext (Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead boasted a transparent Vietnam War metaphor, Dawn of the Dead parodied consumerism, the 1985 Day of the Dead attacked militarism) might seem old-fashioned — amid the mindless cynicism of corporate media, how can a genre film critique the society that produced it? And the zombie itself is obsolete — which is why recent zombie films, from the highly touted to the crass, have been toothless. The most pointed moments in Land of the Dead have to do with the use of captured zombies to provide entertainment for the living, who have their pictures taken while standing just out of the reach of ravenous chained zombies, or who bet on which of two zombies will be the first to devour the prostitute thrown into their cage. Land of the Dead is post-post-apocalyptic: Romero shows that the real horror is that people aren’t horrified.

Even those elements that threaten to work against the film prove its allies. Beating the odds, Romero gets restrained performances from Leguizamo and from Dennis Hopper as the tycoon who runs the city. If Land of the Dead has a flaw, it’s that it’s too entertaining. Riley’s distaste for violence, which is shared by Romero, never becomes too blunt a reproach to the audience. Trapped by the needs of the genre he created, Romero is unable to use gore to attack gore, since in practice, all gore is the same (as Andrew Sarris said about vulgarity in discussing the anti-vulgarity satires of Frank Tashlin). But he remains conscious of the need to play the game without cynicism. The source of the film’s near-perfection lies in its calm encapsulation of its own condition.

Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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