Another new writer joins the 10YA stable. His name is Jake Farley. Let him tell you about zombies.
There’s Something About Zombie – A Land of the Dead Retrospective
Nobody plans for Dracula attacks. There are no internet sites devoted to selling specially branded gear for battling off Creatures from the Black Lagoon. Silver bullets are not available in your local gun store. Zombies, though…that’s a different story. Why do they resonate so strongly with modern-day American culture, while the creatures of the past fade into obscurity? Universal’s stable of monsters, for instance, grew popular by preying on the fears of their times—Frankenstein’s monster spoke of the dangers of uninhibited scientific endeavor, and Dracula represented the waves of scary foreigners entering America every day (particularly scary Eastern European foreigners, like my own sweet grandmother; though she was not, as far as I know, a Dracula). That’s not all there was to these creatures and their popularity, of course, but identifying and preying upon one commonly held fear that resonates with a wide group of people is a good path to continued relevancy.
So where does that leave the zombie? The word “zombie” once referred only to a relatively obscure Haitian myth, of an undead or hypnotized person magically enslaved to the will of an evil sorcerer. What we think of today as a “zombie” was essentially invented whole cloth by George Romero for 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, though even that movie did not use the term “zombies” (instead referring to the undead as “ghouls”). Critics did, though, and by the time of the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, it was their official name.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that “zombie” became a genre unto itself, and, in my completely uninformed opinion, I think there are a number of converging factors that caused their resurgence in popularity. Video games, for instance, are always on the lookout for an enemy that the player can kill without feeling too bad about the act of digital murder, and by then people were getting tired of World War II games and their Nazi punching bags. Zombies make an acceptable substitute. I also think zombies speak to the American’s sense of exceptionalism. We like to imagine ourselves the heroes, the iconoclasts, the ones who will make it in the end, and what better background to set ourselves up against than the hordes of the undead? Everyone else is an undead sucker, but not you—you’re a survivor.
There’s also more intimate fears mixed in with the zombie’s DNA—disease transmission, the inevitability of death, the fear of conformity and loss of identity all resonate strongly in our culture for various reasons. The zombie is a powerful metaphor, and nobody understands that better than George Romero, the man who invented them.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I really like the movie Land of the Dead. When I first saw it in college, it was an exciting time—a new zombie movie from the man himself! I grew up on the latter films of the original trilogy, the grotesque practical effects of Tom Savini staining images on my young brain in the garish bright orange/red of their cheap fake blood.
After my first viewing of Land of the Dead, though, I remember being vaguely disappointed. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but there was just something about it that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. Having seen it a few times in the years since, I’ve warmed up to it greatly, and viewing it again earlier this week, I finally realized what put me off about it originally. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.
For those who haven’t seen it, Land of the Dead takes place largely in the fenced-off ruins of Pittsburgh. It’s unclear how long after the undead rose that the film takes place, though a rough guess of 25 years or so can be inferred through some bits of dialogue. The unzombified masses eke out a meager existence in the ruins of the city, while the wealthy elite (the 1%, if you will) live in a luxurious tower called Fiddler’s Green, with all the amenities one could hope for in the apocalypse; running water, electricity, alcohol, nice turtleneck/blazer combos, etc. The entire deal is overseen by a gentleman named Paul Kaufman (delightfully underplayed by Dennis Hopper), who endeavors mostly to keep himself rich above all else.
He accomplishes this by sending out roving teams of scavengers equipped with a purpose-built anti-zombie war rig (with apologies to Furiosa) called “Dead Reckoning.” It was designed and built by that guy from The Mentalist (Simon Baker), and crewed by himself and various other roughnecks, but the standout character here is an amoral “cleaner” for Kaufman named “Cholo,” played by the always-fantastic John Leguizamo. Cholo’s dream is to buy his way into Fiddler’s Green, but when he’s rebuffed by his boss for being the kind of unbelievable boor who would pour champagne into a whisky tumbler rather than a flute (a nice little bit of silent business between Leguizamo and Hopper in this scene), Cholo decides to steal Dead Reckoning and use its missile banks to hold the city hostage. It’s a very well-equipped anti-zombie tank. The guy from The Mentalist is then tasked with returning the vehicle before Cholo has the chance to kill all the rich people with it, because that would of course be a tragedy. The guy from The Mentalist has other plans, though- he plans to steal Dead Reckoning for himself and, like all pasty white Americans when the chips are down, use it to flee to Canada. Things go from bad to worse and we proceed until everyone in Pittsburgh has been eaten by zombies.
The guy from The Mentalist and his buddies are only half the story, though. The other group of main characters is a pack of zombies led by a former gas station attendant named “Big Daddy” (or at least, that’s the name stitched onto his coveralls). Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) appears to be smarter than your average zombie. He is not fascinated by the fireworks the living deploy to distract the zombies during scavenging missions, and he appears to be able to communicate on a rudimentary level with other undead. What’s more, they seem willing to listen.
This is actually a continuation of a story thread from Romero’s previous zombie film, Day of the Dead. In that movie, scientists have captured a zombie they name “Bud” and perform cruel experiments on it. What they don’t expect to discover, however, is that Bud is capable of learning. In the climax of the film when all hell, as it is wont to do, breaks loose, Bud obtains and successfully operates a pistol and appears to hold personal grudges against specific characters.
What we come to discover through the course of that film and, particularly, through the course of Land of the Dead, is that the zombies are also capable of anguish, of rage, of sadness, and of friendship. Big Daddy is visibly enraged at the sight of zombies strung up for use as target practice by the living. He is also a tool user, learning the rudiments of operating a firearm quickly and on his own, and instructing other zombies in the use of their own found objects. He’s also a capable strategist, realizing that the rivers surrounding Pittsburgh, which supposedly keep the populace safe from the undead hordes, are in fact not much of a barrier at all to beings that cannot drown.
What Romero gives us is a strange empathy for these creatures. They’re monsters, yes, and they’ll kill and eat us, yes, but they are also beings in their own right. They are not the simple mindless monsters we assumed them to be. Much as we might wish it were so, our enemies are rarely that simple. It’s a powerful choice that robs the zombie of much of what makes them scary, but gives back to them a measure of humanity and dignity that, perhaps, even they had thought lost forever.
I suppose that brings us back around to what I found dissatisfying about my original watch ofLand of the Dead back in 2005. Seeing it again this week, I realized I was expecting a horror movie, but this is not a horror movie. At best, it’s an action film with some incredible gore and some thoughts about society. It’s explicitly about class warfare (at one point after being bitten, Cholo is offered the classic mercy bullet to the head before he turns; he turns it down, grinning wryly and remarking that he’s “always wanted to see how the other half lived”), and firmly sides with the poor and the put-upon in society. When the zombies finally level Pittsburgh, it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy given the way we’ve seen them treated by the city dwellers throughout the movie—they’re used as props in photo booths, they’re used for target practice, they’re used for bear baiting games in sleazy bars, the list goes on. It’s hard to escape the sensation that a lot of these people kind of had it coming.
But, crucially, there’s very little tension. It’s not difficult to guess who is going to live and die by the end of the film, and the action isn’t presented as frightening at any point. By the time the film takes place, everyone left alive is a hardened survivor. Zombies don’t scare them anymore, so they stop scaring the audience. What’s left is an entertaining action flick that condemns the excesses people allow themselves at the expense of others, and warns that exploitation is simply a credit card whose payments will come due, one way or the other. It’s also a strangely reassuring movie—being a zombie isn’t so bad, it argues. At least you’ll be among friends.
By the end of the film, when our heroes have utterly failed to save Pittsburgh and Big Daddy’s zombie hordes have fed well, the two groups catch sight of one another. Rather than immediately eating and/or opening fire, they eye each other from a distance. In that moment, they seem to understand something of one another—their senses of camaraderie, perhaps, or maybe just their mutual weariness. They know that to clash now would just result in more death for both sides. After a long moment, the zombies turn and go one way, the living turn and go the other. If nothing else, they’ve learned that much.
– There are some truly, fantastically disgusting gore effects in this movie. Standouts include an arm being ripped in half lengthwise, a zombie pulling a guy’s whole head and spine out like he just won Mortal Kombat, and a zombie pushing his entire forearm down some poor bastard’s throat and pulling out handfuls of viscera.
– Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo really steal this movie. They’re a lot of fun to watch. Cholo is clearly kind of meant to be a bad guy, but it’s really hard to dislike someone with John Leguizamo’s huge charisma. He turns what could have been a pretty unappealing character into a zombie apocalypse Han Solo.
– The original title of the film was Dead Reckoning. They changed it to Land of the Dead both for branding purposes and because Dead Reckoning is a terrible name for a movie.
– The guy from The Mentalist as the main character is kind of a total nothing. He’s blandly good-looking and generic enough that it’s difficult to envision him building an awesome zombie-fighting tank, but we’re told he did and he’s the main character, so we’ll just have to get used to him, dammit.
– There are a lot of characters I didn’t get around to mentioning. Asia Argento is probably the most significant—she plays a stereotypically sexy tough fishnet-wearing punk who teams up with our heroes for no better reason than it was looking a little sausage-festy in here without her. For the most part, none of the characters are nearly as interesting as the plot itself.
– Pedro Arce as the giant Samoan enforcer named “Pilsbury” is another standout, actually. He takes what could have been a nothing role and imbues it with a lot of humor and character.
– Legendary gore FX artist Tom Savini has a cameo in the film, actually. He reprises his role from the original Dawn of the Dead as the now-zombified leader of the biker gang that raided the mall in that movie. For that matter, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (then of Shaun of the Dead fame) cameo as the photobooth zombies.