George A. Romero’s sporadic zombie flicks are sometimes decades apart in production, but nevertheless form a chronological sequence telling the story of the downfall of society from every angle. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is set in the early days, with a few random civilians trapped in a farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead (1979) zooms out a little to see what’s going on in cities and suburbia, and Day of the Dead (1985) examines a final remaining pocket of survivors months into the plague.
Land of the Dead opens some time after the zombie epidemic has swept the world, and the surviving dregs of humanity have retreated behind the fortified walls of the ultimate gated community, a city dubbed Fiddler’s Green. Romero has used each of his zombie films to satirically articulate some social commentary, and here his targets seem to be big business and class warfare. Another possible allegorical target is the Israel / Palestine conflict. Have humans walled the zombies out, or walled themselves in?
A man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) has set himself up as mayor/president/king of Fiddler’s Green. Kaufman is very much a self-styled, capital-B businessman along the lines of Donald Trump or Michael Bloomberg, so here Romero seems to equate big business with totalitarianism. Kaufman’s machinations ensure that his supposed safe haven is actually a highly tiered class society. The rich live in high-rise comfort while the underclasses starve in skeezy street-level slums. We know society is truly depraved when caged go-go dancers are the only form of entertainment.
In the world outside, the zombies have long since eaten all humans within reach, and have nothing left to do but stand around. Despite the big budget, there only seem to be about a dozen of them. Some have returned to old routines: working gas stations, pushing shopping carts, and banging tambourines. Dawn of the Dead showed zombies instinctually drawn to the shopping mall (a new American innovation at the time) like pilgrims to Mecca. But Land of the Dead goes further and suggests they have even greater powers of logic, and can feel actual emotions such as victimization. Their leader Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is soulful and sympathetic like Bub the zombie from Day of the Dead.
Kaufman sends minions Riley (Nathan Fillon) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) out into the infested wastelands, in caravans of heavily armored vehicles. They distract the “stench” (the derogatory term of choice for the undead) with fireworks as they loot for food and valuables to cart back to stock Kaufman’s larders in Fiddler’s Green. Riley and Cholo are old friends since fallen out, and their relationship provides the one genuinely funny bit of dialogue: happy-go-lucky Cholo tells the perpetually dour Riley: “Didn’t I tell you not to bang chicks with worse problems than you?” That’s not bad advice, actually.
The intelligent zombies, apparently feeling disenfranchised, organize and mount an attack on the city. Anyway, Riley and Cholo finally become disillusioned about Kaufman’s utopia. Together with Slack (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento, who collaborated with Romero on Dawn of the Dead), they try to escape for the imagined safe haven of Canada (as if they think they are merely dodging the draft, and not the twin threats of plague and humanity’s own venal overlords). In true Romero fashion, the villainous Kaufman also happens to be a racist, shouting epithets at the zombified Cholo (John Leguizombie?) as he comes to kill him. If there ever were a point in human history when race will have truly become irrelevant, this ought to be it.
I don’t think Romero and his zombie films would be remembered without the racially charged ending of Night of the Living Dead and the pointed satire of consumerism found in Dawn of the Dead. But if he had started out with something as unfocused as Land of the Dead, he probably wouldn’t have been. Romero admits to Parallax View that he didn’t fully work out the analogy:
I have to tell you that even when we started to shoot, I was worried that this isn’t quite clear. Who are the terrorists, is it Cholo and his gang or the zombies? And it gave me a little pause, but we had to start shooting because we had the money. I.m being perfectly honest, I have to sit down and re-analyze it and figure it out. Sometimes you just run on instinct.George A. Romero
Even the roundtable of horror aficionados on InternalBleeding.net agree that the movie is “not scary, but really gross.”
Land of the Dead obviously has the biggest budget of all of Romero’s zombie cycle so far, and remains the only one with well-known stars. But it is only superficially “better” than its predecessors, featuring bigger names and more technological polish. As is the case with many a Hollywood production, raised financial stakes bring a lowering of standards and diminishing returns: more money in, more shit out. A “some time ago…” prologue montage illustrates for the slower members of the audience what zombies are all about. Perhaps the movie studio executives were pitching the film to audiences beyond the usual horror genre ghetto already versed with the zombie genre.
You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:
- Part I: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Part II: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
- Part III: Day of the Dead (1985)
- Part IV: Land of the Dead (2005)
- Part V: Diary of the Dead (2007)
Must read: Homepageofthedead.com’s extensive archive of Land of the Dead info.
Must read: The Light That Failed: George Romero’s Dead Rock On by Kathleen Murphy; and George Romero Surveys the Dead by Sean Axmaker, both on Parallax View.