Romero Walks The Line

Dayton City Paper | June 29, 2005
In the fourth installment of his zombie series, George A. Romero follows up on an idea he introduced in the last film, Day of the Dead — that the undead can be taught. Early on in Land of the Dead, we catch our first glimpse of this next evolutionary stage, a zombie Messiah, a ghoul identified only in the credits as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark).

Through his uncannily expressive features, we can tell that Big Daddy doesn’t share the human sentiment that his awkward shuffle and appetite for flesh is sufficient grounds to be shot on sight. He communicates this to the other zombies and helps them get wise to such human tricks as shooting up mushrooming fireworks to keep them hypnotized. Finally, Big Daddy gets them to catch a glimpse of Romero’s beloved Pittsburgh, the only human outpost for miles, and its one illuminated skyscraper.

Depicting man-eating zombies as some kind of oppressed class is typical Romero, reflecting the bleak humor and misanthropic disgust that runs throughout all his zombie pictures. The usual Romero themes are here, that humans and zombies are essentially identical in terms of morality. Both groups covet, consume, and kill. Land of the Dead retains the central theme of Dawn of the Dead, that not even an event as momentous as the apocalypse, the clearest evidence that the human race is on the wrong track, will prevent people from re-creating their familiar rituals and institutions (cafés, malls, titty bars).

Romero is eternally critical of conventional social hierarchies and customs, and so his wisest and most resourceful heroes have always tended to be minorities, starting with Duane Jones’ Ben in Night of the Living Dead. Big Daddy is black as well, and the Pittsburgh’s elite power structure is occupied by three or four white guys in suits plus one black servant.

But aside from these fleeting suggestions, of all of Romero’s zombie films, Land of the Dead is actually the least devoted to social commentary. Some have claimed it’s the goriest but I would dispute that. Dawn of the Dead had its fair share of severed limbs and exposed intestines. If anything, the blood just looks more real, (i.e. not like tomato juice). However, there is definitely a greater emphasis on action this time, which is unfortunate. Taken out of context, Land of the Dead looks like the latest forgettable horror movie riding the coattails of the recent zombie craze, leaving the uninitiated to possibly conclude that Romero is vastly inferior to the creative talents behind 28 Days Later (a cinematic equal in terms of quality, granted, but it needs to respect its elders). Still, Land of the Dead keeps a trace of Romero’s customary pessimism, and that was enough to make it worthwhile for me.

Dayton City Paper

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