Sunday, June 26, 2005

Zombie Prom - Land of the Dead

I’ve never really been one for zombie movies. I grew up watching horror flicks, but I’m more of a glutton for a good scare and a creepy atmosphere than I am for tons blood and guts.

I haven’t seen a lot of Romero’s work, including believe it or not – the original Night of the Living Dead. (shame on me, I know) I have seen Creepshow, Monkey Shines, and The Dark Half though. They were all pretty scary, particularly Creepshow which scared the crap out of me as a kid. I thought The Dark Half looked pretty cool, though overall it was yet another example of how Hollywood is forever fumbling when attempting a good adaptation of Stephen King novels.

But what makes Romero famous are his zombie movies, not his other Horror outings. I haven’t even seen his original Dawn of the Dead, which I’ve heard is great. I did see the remake of Dawn of the Dead that came out last summer which was directed by Zack Snyder, which I thought was alright. The thing about me and zombie movies, is that I’m always intrigued by the themes that they deal with, but usually turned off by the redundancy in plot and excessive blood. For the most part, zombie movies all have the same rules. Zombies walk slow and feast on live human flesh. If a zombie bites you, you will turn into a zombie. Zombies must be shot in the head in order to be killed. And you can always count on seeing plenty of zombies walking slow, eating bodies, and getting shot in the head. Inevitably one of the main characters will also get bitten, and then whole dramatic scene will play out where everyone fights over whether they should be shot right away, or be allowed to turn into a zombie and then be shot.

In Land of the Dead, the remaining humans in the world have holed up in an enclave within a former metropolis of the United States. These people seem to have a structured system and routine. There are scavengers who go outside the secured perimeter and collect supplies and shuttle them back into the settlement. There are military types placed at various points of entry into the city, who stand guard and shoot any approaching zombies. The movie follows a number of these scavengers, as they go about their daily work to and from zombie territory.

One of the things that I found pretty interesting about this movie was the fact that there was a class system within the secured community of surviving humans. All the rich folk lived in a huge gentrified mall/apartment complex, while the poor lived in hovels out on the street. Dennis Hopper, plays a character by the name of Kaufman, who runs the private building. He is the villain among the surviving humans, whose greed and corruption preserve the status quo between the rich and the poor. Kaufman used his power and money to keep the underprivileged beneath his thumb, as slaves to addiction and vices, while the wealthy remain content with their lives of luxury. I like the idea that even in a time of desperation, when all the survivors of the apocalypse should have bonded together, Hobbesian urges and Socio-economic Darwinsism overpower logic and humanitarianism. It seems insane that there would still be servants, beggers, and squatters, in a society that is so encapsulated, and is shrinking upon itself. Yet Romero wishes to show the many parallels between this nightmarish landscape and our present reality. How is it that in a world where there is such wealth, and prosperity, there can be people who must fight for the most basic of human needs and live in squalor?

Then of course there are the zombies. The “twist” (if it is to be called a twist) in Land of the Dead, is that the zombies slowly start to develop a moderate level of intelligence. Led by a zombie who was a former gas attendant, the zombies begin to gain awareness of the humans around them as more than just sources of food, but as an actual threat to their lifestyle. Gas Man Zombie learns how to use a gun, and teaches the others. He realizes that the “sky flowers” or fireworks that the humans shoot in the air, are put there as distractions. Gas Man Zombie looks at the shining building that towers over the barricaded city, and decides to lead his fellow zombies on a crusade to take down those oppressive human bastards.

I like all the different layers going on here, in terms of the different classes, and the different sources of evil. It allows for the film to read on different levels. On one level, the zombies represent death, which follows us no matter where we go, rich or poor, we are all unable to escape it. On the other hand, the zombies symbolize ourselves. We are the gas attendants, the butchers, the students, all of us zombies, shuffling through life, feeding our urges, until we are put out of our misery. But beyond that, Romero also seems to be making the argument in this movie that the zombies are just another disenfranchised class, just like the poor renegades, who risk their lives to go grab supplies from zombie infested territories, so the rich can enjoy lavish lives. Both the zombies, and the lower class of humans, are just struggling to survive.

There are other references throughout the film that touch on the issue of class. At one point John Leguizamo’s character, Cholo, who is one of the renegades who ventures out into Zombie land, gets bitten. When his friend offers to shoot him, Cholo refuses and says, “Nah, I’ve always wanted to see how the other half lives.” This statement obviously has a double meaning. Literally, the zombies are the other class of creatures, on the earth, but it is also a reference to the “working class.”

The story can also read as an allegory for war. The rich make the poor go out and fight an enemy, so that they may remain protected, safe and comfortable. While the zombies don’t seem to discriminate heavily between eating a rich person or a poor person, from the beginning their ultimate target seems to be the looming tower of privilege, the only beautiful thing left among the rubble, that the upper class have claimed for themselves. This intimates that war is merely a battle played out by two sets of unfortunate people who are driven by forces beyond their control – the powers that be.

Before I rein myself in from getting to crazy with this whole analytical thing, I am going to go out on a limb and look at the film through the lens of a historical Marxist. The scavengers/renegades in the human community actually represent the middle class or the bourgeoisie. The rich are the capitalists, and the zombies are the proletariat. While it is the proletariat who express their discontent, it is the scavengers who sort of take hold of the revolution, and let the rich be destroyed. At the end of the movie, one of the poor humans, takes a rifle and expresses gratitude to the zombies for bombarding their society because now they could make it the way it should be. This is the middle class reshaping the society to be founded on equality.

At the end of the film, the protagonist, Riley, orders his associate to hold fire, and refrain from shooting their last explosives at the zombies. The “good” poor humans that are left have survived the final battle, and are going north to find new ground. Riley says to his co-hort, something like, “No, leave’em. They’re just trying to find someplace to go. Just like us.” While on the surface, the idea of “zombies have feelings too” seems kind of silly, I commend Romero for creating a parable out of his gore fest. While I could have done without a lot of the shots of zombie mouths tearing into flesh, I did think it was neat the way he individualized the zombies, and made them into unique and different characters, that you followed along throughout the whole film. Romero is an artist. There’s no doubt about that, and whether you’re entertained or disgusted by the images that he puts forth, it is obvious that they were all painstakingly and lovingly created.

Sure, there is a bunch of crummy dialogue, archetypical characterizations, and all the predictable sort of stuff that comes with a zombie flick. But there’s definitely food for thought in here and it should satisfy all appetites, from the casual summer movie-goer hungry for an entertaining action-horror flick, to the more analytically minded film buff.


Blogger Elliot said...

I love the Zombie film.
Look up 28 Days Later if you've not seen it, or even better, a film called Dead Alive, which is the film Peter Jackson made not long before making The Lord of the Rings.
Also - that film Monkey Shines scared the shit out of me as a kid.

4:38 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

28 Days later is terrific. I've been dying to check out Dead Alive for eons now, Peter Jackson is one of my heroes.

Monkey Shines was pretty freaky....though I don't remember much of it now, since I also saw it as a kid.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Dead Alive has been playing on TV a lot lately - I just TIVOed it, but haven't watched it yet. Check out the schedule; it may be on again soon.

Also, thank you for naming your entry "Zombie Prom." Keep the spirit alive.

8:06 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I know, how could I resist w/ Zombie Prom, eh? Here's lookin' at you kid!

9:34 PM  
Blogger Brooks said...

Fun fact: I went to the same summer camp as Zack Snyder, although he was a lot older than me and chances are that he has zero memory of me.

But it's true.

11:53 PM  

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