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George A. Romero has again infused his latest zombie movie, Land of the Dead, with socio-political commentary, namely the disintegration of western industrial society, says long-time Romero watcher, Richard Kuipers, giving horror a whole new – and extra - meaning.

The best of George A. Romero’s horror movies are potent metaphors for the times in which they have appeared. In the 1968 “hate year” of student riots, Vietnam atrocities, Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and RFK, he introduced us to an angry mob of ghouls in Night of the Living Dead. The world’s first giant shopping mall (Monroe Mall, Pittsburgh) was the site of his satire on mindless consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (1979). 

Although faltering somewhat in the psychodrama dynamics of Day of the Dead (1985), he advanced his theories by suggesting the undead were grasping onto memories of past life and developing primitive intellect. In 2005 we live in a world ruled by fear, with increasing numbers of people retreating into the imagined security of gated communities. In the outstanding Land of the Dead, Romero furthers his commentary on the disintegration of western industrial society with a vivid depiction of the select few living in the exclusive community of Fiddler’s Green (“where life goes on”) - as if the outside world simply doesn’t exist. 

As flesh-eating zombies overrun Earth, what’s left of humankind retreats into a fortified city ruled by entrepreneur Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). In a sealed-off inner sanctum called “Fiddlers Green” live the elite, while the outer zone is populated by assorted desperados and mercenaries, including leader Riley (Simon Baker) and his second-in-command, Cholo (John Leguizamo). When Cholo’s bid to be accepted into Fiddler’s Green is denied, he commandeers the battle truck, Dead Reckoning, and threatens to destroy Kaufman’s enclave. Riley and his team are given just a few hours to stop the carnage. As the search for Cholo intensifies, the walking undead – now exhibiting basic levels of intelligence – are advancing toward the city’s weakened barriers. 

"a fantastique manifestation"

It is possible to interpret the zombie hordes outside Fiddler’s Green as a fantastique manifestation of the massive underclass created by a present world economic order that inspires hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to protest every time the G8 meets. From that perspective, an entirely pessimistic picture emerges of who we are and where we’re heading. It is precisely the application of these thematic strands that separates Romero from all other comers in the zombie stakes. 

We witnessed the gulf in class in last year’s just-adequate remake of Dawn of the Dead. Competently assembled on a visceral level, it excised the original’s deep streak of social satire in favour of straight-ahead horror, as if too timid to offer audiences anything thought-provoking. Its commercial success should be applauded, however, for making Romero’s re-entry into the genre possible. Armed with the budget to stage a convincing depiction of the apocalyptic scenario he first suggested 37 years ago, he does not disappoint. Marrying form and content with a level of skill that is his alone in horror, he delivers all the blood and guts excitement one could wish for in a world that eerily reflects our own. 

This maestro has no need to upgrade his zombies to the super-athletes of 28 Days Later or the Dawn remake. They still shuffle along slowly but their growing intellect and abilities to use external articles such as guns makes them much more frightening than the souped-up zombies of lesser filmmakers. As effective as all shock attack scenes are, the most disturbing element at play here is the methodical march of the undead toward a human outpost that itself is in the early stages of internal revolt as the pressure of living in a war zone takes its toll. 

In this regard, Romero seems to be applying some pointed references to divisions in contemporary western societies as governments grapple with the most effective means of public consensus-building in the war on terror. The sight of Dennis Hopper’s entrepreneurial Kaufman barking out “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” is just one of the many political salvos fired off in the course of an exceptional exercise in sustained horror and punchy cultural critique. Romero is not just served well by his zombies and special effects team, who keep things on a polished, deliberately low-tech level for the most part, with a few showpieces thrown in when it counts. His cast all perform solidly, with Simon Baker right on the money as the idealistic Riley, John Leguizamo oozing all things gutter rat as the ambitious Cholo and Asia Argento in fine form as a typically gutsy, independent-minded Romero heroine. 

"driven by the muscular mind of a filmmaker" 

I can report with great pleasure that there is no romance in this film. It is driven by the muscular mind of a filmmaker who, unlike too many of his genre contemporaries, is thinking all the time and prodding us to do likewise as we watch this nightmarish speculation unfold.

Published August 4, 2005

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