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Edifying Horror: Brief Notes on Land of the Dead

by Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson is a writer and filmmaker living in Carbondale, Illinois.

Though some have failed to recognize the significance of George Romero’s newest contribution to the cinema, Land of the Dead (2005) contains the most complex social and political schema of any of the director’s previous zombie films. There is no longer a question as to whether or not one may take Romero’s work in the genre seriously: critics such as Robin Wood (1) and Tony Williams (2) have discussed at length the various economic, cultural and sociopolitical factors surrounding the production of the first three installments in the tentative series of zombie films, and place continual stress on the fact that these are not mere products of the commercial horror film industry but important vehicles for radical and idiosyncratic political statement. As Williams points out, “no cinematic work can really be understood apart from significant aspects of a highly influential national cultural tradition.” (3) Night of the Living Dead (1968), for instance, was born out of the midst of the Vietnam war; Dawn of the Dead (1978) out of the roots of a society misidentifying commerce with individual identity; and Day of the Dead (1985) during an era of Reaganomics and the Cold War. Land of the Dead then may be seen as a necessary reaction to the present atmosphere of terrorist threat, political disillusionment and George W. Bush; and while these aspects are not readily available to those who view Romero’s films as escapist works of horror and violence, they nonetheless work to inform every area of the director’s creative vision.

Land of the Dead continues certain structural patterns began in the first three films, but offers the most complex conceptual scenario thus far. Robin Wood notes that the first two films “are built upon all-against-all triangular structures, strikingly similar yet crucially different:

 

                        NIGHT

                    Besieged

Zombies                           Posse

 

                        DAWN

                    Besieged

Zombies                           Gang” (4)

 

Wood further contests that the characters of Day of the Dead are all “connected or belong to an authority group. In the course of the film they progressively disassociate themselves, by their actions and their attitudes, from these nominal allegiances, forming an oppositional group of their own.” (5) Land of the Dead transfigures these structures through the introduction of a fourth crucial element: Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) acts as the epitomic representative of a fading bourgeois capitalist society, his residual power exercised from the confines of a tower in the midst of the isolated city. Whereas the characters of the first three films are relatively independent in their actions (excepting Day of the Dead, which features restrictions under an authoritative militant rule), those of Land of the Dead function at least initially under the control of Kaufman. His presence underlines the relationship between Cholo (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Simon Baker), and the subsequent divergence between both men. Cholo’s rebellion against Kaufman spurs a potentially positive reaction but is motivated by reasons of expediency, underscoring his sincerity and placing him at the center of narrative conflict. Thus, the all-against-all triangular structure which Wood identifies within the previous zombie films is complicated into a quadrangular structure within Land of the Dead; it may be seen as such:

 

                  LAND

                  Riley

Zombies                   Cholo

                  Kaufman

 

Of course, the complex nature of Romero’s film is not easily reducible to such structures, but their arrangement works to form at least a cursory understanding of the placement and function of the film’s internal narrative elements. This structure also reveals the relative similarity existent between Land of the Dead and Romero’s previous zombie films, namely Dawn of the Dead; but whereas that piece contains similarly explicit anti-capitalist statements, it makes only allusions toward the cause of such phenomena. Land of the Dead, by contrast, reveals in Kaufman a tangible point of reference through which such matters may be targeted and identified. His character acts as the literal and physical embodiment of bourgeois capitalism which, though centered within the narrative of virtually all of Romero’s zombie films, is merely implicit within the structures of such works. The explicit nature of these tendencies within Land of the Dead seems entirely appropriate, however, in light of present political concerns within both society and the film industry itself.

Williams notes that Romero’s cinema has “always been characterized by a lack of false optimism, a willingness to look objectively at the hard facts of reality, and a recognition that any victories may be tentative (or even unlikely) in grim situations.” (6) Land of the Dead continues such thematic concerns, while introducing modernistic tonalities which work to place the film within the realm of current horror cinema. However, the subversive nature of Romero’s creative vision necessarily resists easy classification within the field of popular horror film: recent works such as The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2004), Boogeyman (Stephen T. Kay, 2005) and Dark Water (Walter Salles, 2005) evidence weak narrative structuring and trite moral positions when compared to Land of the Dead. These are films which, though arguable influenced by Romero’s earlier work in the genre, have invariably misread the director’s larger concerns and intentions. The abundant and often unnecessary use of computer graphics in many of these films, for example, reveals a clear compensation for stylistic inadequacy. However, Romero’s employment of the same material within Land of the Dead is minimal and tastefully executed. The director’s stylistic traits seem inevitably linked with economic concerns, each of his films being produced within the means allotted him at the moment of creation: Night of the Living Dead, for instance, was shot on the less expensive black-and-white and entirely conceived on a nominal budget; subsequent films such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead reveal more fully realized creative visions through lesser economic restraints (though the latter was subject to particularly restrictive conditions). That Land of the Dead utilizes modern cinematic devices such as computer graphics and employs well-known actors such as Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo does not mean that the director has effectively “sold out,” or that this film is any less significant than previous works; Romero is simply utilizing the resources available to the film artist working today. A cursory glance at the current state of horror cinema evidences an uninspired and grossly self-referential genre, emulating only the most superficial elements of the cinema which Romero worked to refine, personalize, and politicize.

In the conclusion to his monograph on the cinema of George Romero, Williams observes that the director’s films “express oppositional utopian yearning for a better world but realize that such a world is impossible unless audiences actively seek to change the present system.” (7) The complex sociopolitical tendencies of Romero’s films, however, continue to be overshadowed by the more superficial aspects associated with the horror genre. The inability of audiences intent upon various displays of gore and violence to discern such radical statements within the context of a commercial motion picture is symptomatic of wider humanistic deficiencies; and perhaps this is part of the reason for Romero’s increasing withdrawal from the medium (Land of the Dead is only the director’s third film in over a decade). Significantly, the film’s ending seems indicative of the director’s desire to retreat from such a restrictive and unperceptive creative environment, as we see Riley and his gang forge their way toward the borders of Canada (a reflection of the recent desires of many Americans). Despite its perpetual association with the mindless products of the modern horror genre, however, Romero’s cinema continues to argue for the importance of human value and radical political change. Land of the Dead may be seen as among the greatest examples of this tradition.

Notes

1. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, 2003.

2. Tony Williams, The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

3. Williams, p. 1.

4. Wood, pp. 104-105.

5. Wood, p. 288.

6. Williams, p. 1.

7. Williams, p. 171.

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