eorge A. Romero is notorious for his salacious zombie trilogy: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. These films not only fostered the modern day iconography of zombie movies but also serve as a political commentary on contemporary America. Whether it is Night’s race issues, Dawn’s consumerism critique, or Day’s science admonition, Romero never fails to weigh in with his zombies. His latest film, Land of the Dead, is not a grand departure from this pattern.
Early on, American iconography clings to the dying world. American flags flap limply in abandoned cities. Spray-painted patriotic murals (similar to those prevalent in post-9/11 America) with Lady Liberty and stars and stripes, are plastered on the crumbling walls of a slum. And—potentially most telling—a little violent man of power, who wears a white cowboy hat, threateningly putters around firing a gun at those who oppose him. Yes, George A. Romero is back with his politics and his zombies, and both are evolving.
After a brief montage of then and now covering the zombies’ rise over the living, a panning shot reveals “Today” by way of a “dead” town. Uniontown is a would-be ghost town if not for the zombies who inhabit it. Yet these are not the zombies of yesteryear, wandering aimlessly, inspired only by a desire for human flesh. These zombies seem vaguely to mimic the lives they once had. A would-be Dixieland band weakly tries to play their instruments in a weathered gazebo under a withered American flag. One zombie bangs absentmindedly on his tambourine while another blows unmelodically into a tuba and the third smacks his trombone against the structure. A young dead couple stumble hand in hand down the street and trip over a gas station monitor. The bell (normally connoting a car’s arrival) rings, and Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a broad-shouldered black zombie wearing a coverall embroidered with his moniker, staggers out of the station ready to service the vehicle. Seeing no car, he seems puzzled.
A nearby group of live scavengers watch in amazement. When Big Daddy notices the trespassers, he makes a controlled grunt, and the young teenagers turn in response. This Big Daddy is an evolved zombie who has language and an awareness of danger. Here is the new twist in Romero’s world of the dead: the zombies are learning and evolving. Big Daddy, in particular, takes great strides in the film. He learns to use tools including a drill, a cleaver, and a gun. He problem-solves, making his way through fences, soldiers and rivers. And most surprisingly, he leads his (dead) people to the new civilization—Fiddler’s Green.
Romero’s films often use notable stereotypes to promote his political ends. In Land, Big Daddy has a telling iconography. His race (black), and his clothes (uniform with patch that reads “Big Daddy”) connote him as a minority, a blue collar worker, and likely the owner of a small business. These are among the groups Democrats claim are undercut by Republican planning.
Other stereotypes of once-typical Democrat voters populate the zombie landscape. (The name of Uniontown itself evokes the hard times organized labor is currently going through.) Uniontown’s population includes various disenfranchised youth, the aforementioned couple in edgy rock wear, a cheerleader, and a female ball player, the latter two in uniform. Blue-collar workers are represented in Big Daddy, a Mexican gardener, and a butcher who re-learns how to use his cleaver. Numerous senior citizens are also present, including the atonal band mentioned earlier. Actually, zombies of all shapes, sizes, and colors roam the streets of the dead city. The zombies’ diversity matches that of the cast in the many patriotic ads plastered on screens post 9/11 and pre-election 2004, as well as those characters in the living city’s slum. Undoubtedly, Romero’s zombies represent the American masses.
Fiddler’s Green is a large white glass edifice that represents influence, affluence, and—on a slightly deeper level—our ruling class: rich, white men. (Think most senators, members of the House, and every president to date.) Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) is the film’s signature powerful wealthy white man. He has captured and recreated a city. He fosters vices like prostitution, gambling, and drugs to create a self-perpetuating slum, and has built a glowing tower in the center. He creates a new world to mimic the old, as commercials for Fiddler’s Green proclaim, a world where the white, rich, and powerful rule without question. Fiddler’s Green is a place of luxury where only the ridiculously wealthy can buy their way in, and only the white are allowed in.
The only people of color in Fiddler’s Green are servants: the Samoan soldier, the African-American house servant, and the Latino scavenger, Cholo (John Leguizamo).
Cholo has a special job. Kaufman kills social revolutionaries, insurgents who try to disturb the infrastructure of Fiddler’s Green. He pays Cholo to remove their bodies, making Cholo a traitor to his people, those living in the slum. But Cholo dreams of using his ill-gotten gains to buy his way into Fiddler’s Green. He wants the big shiny American Dream epitomized by the glowing white tower, and he does horrible things to achieve it. This makes him a foil to Big Daddy.
Big Daddy’s tale begins when the scavengers tear into town to get medicine, food, and contraband to take back to the city. At nightfall, a tank called “Dead Reckoning” sets off a series of fireworks, reminiscent of the Fourth of July, to distract the zombies from their presence. Zombies, it turns out, can’t help but be in awe of fireworks. But while the walking dead gaze skyward, mouths agape, the living scavengers tear into town on motorcycles and trucks and shoot the now-defenseless masses. Big Daddy, though, is immune to the fireworks’ distraction and tries to save his people by shoving them out of the way of gunfire. But many “die” before him as he wails in defiance of their senseless slaughter.
Interestingly, these zombies were not threats unless they were threatened. They no longer wandered around looking for flesh. In Land of the Dead, eating flesh has become more a defense against the terrorist actions of the scavengers who come into town and mercilessly kill anything that is not like them. The symbolism is not lost. My audience even laughed aloud when Kaufman later growls about the scavengers, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists!”
Post-slaughter, Big Daddy organizes his people, and the motley group of decaying Americana hobbles after the terrorists, seeking vengeance. However, as they reach the edge of the walled-in city, Big Daddy looks to the lights of Fiddler’s Green. Now his desire for vengeance is replaced by a new goal—the American Dream. Like Cholo, Big Daddy will overcome all obstacles (gates, soldiers, rivers, and glass walls) to get to that shiny symbol of success and luxury.
The film’s end is more blatantly political than any of Romero’s past works. Cholo joins the zombies’ ranks, smirking, “I always wanted to see how the other half lived.” Kaufman is killed by Cholo and Big Daddy. Fiddler’s Green is overtaken by the zombies, and its wealthy residents (the haves) are slaughtered by the zombie hordes (the have-nots). The poverty-ridden masses of the slum band together and decide to rebuild as they want, without the shadow of Kaufman looming over them. And the film’s hero, Riley (Simon Baker), decides to let the zombies go, as they are just looking for the same thing he and his rag-tag group are—a home. And so, Riley and friends head for a home away from both zombies and power-hungry white men. Canada, of course.
Ultimately, George A. Romero’s latest film is a searing political commentary on modern America. From the visual cues of the decay of the American ideal (withered flags, zombie American archetypes) to the clear rage at President Bush (shown through the killing of a Bush mock-up, Kaufman’s corruption, and the subtle quoting of the president’s line on terrorists), Romero is unapologetically expressing his rage—and that of many liberals—at America’s present state of mind.
He vents about the naiveté of the American Dream by exhibiting the terrible things both Cholo and Big Daddy do to achieve it. He rages at the huge financial gap in our country between the haves and have-nots by making Kaufman the villain instead of the zombie horde, and he suggests a potential call to arms.
Romero even questions the use of the term “terrorists” by having the film’s living heroes dubbed as such by the morally dubious Kaufman. Romero’s zombies, who once were content to wander carnivorously around a mall, are now blindly tied to vengeance, then to the tunnel-vision goal of a life of luxury. His American zombies are no longer just consumers, they are now dangerous vigilantes—perhaps even terrorists in their own right.
Romero again pulls a double-edged scare. On one level we have the fear of zombies that stumble about and eat human flesh in monstrous chomping bites. The second, the fear that real mindless people do stumble about our streets with a single-mindedness that leads them to behave like zombies. Land of the Dead is a quirky but very sincere note of anger that Americans are becoming the walking dead. Again and again, Romero’s zombies serve as a warning.