The Light That Failed: George Romero’s “Dead” Rock On

[Originally published in Queen Anne News, July 5, 2005]

“Send some flowers to the cemetery,” growls the head honcho of a zombie-killing expedition at the beginning of George Romero’s Land of the Dead.

"Land of the Dead" zombie squad: John Leguizamo, Simon Baker and Robert Joy

Then scarlet fireworks bloom in the sky and every shambling corpse in what used to be a Smalltown, USA—complete with rotting park bandstand and picket fences—turns his/her/its milky eyes upward, mesmerized by … what? Images that trigger a half-remembered Independence Day, when American history and holiday pleasures were surely celebrated in that very park? Or do those bursts of light simply mirror the random, involuntary firing of synapses that so mysteriously reanimate the dead in Romero’s cemetery movies (previously, Night of the Living Dead, 1968; Dawn of the Dead, 1978; Day of the Dead, 1985)?

The zombie-maker’s movies have always operated as a kind of termite art, chewing away at the surface fictions that make it easy for us to coast happily through our July 4th, secure in Fortress America, full of faith in family values and the belief that the disenfranchised can always be “rendered” harmless. Romero flays our pretty pictures to the bone, exposing nasty stuff like racism, class warfare, Darwinian appetite, unbridled materialism. And on the spiritual front, Romero’s erasure of death as an ending or transition undermines the promise of something more than solitary, eternal confinement in flesh, perpetually driven by the need to consume.

Night of the Living Dead opened in a cemetery where two young people had come to put flowers on Dad’s grave. Romero’s rural Pennsylvania looked like an old black-and-white photograph or newsreel, illuminated by a sickly glow. That haunted light ate away at the normalcy of the siblings’ wrangling as they dutifully performed what was clearly an empty ritual. Still, when a tall, dark-clad figure lurched into view, we counted it as just a creepy caretaker or funeral director. But the thing was death, and it had come out of the ground to make food of us. Horror movies—and any clearcut definitions of heaven and hell—were never the same.

That first Romero zombie ripped away humankind’s comforting conviction that honoring the dead would keep them down—and by the time a kid turned piranha on her own mother, all kinds of primal taboos had been horribly shattered by the truly groundbreaking (pun intended) Night. And, for a final socio-political fillip, the black man who becomes paterfamilias of a besieged tribe of living humans ends by being exterminated by good ol’ boy vigilantes, for whom his dark skin made him Other, just another “spook.”

The year Night of the Living Dead scared the living daylights out of us (it got to Seattle several years after its release), we were embroiled in a doomed war never entirely laid to rest, by its veterans or by the nation. America’s Flower Children regarded war-mongering, uptight, repressive grownups as dead weight, retarding evolution into a bright future. More than three decades later, we find ourselves up to our necks in yet another divisive war, waged while we shop the time away in glitzy malls, mostly insulated from ugly images of overseas casualties, lulled by presidential mantras more and more divorced from reality.

And Land of the Dead, Romero’s latest zombie flick [as of 2005], taps deep into that zeitgeist: America’s weirdly dissociated anxiety, the debilitating disconnect between confidence and terror that’s worn us down since 9/11. The film delivers cracking-good genre action sequences, punctuating the ongoing battle between the living and the “stenches” for control of what’s left of civilization. And this entry in the Dead cycle showcases a genuinely engaging and idiosyncratic cast: Simon Baker, Robert Joy, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Dennis Hopper. But Land of the Dead lives up to its title: the psychic weather in this movieworld is an almost perfunctory hopelessness, as though hell on earth were now a fact of life, for both the quick and the dead.

Dennis Hopper deadpans it beautifully as a lizardlike Trump—or Gordon Gekko?—lording it over slums full of proles from his brightly lit tower, full of upscale shops and penthouses. Down in those mean streets, zombies are now fodder for fight clubs and geek shows, target practice for giggling, dehumanized soldiers.

Outside the fortified enclave of Fiddler’s Green (clearly the Golden Triangle of Pittsburgh, the director’s original production base), hordes of zombies wander aimlessly, still trying to reenact their onetime roles as gas station attendants, gardeners, musicians. And when raiders come to loot the towns and practice some genocide (can you call it that, if the victims are already dead?), they can always count on distracting the revenants with those Fourth of July fireworks.

This Hobbesian socio-economic arrangement hits a snag when an oversized black zombie—“Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark) in the credits—watches his cohorts mowed down like grass, then opens his awful maw and howls in anguish. (Is he kin to that murdered “daddy” in Night of the Living Dead?) It’s the opening salvo in the serfs’ revolution—and Romero forces us to consider what side we should morally stand on in this war.

In Land‘s tower, conspicuous consumers and their guardians have shed their humanity in favor of soulless hedonism, while the cannibal dead grow smarter and, in the case of their hideous yet charismatic Che, begin to feel empathy and compassion, those most human of emotions.

Big Daddy leads his undead people to the promised land
Big Daddy leads his undead people to the promised land

In one of the most visually striking scenes in the film, masses of motley corpses stand silently on a concrete bulwark along a dark river. Then their Big Daddy, seeing the lighted tower’s reflection on the water, steps off the ledge on to the light—and sinks. His legions follow suit. Cut to moonlit shallows, as the round heads of the dead rise from their Styx like ghastly eggs. Talk about your primal images of baptism and rebirth!

Romero signals the Zombies’ Independence Day with delicious subversiveness: as they storm the ramparts of Fiddler’s Green, the stenches are stopped dead in their tracks by a defensive barrage of fireworks. Their dull gazes fix on the patriotic lightshow above—and then slowly, deliberately, they turn their eyes away, back to the bloody business on the ground, free at last.

Embedded in Land of the Dead‘s gripping horrorfest is a sharp-toothed critique of a stratified society amusing itself to death while the hungry have-nots gather their powers. That’s a sad parable for our times. But what’s far worse is Romero’s overarching vision of both life and death as a meaningless slog with no end in sight. Now that’s a scary movie both Lovecraft and Camus might have screamed for!

Kathleen Murphy

© 2005 Kathleen Murphy


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