Land of the Dead
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Nearly 40 years ago, in 1968, George A. Romero livened up the big screen with a tiny little tale about the walking dead among us.
Today, Night of the Living Dead is a towering horror classic, as are its sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Romero's work is so lauded in certain circles that his name and George Lucas' name are given equal weight—that is, if Romero's isn't given the edge. "This is like Star Wars for horror fans," says Cabin Fever director Eli Roth, whose 2002 movie about a camping trip gone horribly, flesh-eatingly wrong, is said to be directly influenced by Romero.
As Romero's ongoing zombie story staggers into a new century, humans have been all but driven off the planet. Enclaves still exist, but they're small and scattered. Zombies shuffle their way through the countryside and in the deserted towns, searching—usually vainly—for fresh flesh. But the people of Pittsburgh are too smart for them. They've walled themselves into one section of the city where they've hunkered down for the long haul.
That's where Riley and Cholo come in. Hired to keep "the stench" at bay and to periodically raid surrounding zombie towns to snag medicine and canned goods from abandoned drug stores and shopping centers, these two men and their comrades tool about in a behemoth tank/RV dubbed "Dead Reckoning." It's virtually impenetrable, and it's armed to the teeth with everything from machine guns to artillery shells. Also onboard are lots and lots of fireworks. It seems that zombies love watching "sky flowers," and when the show is on, the brain-eaters stand motionless, enthralled, forgetting for a moment the task at hand—devouring the living.
1) We've got to all work together to survive. 2) The act of oppressing others has far-reaching repercussions and hurts many people, even those who aren't being oppressed. 3) If a society's class structure becomes too separated, that culture will crumble. 4) Be kind to zombies. After all, they have feelings, too.
Riley's best friend is Charlie, a man who's a bit on the challenged side mentally, but super quick with his trigger finger. When a soldier insults Charlie, calling him a "retard," Riley swiftly puts the man in his place.
There's no theology behind why the dead come back to "life," why they shuffle when they walk and why they lust after the flesh of former friends and neighbors. Zombies are what they are. They come back to life because they're in a zombie movie, not because they have supernatural powers. Still, it's discomforting to think about what it means, on a spiritual (eternal) level, to have millions, even billions of people around the world who refuse to stay dead.
A couple of times the camera pans past a raging street preacher who pleads with everyone within earshot to "come back to Jesus" and "give up your lives of sin." Riley wryly tells Charlie that one of the reasons he likes him is that he still believes in an afterlife. There's a comment made about God taking the phone off the hook, implying that the zombie-infested world is a result of His inattentive carelessness.
At a sleazy nightclub, a topless dancer shows the camera her breasts. Just as irritating and unnecessary is a scene in which two nameless women grope and kiss while waiting for the zombies to kill them. Slack, a woman who had been forced into prostitution, is seen wearing a low-cut leather-looking outfit. When she changes, she shows off her bra. Vulgar conversation references drunken sex, oral sex and masturbation.
It's like it's a competition. Every time somebody does a zombie movie, the gore factor has to go up. And up. And up. And just because George Romero is the father of the modern zombie flick doesn't make him immune to the pressure to one-up the last one. Land of the Dead moviegoers witness things in living color (and in gigantic proportions) that most of us haven't even imagined before.
Early on, we're "treated" to a sequence that forcefully sets the tone: The head of a zombie is severed from his already lifeless body. The camera closes in on the kill as gallons of blood gush to the ground, and then follows the action as the head rolls down a few stairs and comes to rest in the mud. The leader of the zombies, who is called Big Daddy, growls out his frustration and then pulverizes the decaying skull with his booted foot. A bit later, a group of zombies are seen chewing feverishly on fresh corpses. After that, it's just a matter of creative repetition. (For instance, Riley decapitates one zombie attacker by positioning the creature's neck in the path of a lowering drawbridge.)
Heads of zombies and newly bitten humans are blown off, chopped off and ripped off, and Romero isn't shy about showing the gruesome results. Bloody bones, torsos and heads serve as zombie food. The camera doesn't even bother to blink as an infected man shoots himself in the head. A soldier's arm is chopped off. Another person's arm is literally ripped in half—lengthwise. Heads and torsos are riddled with bullets. Buildings are blown up. A car explodes when a pool of gasoline is ignited.
In the nightclub, Slack is thrown into a caged ring with two zombies, Fight Club-style. She fights for her life and almost loses it before Riley shows up, shoots the two dead guys in the head and then placidly assassinates the living guy who's responsible for her plight. Other ways zombies are used for sport include people shooting paintballs at them, painting targets on them and hanging them upside down.
Killing zombies has always been pretty gross at the cineplex. But here it takes on new significance as they develop awareness and gain intelligence. Big Daddy, for instance, kills a fellow zombie ostensibly to put him out of his misery (he's engulfed in flames). It's an act that simultaneously pushes hot buttons related to our current culture war over right-to-die issues and hints at the idea that stopping zombies cold with a bullet to the brain isn't an obligatory act—or even a humane act—which it has been in almost every other zombie movie to date.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to 40 f-words and 10 s-words. Degrading slang for genitalia is used. God's name and Jesus' name are viciously abused four times each.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Cholo and some of his men snatch up liquor from an abandoned store to sell on the street. Several drink from a bottle. Revelers drink at the nightclub. Slack rolls and smokes what looks like a joint—in the joint. Cholo also smokes marijuana. Cigars and cigarettes make appearances.
Other Negative Elements
An offensive epithet is applied to a Latino (by a bad guy).
Land of the Dead's zombies are one shuffling step away from lawyering up and filing civil suit against the city of Pittsburgh for discriminating against them. They think. They feel. They care about their "friends." The point that implies is intentional. Romero, who's known for injecting social messages into his mayhem, is quoted in Premiere magazine as saying, "I thought it would be nice to reflect this post-9/11 change, politics and attitude and everything else. A little sociopolitical satire here and there where we can squeak it in." In other words, as Hollywood Reporter film critic Michael Rechtshaffen puts it, "Although Romero ventured outside his native Pittsburgh to shoot this one in Toronto, it's very clear, from the flag-waving vigilantes to the anti-terrorist rhetoric spewed by [co-star Dennis] Hopper's big-money operator, that most criticisms are being leveled due south of the border."
At its simplest, the message is this: To survive, we have to all get along, even with those whose "stench" we can't stand. And we shouldn't put up too many walls around ourselves, because it will be those very walls that trap us when the end nears. (Here, the film is about as subtle as a ravenous flesh-eater. When the zombies surge into the city in the film's climax, Riley remarks, "The fences that were put up to protect them are what's going to keep them trapped.")
If one reaches deeper below the surface, all sorts of "squeaked-in sociopolitical" commentary becomes visible. The corruption of government. The damage bad leadership can do to the innocents. The effect of class warfare on society. The injustices of America's war on terror. And the idea that there's no such thing as evil, just misunderstanding.
Don't believe a zany zombie movie can have such heady subtext? Moments before the credits roll, while watching a line of zombies slowly make their way across a pedestrian bridge into the city, Riley restrains a comrade from firing one last obliterating shell from Dead Reckoning. "They're just looking for a place to go, same as us," he says softly.
Premiere writer Sara Brady observes that interweaving such commentary with "guts and guns" is a tricky proposition. "Too much preaching and horror fans will revolt; no brain at all and it's just a dumb, bloody orgy." So which is it? Is Land of the Dead more sermon or orgy? I'll let the words of an enthusiastic moviegoer answer that one. Walking out of the screening I attended, a young twentysomething gushed to a friend, "I told you the intestine pulling was my favorite part!"
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Simon Baker as Riley; John Leguizamo as Cholo; Dennis Hopper as Kaufman; Asia Argento as Slack; Robert Joy as Charlie; Eugene Clark as Big Daddy
George A. Romero ( )