In honor of the late, great George A. Romero, my son Aidan chimes in with a look back at the most unsung of the original Living Dead films.
"Zombies man, they creep me out". This statement by the character Paul Kaufman (the late Dennis Hopper) leaves the audience to the question: what is the most frightening or perhaps interesting aspect of the living dead? Ghouls, zombies, walkers, stenches, whatever one would call them, the most important and persevering element of these monsters is that they are us. They are a reflection of the human condition and society. No one has had more influence and understanding of this than the master of modern zombies, the auteur George A. Romero, and this has never been more apparent and obvious than in his fourth Zombie film, 2005's Land of the Dead. Land follows the progress of both human society and the dead since his original living dead trilogy consisting of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the dead and Day of the Dead. While this film differs from the previous installments in terms of scale, the constants of Romero's work remain present and relevant involving his political allegories, social critique, and symbolism.
In every one of Romero's living dead films, the director allegorically examines the society he lives in. In Night, he tackled the topics of communism and racism. In Dawn, he criticizes the modern consumerist culture. In Day, he depicted the issues of militarism and lack of communication. In Land he combined several elements in his political critique, most notably the war on terror. By this time, many years after the outbreak of reanimated corpses, society has made some progress in rebuilding itself and what first appears to be an efficient way but it's revealed to be corrupt and destined for downfall. The film revolves around the city of Pittsburgh, in a building at the center of it called "Fiddler's Green", a luxurious establishment exclusively for the upper class, while those who can't afford it (a large amount of people) inhabit the slums around it. The city operates with a system mirroring both feudalism, where people wind up doing tasks for the powerful in exchange for favors and aristocracy, where the power for those who happen to be rich. This could be seen as an illusion to the power corrupt people with money wield in modern times. The entire city is fenced in, more or less protected from the dead. The man in charge of fiddlers Green, Paul Kaufman, is threatened by his ill tempered lackey, Cholo Demora (John Leguizamo). After Kaufman backs out of the deal to allow the latter into the establishment, subtly due to Cholo's Hispanic ethnicity, adding a touch of racial discrimination and inequality into the structure of this corrupt empire. Cholo threatens the destruction of the fence using the powerful arm of "Dead Reckoning", which he has hijacked. Kaufman immediately rejects Cholo's ultimatum and opts for other means of resolution by sending the original commander and designer of the "dead reckoning" Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) to stop him. This is an allusion to President Bush's declaration "We do not negotiate with terrorists". A line Kaufman actually uses. The reference is among the most obvious and specific allegories Romero has used in his Living Dead films.
Another of Romero's trademarks the film predominately features is a social critique, in this case regarding class warfare. The rich hold all of the power and the poor are left with scraps. This is a reflection of the growingly distressed economy of modern America with some many people below the poverty line and money not getting where it really needs to be. The reason for this is quite prevalent. In Land, the people in power are ignoring the problem, therefore they are a part of it. Kaufman does not acknowledge the poor people living in slums outside of Fiddler's Green. This allusion is taking a radical step further with the zombies themselves; the dead are now portrayed by Romero as carnivorous animals as opposed to malevolent ghouls and it seems almost cruel when marauders runs through the dead's territory and sadistically destroy them. As this film takes place an undetermined amount of years after the original trilogy, the zombies have had time to evolve. They all remember routine aspects of the original lives and attempt to mimic them, and even show empathy towards one another. Early in the film zombies are seen attempting to use their old instruments or reclaim their old day jobs, the most significant case being a zombie gas station attendant. This is grown from a seed planted in the previous installment, Day of the Dead. In Day a zombie named Bub shows he recognizes objects he may have used in his past life and displays genuine grief in a surprisingly touching scene. Now in Land, a large amount of the dead showing these traits. With a new sympathetic view of the zombies, they now take their place as lower class and the economic allegory, and through the events of the film, may become what could be viewed as revolutionaries as they attempt to overthrow Fiddler's Green.
On the subject of sympathetic characters another one of Romero's occurring reoccurring elements is symbolism. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero was one of the earliest directors who bravely cast a black man as the lead hero in the form of actor Duane Jones, who portrayed Ben. While Romero states his casting decision was due simply to the fact that Jones had given the best audition, he repeated his choice 10 years later in casting Peter in Dawn of the Dead, who is played by Ken Foree. He rounded out the original trilogy following this as in Day of the dead with casting Terry Alexander as one of the protagonists named John. He repeated this motif years later in Land, but with a twist. The casting of a black man was Eugene Clark as Big Daddy: the intelligent zombie who would lead the dead in their revolution. With this decisio,n he suggested that Daddy is a hero as much as any of the human characters, bringing the character arc of the zombies as a whole to a bizarre but effective conclusion.
All of Romero's zombie films contain allusions that can be examined but Land of the Dead could be argued to have the most effective and specifically relevant political allegories, social critiques and symbolism to the time period, and confirms Romero's status as a true auter with his own definitive style. He creates this post apocalyptic recovering society that already displays the same problems we face today, such as the inability to resolve matters peacefully, and the ignorance of important economic issues leading to a massive and growing gap between the upper and lower classes of society. Using these, he closes out his original living dead continuity reaffirming the zombies many parallels with the living, and at some times leaves the audience rooting for the dead to prevail against a corrupt government. By the films end, the viewers are still left to ponder just how different or better they are from the dead. The subordinate Mike (Sean Roberts) comments on the zombies behavior: "They're pretending to be alive!", leaving Riley Denbo to note "Isn't that what we're doing? pretending to be alive?"