Romero's Dead Cycle, Part Four: Land of the Free, Home of the Braaaiiins!
By Desmond Reddick
26 March 2007 — The shadow of terrorism and an unpopular war loomed over the world. Earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis claimed millions of lives worldwide. Death and destruction were plastered everywhere: on TV, in the papers, across the vast Internet, on the lips of strangers. Some feared the end times were near. When the global climate is filled with dread and political unrest, when the world seems to be fighting back, that's when zombies become vogue. And though it had been over 20 years since Day of the Dead, the time for George A. Romero's return — the time for him to show us how it's done — was at hand.
In Land of the Dead, the rich have holed up in Fiddler's Green, a towering apartment building. Outside of the building everybody else lives in poverty. The streets resemble a market from the Dark Ages. Filth, disease and famine run rampant. Everyone wishes for the comfort and luxury those in Fiddler's Green take for granted. Rich or poor, they all take solace in knowing they're surrounded by a giant fence and river. No one, living or (living) dead, gets into the city without permission. In fact, the only people allowed in or out are the scavengers / mercenaries. Guns in hand, they scour what's left of the surrounding area for food and supplies — and all with reckless abandon. Fireworks are launched to distract the zombies while the living loot liquor stores. However, on one such voyage, the scavengers notice something odd about the zombies: there's clearly something more going on inside their mushy brains. This has led some to cling to their own theories concerning Romero's message, but I will shoot those postulations down whilst outlining what I consider to be the film's underlying theme.
Most people who would analyze a zombie film look at Land of the Dead as a very straight analogy of the conflict in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. While there are several points that would lead to that conclusion, there is very little in the way of an all-encompassing theme. There are fragments of an argument floating throughout the film: the fireworks inducing "shock and awe" in the zombies, the mistreatment of prisoners, the tower, the underestimation of the enemy and, if we're stretching it, the film's final words. But I would argue that these are either coincidences or little tidbits trying to tie the film to a certain time period. When looked at as a whole, there is little doubt in my mind that Iraq is the driving theme. This theory falls apart when considering the way the film ends, and is a clear indication that it is something else altogether.
Harkening back to the original installment, Romero takes a slice out of the current climate of America and made it into a zombie movie. While Land of the Dead is in no way near the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead, it is an interesting comparison. Where Night had McCarthyism and racial tension boiling throughout, Land focuses more on the modern problems of classism and the rampant mistrust of authority.
In Land, the rich are living a life of privilege far from any disturbances. They dine at a fancy food court amongst caged birds singing lovely songs while members of the next economic class have been pushed towards poverty. There is no middle ground here. In fact, the poor living in the city-sized ghetto are only superior to the zombies that lurk beyond the river. The few zombies that exist in the city are there for the amusement of the poor. They have pictures taken with the living dead and pit them against each other in a zombie rendition of a cock fight. Things look bleak and, due to the near impossibility of upward movement, they're not getting any nicer.
Where Land differs from the other films in the Dead Cycle is that it comes across as much less a bleak vision of humanity than it is a sick power fantasy given life. The zombies, who in my mind represent the poorest and most destitute of America's population being that they are kept on the fringes, are looked down upon universally. They live mundane existences and are only interrupted when those who are (slightly) better off violently invade their territory. Those who invade are representative of the disappearing middle class. Those in the middle class are not bad at heart; they're merely pleasing their upper class masters. It is they who live in the beautiful Fiddler's Green, especially Dennis Hopper's Kaufman (or "the president"), who have dark hearts. It is they who command these raids by dangling false hopes of class ascension and safety inside the glimmering tower.
The three classes are all very clearly distinguished. The middle class is disappearing, thanks mostly to the casualties they suffer whist performing the dangerous raids ordered by the upper class. Of course, as they are killed they join the lower class of the zombies. With unemployment rates climbing and a new class called the working poor, it is very easy to see this comparison. The middle class is kept entertained through barbaric acts of "zombie cock fighting" — which is eerily reminiscent of reality television. But the famine and pestilence facing them daily weighs heavy on the collective atmosphere of the city.
The higher classes are very clearly portrayed as the bad guys regardless of who is eating flesh. They remind me of the Boss Hogg-type villains from 70s and 80s cinema and television: fat men in pressed suits lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills.
The film diverts at the end as the zombie hordes raid the city with a clear intent: revenge. Most of the middle class is extinguished in this attack, and the fat cats in the tower get their due (thus fulfilling the revenge fantasy aspect of the film). In a sheer contrast with Night of the Living Dead, the poor make it out alive while those in authority are left to suffer. It is almost a perfect reversal of the original film in that way.
In another reversal of Romero's Dead Cycle films, the ending, which I will still refrain from spoiling, does not tell us that humanity is doomed. It does not scold us for being worse than the zombies. Instead it offers hope for the future.