George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (review)

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Of Mice and Men and Zombies

A very good, very close friend of mine noted the other day that I’ve been talking about all “this Generation Xer stuff” a lot lately — blogging over at Geek Philosophy certainly has me thinking along those lines. But of course, one of the reasons the time was ripe for Geek Philosophy is that all “this Generation Xer stuff” is in the air — we ain’t the kids anymore and if you buy into the generational theory of cycles of history, which makes an awful lot of sense to me, we are all, regardless of our ages, about to be thrust into a period of instability and hard times (unless they’re already here). And we sense this, that we ain’t the kids anymore and so we’ll gonna be the ones picking up a big chunk of the mess.
But forget whatever theories of history you believe in or don’t. It’s like what I alluded to in my review of Batman Begins: you can’t help but feel that something big and heavy and consequential is about to burst, and that it’s gonna be bad. Housing bubbles and the offshoring of American jobs and the mess in the Middle East and skyrocketing oil prices and the splintering of American culture into angry little groups out only for themselves… Things just feel like they’re teetering on the edge of disaster. Personally, I think we’ll be lucky to escape with merely another Great Depression.

Maybe it’s just me — maybe I’m the only one feeling totally depressed and discouraged and despondent for the future. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that that attitude keeps turning up at the movies, too, like it’s simmering in the zeitgeist and pops out every now and then just for the hell of it. Society tottering or already fallen; people coping, or not: It underlies Batman and Sin City and Crash and even Cinderella Man, which I’ll dare to suggest has at least as much thematically in common with George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead as Batman Begins does.

See, there’s this beaten-down weariness to Land of the Dead that’s unlike your typical gore-and-shuffle zombie movie, and — even though this is Romero’s Big Hollywood Film — it’s unlike anything that the typical big-budget splatter flick has going for it, either (but you see it in Cinderella Man — picture Russell Crowe boxing zombies, and you’ve got it). I love that Land picks up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, so to speak — the undead have already been roaming the Earth for a goodly while as Land opens, and sure, that’s a function of the fact that we’re rejoining Romero’s epic that’s been in progress for decades and through several films. But that means you end up with a movie that feels kinda Max Headroomesque — I’m talking about the brilliant but shamefully short-lived SF series from the 1980s, not the silly talk show. Call it neo-postapocalyptic: the world took a mighty thrashing but ain’t quite complete wrecked yet, civilization is limping on, wounded and wallowing in decadence and shallow pleasures, anything to distract you from the fact that, fuck, who are we kidding, the world is pretty much brain dead, only some extreme measures are keeping the blood flowing for a little while longer. There’s always someone around to profit from disaster, turn the planet’s nightmare into his own little paradise; there’s always someone around to complain about how the little guy’s still getting fucked even now; and there’s always someone around who just wants to be left alone fer chrissake.

Enter George and Lenny. Well, not really: Enter jaded Riley (Simon Baker: The Ring Two, The Affair of the Necklace), who’s just trying to make a living in this lousy world that’s been overrun by zombies, and his pal Charlie (Robert Joy: The Shipping News), who ain’t so bright but is loyal and good in a fight and would die for Riley, who of course saved poor Charlie from certain doom a while back. (If the Depression-era metaphor doesn’t work for you, think Han and Chewie.) There’s something downright Steinbeckian about Riley and Charlie, how they just dream about gettin’ away and finding a bit of land where there’s no zombies, maybe gettin’ those rabbits– Well, not really rabbits. But definitely no zombies, and no The Man, who here is played by Kaufman (an actually chilling Dennis Hopper: Knockaround Guys, Jesus’ Son), who’s set himself up as lord of the manor of a little enclave of human survivors huddling together in a Midwestern American city. An unkind label for Riley — and his fellows, including Cholo (John Leguizamo: The Honeymooners, Assault on Precinct 13, in one of his best performances ever) — would be “mercenary.” But they’re more like milkmen, going out into the unprotected world where zombies roam and doing the grocery shopping, bringing back the consumers goods that let Kaufman and his cronies live in luxury, and friends of Riley and his ilk just plain survive. And Riley is pretty damn fed up with getting stuck with the dirty work, and can you blame him.

Of course there’s a whole bunch of eating-of-human-flesh scenes and disgusting decapitations and such — I think I saw a spinal column being pulled out intact through someone’s neck, but it was only in silhouette — but it’s not so much the focus of Land as you’d think. There’s actually something really poignant about how the not-undead humans use the zombies in carnival games (part of those decadent amusements I mentioned), the kind of thing that was funny in Shaun of the Dead but creepy and sad here… particularly cuz there’s this one zombie (Eugene Clark: Jasper, Texas) who’s starting to get a vague hint of what’s happening to him, and he seems to be pretty much in torment (which leads to him figuring out how to use guns and lead his zombie brethren in attacking humans in ways that result in people’s spinal columns being pulled out, but seriously: there’s a pathos to all this).

Now, I’m not saying I think we’re headed for a zombie apocalypse in the real world (though you never know…). But amidst all the horror fantasy here there’s something deep-down recognizable, in Kaufman’s profiteering and Riley’s fatigue and in the whole hopeless situation, to only sane response to which is to run away. Cuz cleaning up the mess is no damn fun.

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