by Lucy Leitner
Land of the Dead isn’t a horror movie in the conventional sense. It has the thrills and chills and carnage of the genre, but that’s not what George A. Romero’s fourth entry in his of the Dead franchise is about. This is dystopian fiction with zombies, because flesh-eating corpses would have greatly improved Brave New World. While the entire ZOMPAC genre is dystopian to a degree, LOTD applies classic dystopian concepts to the zombie-filled world.
After this post-9/11 zombie apocalypse (or in year 37 of the original one), Pittsburgh has become a self-contained little Oceania where the rich live comfortably in Fiddler’s Green, a luxury high-rise that—for lack of a better word— despot Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) designed and populated with only the fineste survivors, while the poor inhabit a fenced-in, vice-ridden commune. Alongside the drunks, hookers, and resistance leaders, the latter houses the crew of Dead Reckoning, a heaving armed and armored vehicle designed to enter zombie-infested neighborhoods for supply missions, and its commander Riley (Simon Baker). But second-in-command Cholo wants better. He’s clinging the pre-apocalyptic American Dream of upward mobility. Poor sap, he doesn’t know he’s a prole. But Kaufman is only too happy to coldly remind him that no amount of money can buy his way out of his predetermined caste.
When Cholo steals Dead Reckoning to extort $5 million in exchange for not blowing up Fiddler’s Green, Kaufman turns to Riley and his friends—the slow-witted, crack shot burn victim Charlie (Robert Joy) and hooker with a heart full of rebellion sympathies Slack (horror royalty Asia Argento)—to stop him. Meanwhile, a legion of zombies led by mechanic-turned-corpse Big Daddy (Steelers 1975 ninth round draft pick Eugene Clark) is closing in on the city. But these zombies bear little resemblance to the molasses-paced blue freaks of Dawn of the Dead. Not only has the SFX makeup evolved in the thirty years between the two films, so have the walking dead themselves.
They’re still slow as Squirrel Hill Tunnel traffic, but they’ve learned how to use simple tools and they’ve even developed primitive emotions. And, thankfully, Romero halts their evolution short of talking—a line that should never be crossed in zombie fiction. Instead of adding speed and giving them everything short of superpowers to make them more menacing, Romero wisely chooses to develop their humanity while the living are losing theirs. Big Daddy is just about the only one on any side who cares when his kind die. And unlike humans, zombies do not kill their own.
As Kaufman “kept the people off the streets by giving them games and vices,” he keeps the zombies distracted by fireworks that literally stop them in their tracks as they look up to the sky, transfixed like Yinzers at a baseball game.
It’s not just the humans being subjugated in this film. There is one untouchable caste that lives even below the vice-ridden encampment.
Though Cholo is clearly motivated by social status, Kaufman wants Big Brother power, and Riley is “looking for a world with no fences,” little else about their characters, or those of the supporting players, is known. But this lack of development beyond archetype is forgivable in satire, particularly when there are zombies involved. What may need a bit more explaining is the severity of reactions of all parties involved—how gun battles break out like a spaghetti western. However, while the Occupy Movement will tell us otherwise, we are not in this type of kill-or-be-killed, middle class-less stratified society. Hopefully. Kaufman’s techniques of distracting zombies are eerily similar to those employed by the Pirates organization to distract from decades of losing.
LOTD is more dystopian than zombie, more about a message than frights. It’s about one man who wants to escape his predetermined status in a world where the zombie apocalypse has created an unprecedented gap between rich and poor. Like the history of all hitherto existing society, Land of the Dead is the story of class struggles.