Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 1, 2005

Land of the Dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:20 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 1, 2005

As a blend of horror movie escapism and social commentary, George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” succeeds wildly. Romero, who has three previous zombie movies to his credit, uses the conflict between the living and the ‘undead’ as a metaphor for the contradictions of late capitalist America.

The living dwell in a gated and heavily fortified city that is patrolled by centurions who have not earned the right to permanent residence there themselves. The centurions occasionally organize themselves into death squads and make forays into zombie territory where they kill at random and retrieve canned goods and booze for the consumption needs of the urban population. The shops in zombie territory are still staffed by the “stenches” who once worked there but who have only dim memories of their old occupations. An undead gas station attendant might hold up a nozzle but is clueless as to which end of the car it goes into; an undead gardener aimlessly pushes a lawnmower in circles in the middle of the street at midnight, and so on. These are lost souls who no longer fit into the commodity-producing scheme of things. What is worse, they subsist on eating the flesh of the living.

It is no accident that the city featured in the film is none other than Pittsburgh, director George Romero’s home town. This once bustling headquarters of America’s most powerful and prosperous steel companies was one of the first casualties of deindustrialization. It has been transformed into a citadel for service industries staffed by the college educated. The older, run-down working class sections of town that are home to unemployable steelworkers and other blue-collar workers made redundant by the “economic miracle” could easily have served as on-location settings for the zombie strongholds in “Land of the Dead.” (For economic reasons, however, most of the film was shot in Canada.)

Pittsburgh is ruled by Kaufman, a cynical capitalist played by Dennis Hopper. From a high-rise named “Fiddler’s Green” that dominates the city, he spies on the activities of the city’s population through television monitors. If anybody steps out of line, they will be picked up by the centurions, murdered and then dumped into zombie territory. This Pittsburgh has a lot in common with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” another rigidly divided class society.

For that matter, “Day of the Dead” has enough cultural references to provide fodder for a dozen MLA panels. For example, you will find suggestions of “Bladerunner,” “Mad Max” or any of a number of other dystopian films.

The film also hearkens back to earlier classics like the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films, mostly in its capacity to make you feel a degree of sympathy for the monster. In “Day of the Dead,” you can’t escape feeling sorry for the flesh-eating zombies who only mount an assault on Pittsburgh after suffering one death squad raid too many. Led by “Big Daddy,” an African-American zombie (played skillfully and solely through grunting or howling by veteran actor Eugene Clarke) who was a pneumatic drill operator in his previous life and who still wears the coveralls of his trade, they lurch toward the city to take revenge. It is to Romero’s credit that he can nearly make you cheer for this uprising of the flesh-eating dispossessed.

The only thing that stands between Pittsburgh and the advancing zombie army is a heavily armed and armored troop carrier nicknamed Dead Reckoning. It bears a strong resemblance to vehicles on the streets of Baghdad today. Dead Reckoning has been commandeered by Cholo (John Leguizamo), a centurion who seeks revenge against Kaufman for not allowing him to buy an apartment in Pittsburgh. As somebody who has spent some time shopping for a co-op in Manhattan, I can identify with this character. Unless Kaufman turns over millions of dollars in ransom to Cholo and his gang, he will open fire on the city.

Kaufman sends Riley (Simon Baker), Dead Reckoning’s former commander, out to thwart Cholo’s plans and to save the city, which is the source of his wealth. Riley has been jailed for interfering in a gladiator type combat between two zombies that has been staged in a Las Vegas-like casino within the city. He, like the GI’s speaking out against the occupation of Iraq today, is one of the few centurions that has not been completely dehumanized by Kaufman’s system. If Riley and his friends are successful, they plan to hightail it to Canada and leave Kaufman’s madness behind. Obviously, such a plan will resonate with any filmgoer who has taken note of our northern neighbor’s more civilized stance on matters such as gay marriage or the war on terror.

In an interview with Los Angeles Weekly, Romero explains the importance of Pittsburgh:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

Romero has always had a keen sense of the political issues of the day when making a new film. In his 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” the war in Vietnam was raging. Just as science-fiction films of the 1950s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” evoked fear of Communist infiltrators, Romero’s 1968 opus, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Halloween” and other such films from this period conveyed the carnage in Vietnam. Tom Savini, who was responsible for the zombie makeup and special effects in Romero’s 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” served in Vietnam in 1969, photographing corpses for the United States Army.

In addition, “Night of the Living Dead” featured a Black protagonist as well who, in distinction to the “Land of the Dead,” was leading the fight against the undead. At the climax of the film, he was gunned down by trigger-happy cops and thrown unceremoniously on a heap of burning zombies. It is no coincidence that the film was made during a period of intense ghetto rebellions.

“Dawn of the Dead” also mirrors what was going on in American society at that time. Shot in a Pittsburgh shopping mall, it satirizes a consumer society gone mad. When the living are not fending off zombies, they are fighting over consumer goods.

All of Romero’s previous films are on DVD and worth seeing. He is one of this country’s unique talents and “Land of the Dead,” his latest, is a must.

2 Comments »

  1. […] Using zombie attacks as a metaphor throughout his career, Romero’s most powerful film in my view was the 2005 “Land of the Dead”, about which I wrote: […]

    Pingback by At Berkeley; Birth of the Living Dead | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 11, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

  2. […] that is advancing on a gated city that is as brutally class divided as Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai. In my review of this film that can be seen on Amazon streaming, I quoted Romero who was asked about why the […]

    Pingback by What the zombies tell us | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 19, 2015 @ 6:24 pm


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