October Horrorshow: Land of the Dead

Cracked.com recently featured an article about surviving a zombie apocalypse. It concluded that all we know and all we’ve learned about surviving from zombie horror films is wrong. Tactics such as raiding the local gun store and fleeing from cities have become so imprinted on our psyches, Cracked argues, that everyone will have the same ideas, and those ideas will serve to create nothing but the world’s largest smorgasbord for the undead. They have a point. Well, they would, if the danger of a zombie apocalypse were real.

Planning for impossible events is an undeniable waste of time. But, engaging in fantasy is one of mankind’s favorite pastimes, so I won’t deny I’ve thought about what I would do if hordes of the undead began ravaging the streets of Queens right outside my window. No matter how many variables I add or change, I just can’t see being able to make it to safety in a city this densely populated, were the zombie invasion to begin. Sure, there are plenty of ways I would like things to turn out, and they all involve getting to a defensible position that continues to be enforced with further survivors, and a type of stability would begin to take hold, as we humans exist in safety inside, while the zombies roam the earth outside.

And that’s the idea behind George Romero’s Land of the Dead, from 2005. In his vision, Pittsburgh has become a safe haven for thousands of human survivors. They’ve holed up in the city’s triangle shaped downtown, backed up against the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, the one open side of the triangle a series of electrified fences and barricades manned by a security force wielding assault rifles.

The film opens on an equally heavily armed group of scavengers sent out from the city in search of food and supplies. They come across some of the undead quickly, and the resultant shooting and gore is used to introduce us to the main protagonists of the story, Riley and Cholo, played by Simon Baker and John Leguizamo, respectively. Additonally, we meet Big Daddy, a zombie who ambles out from a gas station, played by Eugene Clark.

Big Daddy has more of a handle on things than most of the other zombies. There’s a spark behind his eyes, a bizarre sense of injustice and rage at the behavior of the scavengers in his peaceful little undead suburb. His actions, and the actions of other zombies he rallies behind him, end up playing off of human machinations back in Pittsburgh.

There, we learn that the city is controlled by a ruthless villain named Kaufman, played by Dennis Hopper. He resides, along with all the other rich folks in the city, in an ivory tower rising out of the center of downtown, while the shanties below are the realm and the bane of survivors that are less well off. Riley and Cholo both work for Kaufman, but Riley has had enough, while Cholo harbors illusions of worming his way into the good graces of Kaufman, and thus gaining entry into the world of luxury that is just beyond his reach. Asia Argento also gets thrown into the mix at this point, playing a street smart hooker named Slack who’s just as much as a victim of Kaufman’s schemes as anyone else in the city.

Eventually, the conflicts between the three main characters become entangled with the approaching zombie horde, and the city’s status as a safe haven is threatened. Of course, trouble ensues.

George Romero comes from a different era of horror filmmaking. Released a year after the remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead is in many ways a response to the more graphic and dramatically serious horror that has become popular in the last decade. Despite all the fake blood and exploding heads that populate Romero’s films, they’re little more than cartoons. Very, very adult cartoons, but cartoons nonetheless. Romero never tries for realism, and that keeps things lighthearted enough in Land of the Dead to avoid any overbearing feelings of oppression or anxiety. It’s a good balance.

Land of the Dead is one of the more creative and fun zombie films that have come out in recent years, and it’s also among Romero’s best. Romero being the filmmaker that he is, that of course means that “among Romero’s best” should be treated as a caveat. Knowing that going in, however, means that a viewer can just sit back and enjoy.