Thursday, December 18, 2014

Land of the Dead: Romero's New, Old Zombies

Now that I've finished up work on my Master's Project, co-teaching ENG 490W - Zombie Fictions, I'd like to share my model blog entry for our last film blog assignment of the semester. The assignment was as follows (with my blog entry beginning with the picture of Bub):

            Over the course of this semester, we have seen many different presentations of the zombie figure. For this our 6th and final film blog, I want you to pay particular attention to the depiction of zombies in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead. In what ways do these zombies follow the conventions that we have identified within the zombie fictions that we have looked at over the course of the semester? In what ways do they violate them?
            With these similarities and differences in mind, make ONE argument about the function of zombies within this film; i.e. what are these particular zombies doing? Do they operate symbolically as allegories or metaphors? Are they parodic or satirical?  Of what, and how so? What is George Romero using this iteration of the zombie to tell us about ourselves? 
   Once again, you are required to make ONE explicit critical argument (by explicit, I mean I want you clearly articulate a thesis statement/main argument, and to identify it as your thesis statement by writing it in bold font), and I want you to support that argument with direct and appropriate evidence from the film itself.

            In many ways, the creatures depicted in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead exemplify the traditional zombie figure, as outlined in his original zombie horror trilogy – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and the wildly underrated Day of the Dead. Unlike many other recent zombie films, 28 Days Later and Zombieland most notably, the zombies found in Land are dead (not infected), slow (not superhuman), and are compelled to eat people (instead of just ripping them apart). However, despite these similarities, the zombies in this film, led by the very impressive Big Daddy, also present a bit of a departure from the previous 3 entries in Romero’s Dead series. Although there is certainly evidence that the zombies in Night and Dawn and Day aren’t completely mindless – a tried car door handle here, an undead Flyboy returning to the hideout there, Bub’s whole zombie prodigy existence – in Land of the Dead, this limited brain activity is taken even further. These zombies not only seem to be capable of basic thought and/or residual instinct, but also appear able to learn, both from each other and from the humans that consistently abuse them. In this horrific vision of a world where the zombies aren’t the worst monsters around, a world where zombies are, in fact, victimized and exploited, Romero presents his viewers with the unsettling notion that the only thing worse than being killed by your enemy is deserving it. 

            The voice-over that begins the movie actually serves to assert the film’s similarities to its predecessors. Unlike many other films, who consider the conventions of zombie fictions to be a given, Land of the Dead spends its first few minutes describing exactly what kind of creatures this film is concerned with. The first words we hear, “dead people,” don’t tell us very much, but each successive utterance gives us a clearer and clearer picture of the monster we are about to encounter (01:13, all times taken from the Amazon Prime rental version). Using almost the same verbiage as the newscasters in Night of the Living Dead, the voice over explains that not just dead people, but “the recently departed,” “unburied human corpses” more specifically, “are returning to life and feeding on the living” (01:15; 01:17). Echoing the scientist at the beginning of Dawn, we are told that “everyone who dies will become one of them” and advised that anyone who is bitten “will just become one of them that much sooner” (01:28; 01:30). However, picking up where Bub left off in Day of the Dead, toward the end of the voiceovers, viewers are left with a more dire concern, more dreadful even than the idea of undead creatures that “survive by eating human flesh”: the chance that those creatures could “develop the power to think, to reason, even in the most primitive ways…”  (01:24; 02:07).

      With this awful possibility at the forefront of our imaginations, the film proper begins. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that these zombies have a little more going on upstairs, even in the context of Romero’s relatively-smart-zombie universe. Taking a huge step from using a rock to try to shatter a window (Night), or holding a baseball mitt (Dawn), some of the first zombies shown in Land of the Dead are “playing” instruments, grouped together in a gazebo band (03:14). Now, I wouldn’t run out and sign them up for America’s Got Talent or anything, but two of them were actually getting sound out of their instruments. This is particularly impressive for the zombie tuba player; where does the breath come from???

            The most interesting and intelligent zombie of the film, though, and one of the more interesting zombies of zombie fiction period, shows up just moments later after the service bell dings at Big Daddy’s Gas and repairs and Big Daddy’s zombie dutifully answers it (03:33). Initially, there’s very little to suggest that Big Daddy is doing anything beyond acting on residual instinct, no different than Peter’s explanation for what was drawing the zombies to the mall in Dawn of the Dead. Any notion that Big Daddy is just a regular zombie, however, are quickly dispelled when he notices Riley and Mike scouting the area. Unlike pretty much any zombie we’ve seen in a Romero film (and most zombies otherwise), Big Daddy does not simply stop what he is doing and head mindlessly towards the fresh me. Instead, he seems to grunt an order at the young couple zombies meandering nearby, who immediately make their way towards the human observers (04:07).

            This is something completely new. Even in Day, where a zombie salutes, shaves, fires a gun, and flips the bird, there isn’t even a hint of communication between zombies. Bub, for all his genius, is a singularity, alone in his intelligence. Here, though Big Daddy is clearly much more aware than the other zombies (he ignores the "sky flowers" that transfix the rest, for example), they at least display an ability to be commanded, which puts even the “normal” zombies in Land a level above every zombie not named Bub in a Romero film. Their awareness, their ability to “communicate” (one sided though it may be), and their emotion, make these zombies – not just Big Daddy, but the Couple, the Cheerleader, the Butcher, and the others too – almost human. More human, I would argue, than the not actually dead zombies of 28 Days Later and even the domesticated zombies of Fido. Their humanity, or at least their semblance of humanity, occasions a slight shift in their positions, however, from one of the monsters, to one of the victims. In other zombie texts, we often see human characters that are every bit as horrific as the zombies themselves. But the horror embodied by the humans in those texts is not enough to cancel out the monstrousness of the zombie figures. They are just two different kinds of monsters, usually preying on the same group of survivors. But these zombies, whose human traits serve to further distance them from people like Mr. Kaufman, Cholo, or Chihuahua, are exploited and victimized as well.

Miss America?
          Indeed, the zombies in this film are not only massacred for fun, they have also been commodified to a startling degree. They’ve become sport and entertainment, a game, a spectacle, to shoot paintballs at and have your picture taken with. A safe, neutered thrill. (27:12) But the zombies aren’t the only ones being exploited outside Fiddler’s Green; the lower class humans aren’t treated much better – left hungry and sick, or thrown to zombies for sport (28:17). In Land of the Dead, the zombies are less like the evil humans than those who are aggrieved. This connection is made for viewers very early on by Riley, who contends that humans aren’t much different than the stenches: “Isn’t that what we’re doing, pretending to be alive?” (03:58). When this idea is reinforced at the end of the movie, after Riley decides not to use Dead Reckoning to eliminate the zombie horde that has overrun Fiddler's Green because the zombies are “just looking for a place to go. Same as us,” there is very much the sense that a reckoning has nonetheless occurred (1:27:49). For all the gore and viscera that accompanies Big Daddy’s army’s inexorable march to Fiddler’s Green, the film does not end with a sense of horror, or even ennui, but justice. Though it would be a stretch to say that every human killed by a zombie in Land of the Dead deserves it, they all lived in relative degrees of complacency under a system built upon the outright exploitation and marginalization of others (Others). Once a group of those marginalized “peoples” unites and rises up, it’s hard to mourn the casualties along the way. It’s almost like there’s a lesson to be learned here...

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