It’s nothing new for fantasy cinema to assert its political implications. Back in 1935, James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein loudly pleaded in favor of minorities by making the creature more an object of empathy than of fear, a genuine antihero even. Today, in 2005, it’s George A. Romero’s turn to pick up the torch again (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead already were virulent visual lampoons) to once more bitchslap us (inside our own ivory tower: Hollywood) across our fat little bourgeois faces, atrophied of soul.
As paradoxical as it can seem, since the beginning of his zombie cycle in 1969 Romero has been telling, parallelly with the decadence of our civilization, the fascinating evolution of the new species that caused it. The zombies play a double role always more refined, on the one hand a menace for mankind, a reflection of it on the other. Initially yanking the individual out of his civilized existence and plunging him in peril, the zombies then grotesquely puts into perspective the drifts of his behavior in society. For this reason, the way they buoyantly err like dumb consumers through the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead (1978) possesses a most significant satirical force.
However, while zombies were at first mere descendants of the mummy (in a more exhibitionist version) mimicking our behavior, in 1985, with the character of Bub in Day of Dead (a zombie manifesting surprising signs of intelligence, such as using a gun to blast away the movie’s enfoiré de service!), their representation takes a rise which reaches its apogee, not without emotion, in Land of the Dead. Explanations.
Immediately, let us mention that the hero of the first three films, the one who was a valuable role model, was always a tall Black man, lucid (“When there is no more room left in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”), courageous and equipped with a clever sense of initiative. In Land of the Dead, this same character proves to be a zombie who takes leadership of the hordes of his kin. Romero is clearly, to the eyes of connoisseurs at least, exposing his position in favor of the zombies and indicating that it is now them who convey the optimistic notions of this ultimate opus.
Indeed, whereas the cult filmmaker (who still stands strong in spite of his 65 years of age) reveals more on the social and political stakes of humanity in 1 hour and 33 minutes than TV news do in 50 years, whereas he reminds us that between a terrorist and a political leader there are thousands of affinities for only one opposition (social status), whereas he demonstrates how B-movies (in spirit, not in means) can express much with little and, thus, the image of an army of zombies in rags marching towards an illuminated skyscraper sheltering a carefree aristocracy summarizes, by itself, centuries of class struggle, the film gives us, through its subtext, an unexpected glimpse into the origins of this inescapable catastrophe: the ambivalence of the progress of intelligence.
On that basis, per degree, as through a return to the stone age, one will see the zombies overcoming their fascination for light (the fireworks used as diversions by the militia furrowing the country in ruins), learning how to use tools and weapons (from the mincer to the machine-gun) and, finally, to unite in a joint undertaking (isn’t this one of the first bases of society?). However, this advance of the zombies towards knowledge, which logically make them a more fatal species for ours, incites our admiration more than terror, as if we were, emotionally, witnessing the first steps of humanity. On the other hand, during the particularly rowdy climax, Romero ties things up in a sequence where this wonderful progress reveals its true, wretched face.
Thus, while working on the grounds of Carpenter’s Escape from New York / L.A. , Romero still throws some choice gore our way (fans will practically go into convulsions during certain scenes), while depicting the downfall of our civilization. And, through this, fantasy testifies once again to its engagement towards the human destiny. Subversive and necessary.
Review by Jean Carlo Lavoie (translation by K. Laforest)