By Andrew Tracy
Land of the Dead
Dir. George A. Romero, U.S., Universal
The old adage was wrong: Satire doesn’t close on Saturday night, it opens on 4,000-plus screens. What passes for it these days, at least. There hasn’t been a critic from the astute to the asinine who hasn’t failed to take note of that line tucked away at the end of Revenge of the Sith where Hayden Christensen’s soon-to-be Lord of Darkness invokes a certain posturing presidential brat (“If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy”). Whether or not these scribes end up dismissing it, the fact that such a throwaway merits even a wisp of serious attention is fairly silly, though perhaps predictable in light of the faux-intellectualism that rules the critical sphere. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the whole zeitgeist school of film criticism, not only for its own flaws but also for the way it’s been appropriated for marketing purposes. Once upon a time, studios ordered up stories to be sold to the public, and when the trickle-down process of cultural theory eventually alerted them to the fact that they were, in fact, addressing the subconscious wishes and fears of their audience—and that (parts of) those audiences were suddenly self-aware—they did what comes naturally: They packaged our self-awareness and sold it back to us.
Movies are inseparable from the social, cultural, and political climate of their times, yes, but seldom in the way they’re depicted in the “informed” media. For every writer who actually traces the links between politics and aesthetics and opens up a conversation about new ways of viewing our films and our world—as in Eric Cadzyn’s fascinating new book on Japanese cinema, The Flash of Capital, for instance—there are scores among the press flock who simply catalogue surface traces and palm them off as telling political commentary. This kind of bastardized, ad-copy zeitgeisting simply abets pop culture’s increasing inability to perform its core function: telling us stories. When satire, which in a way is the height of narrative self-awareness, becomes detached from the necessities of narrative—when it parrots absurdities instead of dissecting them, when it coasts on recognition rather than understanding—it loses any real relevance it might possess.
In a way, it’s a little unfair to George Lucas to depict him as a would-be satirist. The man has become so detached from any kind of reality that he’d hardly be able to comment upon it, just as his notion of “entertainment” is wholly and totally divorced from any knowledge of how to create it. The same can’t be said of his fellow George (A. Romero, that is). Though plagued to a certain extent by the same strange desiccation of talent which steadily reduced John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper to incompetents— “hacks” implies at least a minimum of proficiency—Romero’s Land of the Dead still carries a bit of visceral and satiric kick. For at his best, Romero was a satirist, and thus a positive boon to the zeitgeist industry. After all, with Dawn of the Dead (1978) he produced an honest-to-God intentional comment upon consumer culture in the language of its offspring, pop, providing no end of fodder to film studies courses and received critical wisdom everywhere; we have entered a curious time when Night of the Living Dead (1968) can be seriously referred to as a “reflection” of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement with hardly the bat of the eye.
Far worse than just reducing realities to their cinematic containers, however, the patina of seriousness that has been draped over Romero’s oeuvre has largely veiled his true seriousness: that of an entertainer and a storyteller, the qualities which gives his satire its bite. At their common root, the Dead movies are not about Vietnam, civil rights, mass consumerism, the military-industrial complex, or (in the latest) the ever-widening gap between rich and poor—they’re about zombies eating people. Trash—as a category, not a value judgment—is trash no matter how you spin it, and that’s its great strength, especially when smart trashmakers like Romero are able to carry its subversions of taste into subversions of larger things. But ultimately, trash satire is only as effective as the trash half of its equation; if things were otherwise, Larry Cohen would be a major cultural figure despite his utter ineptitude. Romero’s Dawn, like Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), works as satire because its satire is part of the garish, propulsive, trashy whole, because it gains a kind of delirious apotheosis in the vulgar magnitude of the thing. For while the satire is shallow, it’s genuine because it’s integrated with the clumsy, makeshift, lopsided brilliance of Romero’s trashy craft.
So how does Land of the Dead stack up, as trash and trash satire? Not too bad, really. It looks like a modestly budgeted syndicated series (the money Romero was blessed with has elevated his incurable and invaluable amateurishness to about the level of an anonymous TV director), the story is jumbled and anticlimactic, the characters are fairly uninteresting, the divinely dirty Asia Argento is wasted, and there are too many scenes where a dozen zombies suddenly materialize out of nowhere to attack the unwary living. But when all’s said and done, Romero still knows how to film a disemboweling or forty, and the satiric conceit is a hoot: a survivors’ stronghold ruled by a de facto caste system, where the unfortunate many molder in slums while the rich luxuriate in immaculate high rises, clutching tight to their useless cash—with the zombies, here cast as the starving underclass rather than the consumptive middle they were in Dawn, pounding at the gates for a blue-blooded meal.
Unlike the fantasies of Lucas and Spielberg, which garner innumerable interpretations because they are so cannily designed to give the impression of relevance without the burden of actual content, Romero’s fantasy is pointed, unmistakable, and most crucially, amusing. Dennis Hopper’s Bushian declaration that “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” is equivalent to his quite out-of-character aside a few minutes later while idly picking his nose (“Zombies, man… they freak me out”), or, for that matter, a shot of a zombie pulling a man’s heart out through his throat or a soldier blown in half by his own grenade: it’s there for a quick laugh, or a groan, or a snort of disgust. It’s sensation, it’s prurience—it’s trash. Not bad trash, either, though it’s hard to accept this late cousin as a “real” Dead movie. And even harder to take it as a “real” political statement, although some moments—such as when the zombie ringleader Big Daddy, a black gas station attendant in his pre-flesh-eating days, finally rediscovers his former place in the world—have an emotional heft that could possibly have given the film’s comic-book satire a real resonance.
For this was the other key to Romero’s termite artistry, that which offset his elephantine commentary. The satiric premise of Dawn can be summed up in one sentence, but who can blithely explain the strange, haunting effectiveness of the scene where Fran looks sadly through a glass partition at a bedraggled zombie who pathetically scratches at the barrier separating him from his meal? It’s these kinds of incommunicable yet wholly comprehensible moments that give weight to Romero’s satiric jabs and the underlying pathos to his jokey gore. It’s what makes his best movie, Martin (1978), definitely Not-Trash, as well as allowing it to genuinely score the social and political points which the other films merely display. Like that other eternal amateur, the late and inexplicably canonized Sam Fuller, Romero’s whole-hearted and flat-footed investment in his characters and their doings—his faith in his story—naturally brings forth the conditions which shape them: in Martin’s case, the clash between the Old World and modern America, superstition, religious persecution, economic depression, everyday loneliness, casual violence, and endemic human misery. These are some of the living social forces underlying the twisted consumer nightmare of Dawn, seen through the intensely human lens by which we can make sense of them, understand them, and see their workings around us. As social commentary and apocalyptic entertainment, Land of the Dead is certainly more honest (and fun) than the rather shameful skein of relevance stretched across the void of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, but in the end both are merely pointing their fingers at the obvious while intentionally or inadvertently letting the real story slip away.