By Sean Axmaker
36 years after shocking audiences with the unprecedented Night of the Living Dead and changing the face of American horror for good, and 20 years after his ambitious but budget-starved third installment Day of the Dead, George A. Romero returned to the genre with the fourth (and likely final) film in his epic series of society as we know it devoured by the hungry dead: Land of the Dead.
Though Night of the Living Dead and the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, are best known for pushing the boundaries of onscreen gore and reducing the body human into so much meat, gristle and blood to be devoured by the hungry hordes, Night connected with audiences when the horrors of Vietnam were first being seen on TV and Dawn evolved into a biting satire of consumer culture. In other hands, a zombie movie is just a zombie movie, but Land of the Dead, a horror film rife with social commentary, political satire and black humor, is not just a return to the genre Romero practically single-handedly created (or at least definitively redefined), but a return to form.
Romero's commentary is pointed, to say the least. He sets the film in an literally gated community called Fiddler's Green, a veritable feudal kingdom where class structure is strictly enforced and businessman warlord Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) rules. Brutal games and circuses are provided to distract the disenfranchised in the slums around the glowing glass tower where the rich and powerful live in luxury, and a militia keeps the poor contained and the city protected from the stenches. You can only take the metaphors so far, but loaded dialogue like "We don't negotiate with terrorists" (bellowed by Kaufman when he's extorted by a former thug that he's just fired for daring to step up in class) keeps the satirical edge front and center. It may not be subtle, but then, how subtle can you be in a film that features scenes of mankind devouring itself?
In an all-too-brief phone interview, arranged in conjunction with the DVD release of Land of the Dead, Romero and I discussed his new film, the origins of his epic zombie series and the marriage of horror and political commentary.
What's different about the new "Director's Cut" of Land of the Dead on DVD?
It's not that remarkable, I'd have to say. I think the fans will be pleased because there are obviously a couple of gore effects that Greg [Nicotero] threw in there that I wouldn't even have tried to get past the MPAA with an "R." But mostly, it's the same film. I think that what's the most fun about it are the extras. The guys from Shaun of the Dead came and shot a little film while they were on the set and [John] Leguizamo made a little film of his own while he was on the set. I think that's really the most fun, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. The intention of the film itself hasn't changed. There are a couple of scenes that run a little longer, a couple of gore effects that we had to trim to get the "R" - the MPAA will never tell you to cut a scene, they'll only say to cut some framage - and there are couple of scenes that we didn't even try to put in the "R" version because we knew they would never get through. But the intention of the film hasn't changed. I was actually very happy. I keep saying I think I got away with murder. We defied the MPAA this time. The film was pretty much what I wanted it to be even in the theatrical release.
Dawn of the Dead was a sly and very funny satire of consumer culture. Land of the Dead is an even more scathing political satire of class conflict. Do you think there something inherent in horror films that is effective as a frame for political and social commentary?
Don't you think that fantasy has always been that? Or should be that? The biggest disappointment to me is that people don't use it that way. I'm sure the first tales that we told each other, when we first learned how to make fire, were scary tales: "What do think that sky is? What do you think that thing is up there, that comet screeching across the sky?" I just think that it's really right for using it as parables. The biggest disappointment to me is that people don't do it, you know? It's always a guy in a hockey mask with a knife. It's just about trying to make you jump out of your seat. I think fantasy has always been and should be a canvas for, if not satirizing or commenting or criticizing, at least a snapshot of what's going on.
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