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Entertained to Death?

'The Land of the Dead' kills off the working stiffs. Shocked?

Dorothy Woodend 8 Jul

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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When the news came down that horror meister George A. Romero was set to return to the silver screen, along with his shuffling, stumbling, carnivorous army, the question was: what would the master have to tell us? Well, just this, the system will screw you every time, plus it keeps the dead man down.

Like Romero's earlier works, the hero of Land of the Dead is a single black man who refuses to tow the line: he'd rather eat toes. The fact that he's a dead dude is somewhat surprising, but the zombs have gone political, and they want what all disenfranchised folk want: a piece of the pie, preferably full of juicy raw humans. Dead of the world unite!

The film opens with a flashback entitled "Sometime Ago." It's a recap of the Romero universe, where the dead have risen and taken over the world. The few humans who are left live in walled cities and scrounge for food in the surrounding countryside in armored trucks and on fast moving motorcycles.

Honorable vices

Simon Baker (Riley) makes a fine hero, a little world weary, but still trying to be an honorable man in a dishonorable world. Cholo, his second in command, is played by John Leguizamo, who turns in a lovely performance.

In this world, the rich get richer and the poor get devoured. The wealthy and powerful live in a glass tower called Fiddler's Green, run by the megalomaniac bastard spawn of George Bush and Donald Trump in the form of one Dennis Hopper, a man who is the embodiment of the corporate ethos of eat or be eaten: quite literally, no figurativeness about it. Give the rabble enough vices --drink, sex, violence -- and they won't give you any guff.

Dennis the Pennis is exactly himself, but the man has still got a certain Hopperishness that makes him a pleasure to watch, as he mouths things, like "We won't negotiate with terrorists."

Sympathy for zombies

There is so much symbolism that after a time, this feels less like a film than a thinly veiled lecture on the current global situation. But this has always been Romero's metier. Horror is satire, and satire has become horror; it's only funny in a Grand Guignol sense.

Given that sympathy for the zombies is part of the mix, you can't help but feel that humans deserve what they get. The undead are just one more social pressure designed to bring out the worst in people (not that we need any help). The humans in this movie are plenty evil without any help at all: they hoard, they scheme, they're motivated only by greed and need. They exist merely to keep existing, and "to fuck each over for a percentage," to paraphrase another great horror moment.

Philosophical zombies

Dead or alive, what's the difference? That's the underlying question of the film. Or as Cholo remarks, "I've always wanted to see how the other half lives." Or doesn't. The only genuine evil around is the endless, all consuming, devouring need to continue.

Welcome to the new feudalism. We don't need zombies, aliens or even terrorists; this monster comes from within. We have met the enemy and he is us. Or the US, as it seems to be.

Writer Thom Hartmann interviewed in Sun Magazine has a great deal to say about the death of the middle class. "It's fashionable to use the word 'empire' again, you know. That's an end-stage indicator for a nation. Pretty much everybody knows something is wrong."

"They know that they have to work harder every year to make ends meet. The problem is most people haven't figured out that the destruction of the middle class is a result of politics...And what we've seen since Reagan and the rise of conservative economics is a rapid return to Gilded Age economics. Karl Rove, George W. Bush's senior advisor, is always talking about his admiration for the William McKinley administration, at the end of the nineteenth century, when the country had a large working-class population struggling to care for kids and avoid eviction. The conservative agenda is about creating a similarly desperate, terrified, powerless, politically impotent working class that won't put up much of a fight and doesn't have the time to become educated about politics."

'Drippingly dead'

That sounds rather familiar, doesn't it? George A. Romero's films have dealt variously with racism, the global-military complex, and the triumph of the corporations. In Land of the Dead, the death of the middle class is just that: the working man in his coveralls, and small town people are the ones profoundly and drippingly dead. Working stiffs indeed.

"Eat the rich" becomes more than just a slogan by the end of the movie. And the scrappy band of survivors is left to flee for Canada: the last bastion of socialist goodness and same sex marriage, and relatively zombie-free. Well, except for Alberta.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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