Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Back from the Dead

Summer at the movies is finally, officially alive. Or at least undead. If you even saw the skim epic Kingdom of Heaven, if Batman Begins struck you as a little all-over-the-place, if the increasingly graceless antics of Mr. & Mrs. Smith spoiled its early signs of promise, if Cinderella Man seemed pretty featherweight—if, in other words, you were me—then you'd be as relieved as I am that we finally got a mall movie that really works on its own terms. George Romero's Land of the Dead isn't perfect: a few of the sociological undercurrents are a little obvious, and there's a mammoth African-American zombie hulking around that hews a lot closer to mystical, inchoate Joseph Conrad territory than I wish he (it?) did. The requisite, ambivalent ironies of the conclusion don't fully jell with the film has preceded them.

But that's literally all that's wrong with Land of the Dead. The rest of this movie is sharp, terrifying, visually bold, appropriately disturbing, politically shrewd, frequently and unpredictably funny, and totally of a piece with the landmark series it continues. (For my money, the 1968 Night of the Living Dead is still the high-zombie mark, but Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead easily outclass most of the genre.) Land of the Dead crouches in even thicker darkness than Day of the Dead, which one wouldn't have thought possible; the colors are so grim and the shadows so deep that Million Dollar Baby practically looks like the aurora borealis by comparison.

The propulsive, heavily mechanized, admittedly self-defensive ammo blasts of the survivors are so harsh and so over-the-top that you start pitying the zombies, and the chic, deliriously deluded lifestyle of the know-nothing rich folks in Dennis Hopper's tower is both a great joke and a stingingly honest jab. You imagine that it won't hurt at all when the belly-aching dead eventually hijack the silver-spoon set, but the film's social sympathies are much more complex than rich=bad, powerless=good. As he has managed to do throughout the series, Romero disdains from letting the actors or the performances drive the movie, or dictate your identifications, but he's gotten better at coaxing blank-slate performances that feel more like performances, instead of the shrill place-holding of Dawn and Day. And if you assumed that, after three of his own movies and a tottering horde of imitators, including last year's superb remake of Dawn, that there were no new scares or new images to mine from this kind of material... be afraid. Be very afraid.

Of course, you probably know if you're someone who'll take this dare or not, but if you're even remotely equivocating about seeing this movie, please accept this tiny push in its favor. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds opens later today on nearly twice the number of screens, with big stars, bigger marketing, and around ten times the budget—Land only cost $15 million to produce—it'll still be hard-pressed to have half the kick or a quarter of the conviction. In fact, Stephanie Zacharek suggests that War of the Worlds, not to put too fine a point on it, ain't got shit. I'll find out tomorrow night. Either way, it will inevitably blast Romero's pic out of a lot of 'plexes, so before that happens, rise up and chow down.

Photo © 2005 Universal Pictures

13 Comments:

Anonymous Tim R said...

Stephanie Z's right, and I'm amazed by the other good reviews percolating around the web. War of the Worlds appears to have been directed by aliens: with a cold, unsympathetic eye, a rabid fondness for lurching, mechanical set-pieces, and a very, very muddled idea of how to construct a post-9/11 sci-fi allegory. If we discount The Terminal (and please let's) I'd say it's Spielberg's worst film since Hook. No wonder they didn't want to show it to anyone ahead of release.

On the plus side you've got me extremely excited about Land of the Dead, particularly after our shared enthusiasm for the Dawn remake. Bring on the zoms!

3:13 AM, June 29, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

All right, Nick. You brought it up (sort of), and now you have to give us your list of the top ten (or five, or something) zombie movies. Here's mine.

And you, along with the guy who programs movies for my theater, have finally convinced me that I need to see the Dawn remake.

10:23 AM, June 29, 2005  
Blogger summer m. said...

is charlie murphy in this movie?

i'll go see it off that shit alone.

9:31 PM, June 29, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Tim: Just got back from War of the Worlds, and Jesus, you weren't kidding about the wrong-headedness of the allegory. LOTS goes wrong here, and virtually everything the movie aims to do, Land does better. Betcha people go see the wrong flick. (My screening was nearly sold out.)

@Mike: I'm actually not much of a zombie-movie aficionado, so Night of the Living Dead and Cemetery Man would be tops on my list, with Dawn, Dawnv2.0, and Day in a clump behind it. I'm eager to check out Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie, though. (Hey, does Road to Perdition count? Not that matters, since it'd still be my least favorite.)

@Summer: No, Eugene Clark just looks like Charlie Murphy. But see the movie anyway!

11:02 PM, June 29, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

I'm not much of a zombie movie fan either, but my friend Brian runs the net's best zombie movie site, and I end up watching a lot of them with him. In addition to Tourneur's "I Walked," make sure to check out "White Zombie." Aside from those, there's not a lot worth seeing.

I'm still puzzling over Big Daddy. Yes, he's a little close to Conrad territory, but if you take into account Romero's previous films, he doesn't come off so badly. The main character of "Night" was black, and one of the three characters (and my favorite) in "Dawn" was black. I chose to see Big Daddy as the forefront of zombie evolution and as a sly Romero poke: in the old world, he pumped gas, but in the new world, he leads armies.

11:36 PM, June 29, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Unwittingly, you're getting right at the heart of my annoyance at Big Daddy. Compared to the viciously shrewd attack on U.S. racial politics in Night of the Living Dead (meaning that, yes, Romero knows his stuff), the self-conscious choice in Land of the Dead of a strapping black guy to constantly bellow out his voiceless, wordless, basso profundo rage reanimates as many clichés as it undoes. He's like the Bigger Thomas of zombies, and I'm not convinced we needed that. (Then again, I'm not convinced we needed self-reflective zombies period, and we certainly didn't need the same damn shot of Big Daddy moaning over and over.)

The reversal of fortune at the end also bugged me a little, just cuz it seemed a little obvious, and Riley's choices regarding Big Daddy at the end seemed utterly out of character. But I'm'a have to think more about the ironies that make the scene more complicated.

12:22 AM, June 30, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

But after "Day," anything less than self-aware zombies would have been devolution. Big Daddy is the logical next step after Bub. And I'm having a really hard time seeing him as the Bigger Thomas of zombies. There's more to him than voiceless, basso profondo rage. He's a go-getter, an organizer, the leader of what seems to be a movement for zombie civil rights. I didn't see him as a heck of a lot more clichéd than John Leguizamo's character--a crazy Hispanic guy named Cholo (!!!!) whom Kaufman accepts as the guy who brings him refreshments but doesn't want to live next to.

...and goatdog talks his way into seeing Nick's point about the decline in Romero's subtlety.

I agree that Riley's about-face at the end is a little out of character, but it fits Romero's interest in evolution. It sets up a future film where zombies and humans have to attempt to get along to survive.

10:38 AM, June 30, 2005  
Anonymous tim r said...

God this sounds good. Keep it up, guys!

11:36 AM, June 30, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Goatdog: I should clear this up: I wasn't wild about the handling of Bub in Day of the Dead, so the whole thematic trend of zombie self-consciousness is part of what I mean to critique here. The social content of these movies has to do with structures (racism, consumerism, militarism, classism, etc....) which can be treated and documented without highly self-conscious characters, and perhaps are best treated that way. To me, the reason the Dead films all work so well with only the vaguest overtures toward crafty acting or mise-en-scène is that these very suppressions bring out the ideological weight of Romero's thematic conceptions and montage much more clearly. Brecht + zombies = Romero. (I know, Eric Bentley just rose, zombie-style, from his grave. Wait, is Eric Bentley dead? ModFab? Anybody?)

So, the un-self-consciousness of the "living" characters makes me wonder about this evolving trend of self-consciousness in the zombies. This seems antithetical to Romero's project, and I wonder where he could possibly be going with it. My favorite guess is that Romero's next -ism will be colonialism, in which the living characters (as they have done in the last three movies) give up trying to kill enough zombies to save their own world and instead, understandably, look for someplace else to live. Perhaps Malick + Romero = New World of the Dead? But if there's a zombie Marcus Garvey or Toussaint L'Ouverture in that movie, I'm going to wonder why. If the metaphor of zombies as a race gets too literal, it will strike me as quite uncomfortable in both directions.

Though I'm very much taking your points to heart, Goatdog—and really enjoying this discussion!—I'm sticking by my Big Daddy-as-Bigger analogy, at least insofar as the movie puts him where Richard Wright puts Bigger in Native Son: at the very precipice of consciousness about social structures. Bigger looks up at airplanes, Big Daddy at the Fiddler's Green tower. But from that precipice, despite your strong point about Big Daddy as a collective leader, his "go-getting" is zombie-style go-getting: murder, now fueled by a more targeted rage. It's not uninteresting, it just feels like quite a paradigm shift to me, and the racial semiotics that underline it from our very first shots of Big Daddy (much less from the first times we hear his Chewbacca moan) made me a bit uneasy. Because it seemed too easy.

12:42 PM, July 01, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

Maybe I'm reading you wrong, but you seem to be almost saying that the zombies are little more than a catalyst used by Romero to set up interesting situations in which he can look at class and race in society. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) In what I'm seeing as your preference, it might as well be man-eating bunnies or a neverending dust storm or severe acid rain that is the exterior catalyst. But he picked zombies, and I think he's really interested in the potential of the zombies as more than just lurching props.

Witness this dialog from Dawn 78:

Francine: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

In Night, the zombies were mostly randomly wandering around, killing. In Dawn, they developed the rudiments of memory. I still haven't seen Day, so I don't feel as confident talking about it, but I do know about Bub, and Bub's all about development. Big Daddy's self-consciousness can't be antithetical to Romero's project, because it's part of the project. He's been working toward that since the beginning.

I will argue to the grave (and if Romero gets his way, even after that) that Romero is interested in evolution, both human and zombie. You've convinced me that there are problems with the nature of the zombie evolution (specifically, the choice for its poster child), but I don't believe that his films, minus that evolution, would be as interesting.

6:44 PM, July 01, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Ooh, you're right that you've got me where it hurts. I am over-playing the sociological dimensions of these movies, or at least playing them up in a way that isn't leaving any room for the thematic through-line you're focused on.

I'll still admit that I am most taken with Romero's savvy access into social themes. It's what hooks me on this series, and entices me to think through each movie as fully as I try to. The gaps between films and the emphatic (and very different) milieus where they play out reinforce, in my mind, that the sociological conceptions are, more than for most directors or most films, pretty primary in how Romero conceives the films.

But you're right, goatdog, that the film's wouldn't work in the same way without the specificity of the zombie threat, and I'm short-changing that in the comments above. (Brecht + zombies = Romero still requires zombies, not just Brecht.) These two insights were about as far as I'd gotten in thinking down this path: 1) the "mirror effect" in these movies, by which people cower and despair at the zombies in part because they know how easily they could become one, and how much they may even have in common with them, and 2) the "anti-ape effect" in the evolution line, meaning, if some people in our own world just can't handle that we descended/ascended from apes, imagine having to wrestle that we may have descended/ascended from zombies... they're catching up to us now, who says they (read: we) haven't done it before?

Dawning self-consciousness is still one of many ways to get at these issues, and I still wonder if it's my favorite option, or if I simply wish it were happening more slowly. In the examples you cite, I'm not as flatly sold on Stephen's hypothesis, because Dawn presents its rather cavalier characters in a way that doesn't compel my full subscription to every idea they have. And as far as Day, the actual execution of the Bub narrative emphasizes trained socialization at least as much as "natural" evolution, and so the Big Daddy's independently achieved enlightenment is, in my view, some kind of paradigm shift. (It's less ambiguous, anyway.)

Still, you're putting more pressure on this line of thought than I have, so I'm glad you're challenging me and keeping me thinking about all this. You're doing a better job than I have above of keeping on balance between several facets of the movie and the full series.

And yep, a review is on the griddle.

9:04 PM, July 01, 2005  
Anonymous goatdog said...

I totally agree that a big flaw in the the dawning consciousness subplot is the fact that it seems to take, what, twelve hours for Big Daddy to progress from basso profondo roars to aiming and firing an automatic weapon, and teaching others to do the same. And even in the grand scheme of things, we're to believe that it hasn't been all that long since the zombies first rose, which causes problems with the idea of zombie evolution, unless Romero were to be silly enough to attempt to explain exactly how it worked.

Anyway, I'm going to see LOTD again next week with a new eye for what you've been talking about.

And I have to say that this is the most fun I've had talking about a movie since I don't know when.

12:06 AM, July 02, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Me too, brother man, me too.

12:44 AM, July 02, 2005  

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