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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Land of the Dead George A. Romero 2005

They're Here. They're Queer. And They're Going to Eat You.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here – actually, I’m gonna go out on two different limbs. Please direct your attention to the limb on your left, upon which I will declare that George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead is actually a solid, entertaining, and quality horror-action movie. And now direct your attention to the limb on your right, where I will argue that Dead is both one of the most subversive and sympathetic films to the equal rights movement I’ve ever seen – and that it even contains a discernible queer undercurrent. It’s Act Up for Zombies, people – and it’s fun!

Let’s have a brief, one-sided history lesson given by a sissy who spends all his time watching horror movies and drinking bourbon, shall we? Basically, starting in the 1970’s with Stonewall and continuing right up until this week’s major news that the rollout of the first gay basic cable channel is on-track, we have witnessed the birth of a new class. That’s not to say that everyone in the class actually has class – as a quick duck into the Monster on Christopher Street will clearly demonstrate – but it’s a class nonetheless. Yes, you say – I can agree that gays and lesbians are their own subordinated group, defined by their sexual preference, but why do you call them a “class”?

Well, for very simple reasons: unlike straights – be they white, black, Baptist, Jewish, immigrant, or what – we have no biological motivation to procreate. The biological reality of our sexual nature means that we are never going to naturally form families with our partners (remember, I’m talking strictly biologically here – don’t jump down my throat just yet). This means that our economic model is at its core strikingly different from that of other people – and economics is really what class is all about. So we’re not a race (we are many, really), we’re not a religion (unless Madonna has more to her name than previously imagined), and we’re not the world’s largest jug band -- but we are a class. And in these early years of the 3rd millennium, our class is closer to being recognized as “valid” than ever before, mostly because we photograph well and have lots of disposable income that make us attractive to liquor advertisers.

So enter Land of the Dead, the 4th film in Romero’s zombie apocalypse series. Rather than “Dusk” (which would have logically followed Night, Dawn, and Day), George has blown his full zombie wad here and given us a complete holocaust of the undead, where zombies rule the land and the surviving humans are holed up in heavily-fortified former cities. But some things never change: a rich, white man (Dennis Hopper) is in power, and his monied cronies live in luxury in the barricaded Fiddler’s Green apartment tower while the rest of the folks (mostly immigrants and minorities) huddle in squalor around its base, like so many heavily-accented pubic lice. Riley (the extra-yummy Simon Baker, last seen stumbling through The Ring Two searching for his character) is the head of a supplies unit that makes regular trips into the surrounding abandoned towns, dodging zombies and raiding groceries and pharmacies for goods to be used back at the tower. The crew has learned that fireworks distract the “stenches” (as they now call them), and they fire sky-flowers out of the top of the Dead Reckoning, the armored, heavily-armed tank that they use for their runs.

At this point an awful lot of plot introduces itself, which is almost amazing considering how little plot there is in ANY of the first 3 films – but there it is, glistening with an enticing sheen: will you give in and start paying attention to what by all rights should be a mindless zombie splatter flick? Do you dare devote any concern to these characters that could any minute become zombie-vittles, or even zombies themselves? The answer, of course, is maybe – but if you actually want to enjoy the multilayered Jello-1-2-3 of a parfait that Romero has served up, I’d certainly recommend it.

In a nutshell, the intelligent and soft-spoken Riley come head-to-head with one of his goons, Cholo (John Leguizamo, turning in an excellent performance) – it seems Riley’s methods of temperance and logic don’t work for Cholo, who would rather blow things up now and ask questions later. Riley also notices something else on the run – it appears that the stenches are actually learning to communicate with one another. Even in death, they run through a pantomime of their living routines – one particular zombie, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), still tries to man his gas station even though there are no cars to be seen or drivers to drive them. Riley seems to pity their condition – they were human once, after all – and mustn’t there be some shred of humanity left in them? After Riley’s underlings have fun messing with the stenches and head back to the city, Big Daddy sets his sights on the glimmering tower of Fiddler’s Green and leads a slow-moving army towards the humans there: he’s mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it any more.

Back in the city, Cholo learns that Kaufman is not the meal-ticket he expected (despite doing Mr. K’s dirty work for him for years, he won’t let Cholo live in the tower with the white folks), and Kaufman tries to have Cholo taken out – instead, Cholo escapes the city in the Dead Reckoning, holds it for ransom and threatens to blow up Fiddler’s Green with missiles if his demands aren’t met. Kaufman, understandably, freaks out – giving Hopper ample material for his particular brand of dry, cranky comedy (it’s really an inspired performance). Meanwhile, Riley is trying to find the car that he has purchased with all his supply-run money, which seems to have disappeared. While trying to track it down in the seedy streets of town, he notices a girl being used as bait in a zombie cage-match, and runs to her rescue. The girl, Slack (a delightfully droll Asia Argento, thankfully erasing all memory of XXX) is understandably appreciative, and when Riley, Slack, and Riley’s right-hand man, the horribly scarred and – well, shall we say, “slow” Charlie (Robert Joy) are tossed into the slammer for inciting a riot, they form a tenuous bond and make a plan to head north to where there are no people to mess things up. It’s interesting: rather than run toward others for safety (the main goal of survivors in most zombie movies), these folks want to escape other humans altogether. When Kaufman springs the gang to recover Dead Reckoning from Cholo, it seems like the perfect opportunity to fly the coop, and they accept the challenge.

Meanwhile, Big Daddy and his Gang of Misfit Stenches have made it down the yellow brick road and are at the gates of Emerald City, having picked up a few tricks along the way: they can use tools and have even learned how to fire a gun. And I’m not just being glib with the Wizard of Oz references – they literally walk down a road following the glimmering lights of the Fiddler’s Green (as in, Emerald green?) and unveil the wizard for what he really is. This of course doesn’t happen until the final act, which delivers big-time in explosions, head-munching, zombie chaos, and civilian freakouts, but also one of the most bizarre resolutions I’ve ever seen in a zombie film: the zombies are granted citizenship.

Yes, in a truly shocking and oddly sympathetic turn of events, Romero’s hero actually gives the zombies the keys to the castle and takes his ragged band of misfit renegades to Canada, where they plan to live in isolated bliss. Now, let's do a quick recap: the zombies have come from the country and essentially taken over the cosmopolitan centers despite the ruling class’s old-money reluctance to let go (namely, by knocking them down and eating their well-coiffed heads). They have unified in purpose and force, going from directionless, self-destructive shoe-gazers to an organized, powerful group who lobby tirelessly for their self-interests. In the end, the cities are theirs, and the former regime heads to the suburbs to live undisturbed. The “stenches” show an impressive level of adaptability, steely resolve, and a refusal to put up with the abuse and cruelty that the cackling, cruel humans dole out on a regular basis. In other words: They’re Here, They’re Queer, and They’re Going to Eat You.

This may seem an extreme reading of a zombie action movie, but it’s really not all that radical. Considering that Romero’s political and sociological opinions have settled just beneath the surface of this story (if not above it), it’s entirely valid to ascribe the actions of these characters a bit of metaphoric significance, especially since the Dead series has been a fairly plain commentary on the nature of humanity since the onset anyway. The discussion of race and economic standing (which has been on ol’ George’s mind since the beginning) is straight text in Land – Hopper openly calls Cholo a “spic” to his face and refuses him and his kind entry into the ivory tower, for one. But I don’t think that the social commentary stops at this superficial level. Take a look at the relationship between Riley and his right-hand sharpshooter, the horribly scarred (and somewhat “slow”) Charlie. There is a palpable amount of affection between these two men – far more than would normally be present in an action movie. And when the “love interest” (which I put into quotes because a love story never develops – she just kicks ass like the rest of the guys), Slack (Asia Argento) arrives, the sparring between her and Charlie is clearly because he feels that his exclusive emotional intimacy with Riley is at risk. Seriously – it’s more at home in Love and Death on Long Island than it is in a horror film. Even the peripheral characters feed the feeling that Romero is trying to overthrow the hetero hierarchy – there’s a female tank driver named Pretty Boy (who survives), a male renegade named Foxy, a random girl-girl kiss, and the sexless zombies (who are unable to procreate, much like we homos) are treated more humanely than most of the morally-challenged human players. The way I see it, Romero’s celebrating the emergence of a new class of self-driven, racially-diverse, non-procreating beings who he feels are long past their rightful due – and the connections to the gay rights movement (both in terms of the imagery used and the ideology of the film as a whole) are just too strong to ignore.

But back to the zombies: are they cool? Yes! Are there lots of exquisitely bloody killings? Yes! Are there awesome winks to City of the Living Dead, Shock Waves, and other zombie epics? Yes, yes, yes! And guess what, folks – this is all pulled off with sloooooooow zombies. No need to speed the fuckers up, guys (I hated the Dawn remake, btw) – they do just fine on their own. Some of the kills are incredibly inventive and fun, and overall it’s simply a great splatter spectacle the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages. Hats off to the filmmakers for delivering the gory goods on this one. Rooted by a strong, smart story, clean, assured direction, and some genre-defying performances (all of the leads bring their characters depth and nuance generally absent from action films), Romero’s blood-on-the-walls mayhem is welcome and well-earned – and the ride is the stuff of summer monster movie bliss.

Rating (out of 5):