Staff Pick

Land of the Dead Proves We’re All Zombies Now

By Robert Silva

Humans are the ones to fear in this return to the genre by horror maestro George A. Romero.

If the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to nature, the purpose of zombie movies is to hold up a handful of glistening entrails. Beginning with George A. Romero’s low-budget shocker Night of the Living Dead, the horror genre explored topics we’d rather forget: Death, decay and what happens if society fails. Audiences were appalled, and couldn’t turn away.

Romero died in 2017, and the director was justly eulogized for his landmark debut and bloodthirsty satire Dawn of the Dead (1978), which posits retail shoppers as another species of the undead. Less mentioned is the late-period The Land of the Dead (2005), Romero’s 21st century return to the zombie genre, and a politically charged companion to those first two films.

Land of the Dead is set years after the initial outbreak. One of the last outposts of humanity is a barricaded city. It’s less an oasis than a simmering cauldron of class conflict. The affluent live in a residential high-rise called Fiddler’s Green (slogan: “Where Life Goes On”) while the poor huddle in the cold streets below. The living dead are part of this society too — wandering beyond the city’s electrified fences, sometimes going through the motions of their former occupations.

“It’s like they’re pretending to be alive,” says one survivor.

“Isn’t that what we’re doing?” asks Riley Denbo (Simon Baker), a disillusioned grunt on his last mission: scavenging supplies in zombie-infested supermarkets to fill the pantries of the rich.

Revolution is in the air in this new installment, but Romero crosses the biggest line of all by blurring the distinction between man and zombie. The undead have gotten smarter in Land of the Dead. They’ve learned to use tools, beginning with knives and ending in assault weapons. They’re depicted less as terrifying monsters than creatures in their natural environment. It’s as if the master of zombie movies has gotten soft, but really he’s seeing how far he can push the meaning of his own creation.

Zombies remain one of pop culture’s most intriguing open metaphors. In a newly resurfaced interview with Romero from 1972, the director hinted at his intentions behind Night of the Living Dead. “The story was an allegory written to draw a parallel between what people are becoming and the idea that people are operating on many levels of insanity that are only clear to themselves.” Made in the tumult of the late ‘60s, the original film showcased aspects of human nature no one wanted to admit. But its meaning has also changed. What began as a grisly survival tale is now a haunting parable of American racism. Some stories take the temperature of their times.

The renewed popularity of zombies today seems to speak to a fear of falling behind in an increasingly divided, winner-take-all society. Your fellow man is out to eat you. Similarly, in Land of the Dead, Romero is less interested in replaying old horror tropes than looking at how society forms around a crisis. Romero downplays the jump-scares because we’re in a world where being eaten alive is normal. He imagines a new system where the fear of being consumed provides a justification for the worst aspects of human behavior.

In the socially complex Land of the Dead, there are two types of monsters. Both of them start out human. But there is hope even for the dead.