Land of the Dead (2005) came out just after I graduated high school and in many ways, my anticipation of it felt like a graduation present for me. I’d spent my teenage years absolutely engrossed in Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead and the arrival of a new George Romero zombie film was a huge event for me. I saw it opening night at my local theater, but I walked out pretty disappointed. The film was fine, but my hyping of it had well and truly backfired and I felt perturbed by some of the choices made by Romero to his zombie canon. I wouldn’t say I had felt betrayed, but that’s silly, his movies are not my movies, yet I felt myself disagreeing with someone who I considered a visionary with a lot to say.
Land of the Dead wasn’t really the sort of zombie film I wanted and I was struck by how “forced” it all seemed to me. It was the first of Romero’s final string of zombie films that pushed his social commentary in fairly on the nose ways to diminishing results. Of course, Night, Dawn, and Day also pushed messages, but the films were also really, really good. That’s not to say these messages were unwelcome to a young man out of high school who was building a worldview and political identity. In 2005, Land felt like a pale imitation of Romero’s previous highs, but by then I had already been close to two years deep into reading The Walking Dead. I had found something else.
15 years later, I realize now that the Land of the Dead is a film well-suited to today’s reality. The movie was almost prescient regarding outbreaks and of the exploitative nature of capitalism. It remains to be seen, though, if it also predicts the destruction of capitalism under the pressures of disease and the exploitation of the masses. More than ever, what George Romero was attempting in Land of the Dead rings more true for me now then it did in 2005.
I felt an urge to rewatch it after a couple of days of successive errands among a worsening situation in my state of California. The night before I had to make a run to the bank to grab money for rent, as the promised online payment system of the management company never came to fruition. I spent about an hour in a line, outside of the bank. The night of I had to run a grocery errand and was struck by just how empty my town has been. Though, not empty enough given the now mandatory requirement of masks in my county.
The parallels between our current COVID-19 reality and post-apocalyptic fiction is not something novel. A cursory Google search shows that writers all over the internet are writing about pandemics and horror films. It’s all surface level and in a lot of ways; most of society has been kinder and more collaborative (except when it comes to toilet paper).
So, Land of the Dead‘s relevance to today does need to go beyond the obvious idea of a society struggling with a virus that does terrible things. Too many people are writing about that right now. It’s obvious. Does Land of the Dead deliver beyond that?
Oh boy, oh boy, does Land of the Dead deliver.
Terrorists, Zombies, and the Bush Era
It’s been heavily pointed out that Land of the Dead is most assuredly a critique of the Bush-era of the United States of America, down to lines lifted whole from the administration. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” works its way into a pivotal scene where a representation of the callous 1% is willing to sacrifice the lives of the 99%. President George W. Bush echoed such sentiments in 2002, after all.
For the most part, the film delivers enough in that regard. Again though, it can be heavy-handed. John Leguizamo’s character, Cholo, at one point threatens a “jihad” on the head of Fiddler’s Green, Kaufman. The whole film centers around a struggle for control over a device more suited for war than survival. Shock and awe arrive with a burst of fireworks and missile launchers and machine guns. There is no real government beyond a feudalistic one enforced mostly through mercenaries: Blackwater, anyone?
Despite this, I think the movie works way better now in the context of the Trump administration, particularly when it comes to what we are seeing surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Fiddler’s Green is the Trumpian Ideal
Gaudy and hollow, Fiddler’s Green is almost disgusting in how it flaunts wealth pointlessly in an environment of dire scarcity. Romero’s parallel journeys of Riley and Cholo intercut with each other early on in the movie are some of my favorite moments in the film. As Riley and Charlie make their way through the slums, Cholo makes his way upward through the greatest concentration of wealth in Fiddler’s Green. Cholo, the temporarily embarrassed millionaire he is, is grifted by Kaufman, the conman in charge. Robbed of his chance at upward mobility, Cholo steals “Dead Reckoning,” a tank that can bring down the city, and pressures Kaufman into cutting a deal.
Which, of course, results in Kaufman ending up doing an incredibly stupid series of decisions in a mounting crisis. I am sure you can already see where this is going.
Let’s talk about Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman; Dennis Hopper is fantastic in Land of the Dead and it’s one of my favorite roles he ever had. He’s just such a goddamn scumbag and such a malicious, cowardly leader. Surrounded by the trappings of traditional power, precious liquor, cigars, and a black manservant (!) Kaufman is that sort of representation of the capitalist you love to hate. He’s racist, classist, and hell, probably sexist too. He’s just so easily hated that it is so satisfying to see him die, beset by someone he betrayed and a representation of the conscious, uprising working class.
I see a lot of connections between Donald Trump and Hopper’s Paul Kaufman. The obsession with the images of power, naked, exploitative capitalistic impulses and poor leadership skills are merely scratching the surface of these parallels. Not enough is written about how repulsive a figure Trump is; he made a joke about banging models in a Coronavirus briefing. Rather than being concerned with the task at hand (a goddamn pandemic), he grasps at clout just as Kaufman grasps at loot the vault in Fiddler’s Green.
The fact that this society Kaufman inherited still revolves around money, is, of course, a bleak joke. Kaufman, for all his bluster of being the man with the plan, who made the safe new world for everyone, merely took over a building and simply tricked people into working for him with the token application of money. Money which really carries no real currency in the post-apocalypse. Kaufman builds nothing, riding on the back of an already exploitative system. Much like Trump, Kaufman lacks the discipline to manage his inherited position and it all comes tumbling down.
We could go on about Kaufman’s blatant racism as well. Kaufman slurs Cholo several times and the impression we get of why Cholo is not invited into the upper level of Kaufman’s world isn’t necessarily because of Cholo’s boorish behavior. The presence of the black manservant is far too pointed to think otherwise. It makes one wonder how Trump would treat someone like Cholo…
Kaufman, in perhaps one of the funniest scenes of the movie, ends up shooting one of his cronies, fearful that he will be discovered robbing Fiddler’s Green and going on the run. Instantly he gets a message from Riley that Dead Reckoning was secured. It’s a great bit of understated frustration from Dennis Hopper. Kaufman, motivated by greed, targets and destroys part of his governing apparatus to cover for himself. For people who follow the shakeups of the Trump administration, particularly regarding the botched handling of COVID-19, this begins to sound maddeningly familiar.
The Greed Virus
It is clear that Romero would have a lot to say when it comes to critiquing Trump. Romero’s time dealing with the Trump era was brief, but in that time he made his feelings clear about where we were headed.
There is a question that lingers in my mind regarding all of this, of course. What sort of zombie movie would George Romero have made in response to the current Trump era and viral anxieties?
Well, that movie exists: It’s Land of the Dead.
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