Night of the Living Dead was a pitiless commentary on a decade’s self-immolation on the fields on Vietnam and the streets of the American South; Dawn of the Dead a savage attack on America’s Me Decade transformation into a nation of mindless consumers; and Day of the Dead a satirical dartboard for the emergence (and sad triumph) of Reagan-era militarism. Now, twenty years after his last foray into the always pleasurable zombie genre, George Romero has at last called for revolution. Perhaps the subtext is always a combination of wish-fulfillment and genuine perception, but there’s no mistaking Romero’s essential point — we are an increasingly fractured, paranoid culture, and more than ever, we seek the erection of barriers (both metaphorical and actual) to keep out our perceived enemies. These people may be Mexicans, or terrorists, or secularists, but more than likely, they are poor — the very “have-nots” of classical history. Tucked safely away in our gated communities, much of America resembles Brazil, where the elite few retreat to their private paradise, complete with security cameras, private guards, and the illusion that the problems elsewhere can never penetrate the thick walls of wealth and privilege.
Romero’s vision of the elite is conceived as a massive tower called “Fiddler’s Green” — a haven ruled in absolute terms by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who distracts the poor with “games and vice” (most hilariously represented by seedy joints that feature hooker vs zombie death matches and “take your picture with a zombie” booths) and holds on to his property with the tenacity of a king. This delusional world is contrasted with the city’s poverty-stricken residents, who live in shacks and must always be reminded of the last place on earth that affords safety and comfort. Fiddler’s Green is protected by a military presence, cement barriers, and a river on three sides, but it is immediately apparent that the live humans are not the ones being kept out. They have largely accepted their lot, and one suspects that they are kept compliant by tradition and religion, as Romero makes sure that we see numerous street preachers and godly signs. And why is it that those who preach the word of a so-called loving god are usually to be found in areas of economic depravation? If, on the other hand, large segments of our population were born with a genetic predisposition for conformity and deference, then the churches of the world would cease to exist. Our natures would accomplish what is now undertaken by sinister Jesus freaks.
No, Kaufman and his board of directors fear the undead, for they have suddenly acquired the power of reason (albeit in a limited manner), and at the very least can imitate behavior — especially that of “leader” Big Daddy. These abilities — such as the use of tools and weapons — also coincide with the absence of fear, as they have learned how to cross water and look away from the fireworks that have kept them at bay for so long. And needless to say, as these zombies are in fact dead, the usual methods of social control are useless in the face of their relentless hunger for flesh. Romero may not yet believe that zombies are ready to form a culture of their own, but as a stand-in for the oppressed, they’ll do for now. As a great man once said, “Without god, all things are possible.” First things first, as always. As it has been and always must be, the most dangerous among us are those who have been liberated from the shackles of spirituality. But dangerous only to those seeking to preserve their power.
There is a hero of sorts — Riley, played by Simon Baker — who has been hired by Kaufman to find and eliminate rogue employee Cholo (John Leguizamo), before he uses the virtual army-on-wheels that is called “Dead Reckoning” to destroy Fiddler’s Green. Cholo is no defender of the weak, however, for he is motivated solely by revenge (Kaufman refused to pay him for his often demeaning services). This is just a necessary bow to conventional storytelling, of course, for what we’re really after is the awakening of the dead, their evolution, and the blood-splattering climax where they storm the gates. Most of the zombies are not aware of their goal, but it is clear that Big Daddy also has vengeance on his worm-ridden mind, for when fellow zombies are blown apart, he cries like a mournful father. He is the first to learn how to fire a gun, the first to see that a jackhammer can blast away walls, and the first to jump in the water. At some point in the future, he will no doubt be the first to head an organized, disciplined zombie army.
As for that glorious blood, Romero does not disappoint, and with each decapitation, disembowelment, or limb removal, the heart swells with pride and possibility. This is why we’re here, and while nothing will ever top the sight of the blood pressure machine-using biker being torn apart like a rag doll in the original Dawn of the Dead, there are plenty of memorable massacres to keep any fan satisfied well into the night. As usual, I am most relieved by the consumption of intestine, which for me has always been the Romero signature. There didn’t seem to be the same level of savage fighting over said innards, but that might be due to the fact that as the undead begin to learn, they realize that despite the hunger, there really is enough to go around. Yes, they’ve learned to share. We also watch with satisfaction as bodies are set on fire, blown up, filled with assorted ammunition, and beaten to various grades of pulp. With more money to spend and the technology to match, Romero finally has the means to carry out his violent mayhem in grand fashion. While I will always have great affection for the blue-faced corpses of old, Romero has managed to up the ante without sacrificing the essence of the undead. As if he knew that dedicated fans might balk, he reassures us with new versions of “types” — this time giving us a cheerleader zombie, a butcher zombie, a trombone-playing zombie, and yes, even a zombie clown. It never fails to tickle me pink thinking about what these people were doing at the moment they were attacked and bitten.
Sprinkled throughout are obvious parallels to the current administration (Kaufman says at one point, “I won’t negotiate with terrorists”) and the sense of entitlement that comes with money and power, and it is to Romero’s credit that he indulges our fantasies of watching these blue bloods get devoured in front of our eyes. As the elite flee Fiddler’s Green after the zombies have overrun the place, we see the terrified humans screaming in terror, with one man in particular clutching his briefcase. Only a Republican would maintain his status as a company man in the face of total societal disintegration, but Romero also suggests that in times of great distress, all of us revert to simple platitudes and the overly familiar. Danger affords us but one opportunity, and that is to do what comes naturally. The zombies feast on the organs and blood of the living, but as they expand their horizons, they too will learn how to lie, cheat, and serve the unquenchable thirst of self-interest. Or perhaps Romero shows so many “occupational zombies” because he believes that we literally are what we do, even in death. Our very sense of identity seems inextricable from our form of employment, which might be why we so often substitute “homeless” or “poor” for the dignity of actual names. A doctor might be Jim Smith, M.D., but a man without a business to frequent between the hours of 9 and 5 is nothing more than a bum. In other words, you might as well be a janitor beyond the grave, because no one remembers you as anything else.
But right at the moment that we think Romero is an unrepentant Marxist, he undermines our expectations by having a key character express his cynicism regarding the feasibility of lasting change. As the poor move on the city, Riley understands that the corruption of the previous inhabitants will soon be replicated by a new generation of human beings, who are by nature exploitive. Riley (and his small band of survivors) have plans to live in Canada, which is bereft of people, but nonetheless the perfect environment for starting over. No, there are no plans to rebuild the shattered world in a new image, but simply exist without the presence of other human beings to fuck it all up. This might be Romero’s most revolutionary (and misanthropic) point after all; that the problems we face and create on a daily basis are unavoidable so long as we inhabit the earth and now even the zombies, once incapable of anything resembling human behavior, are becoming more like us! This is not an inspiring turn, only the unavoidable truth that the cessation of life is still not enough of a disinfectant to clear away our foul stench.