Wednesday, 12 March 2008

THE TRILOGY OF THE DEAD (PLUS ONE) - PART 2

PLOT SPOILERS continue in this second part, taking us from Dawn to Land.



DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)

Day most obviously returns to the set-up of Night, where a group of besieged humans fall not only to the dumbass army of zombies surrounding them but to their own inability to get along. The main conflict at first seems to be enlightened scientists versus small-minded military, that staple of genre fiction. Our hero’s even a scientist - Sarah. (With the CoolBlackGuy reduced to her pilot sidekick, John.) The military want to take on the zombies in naked battle, which as the film makes abundantly clear is absurd – they’re outnumbered many thousands to one. They’re reliant on instinct as much as the zombies they want to fight.

But while through Sarah the scientists initially appear more sympathetic, the more we learn of the blood-spattered chief scientist and his grotesque Dr. Moreau-like experiments the less clear this seems. Pursuit of abstract knowledge has disengaged him from the world and with it all humility, morality and ultimately sense of survival. Against a devotion to brawn, he has only an equal but opposite devotion to brain. Neither are what’s needed. Day originally intended the scientists to live in an electrified compound and the military in a bunker. Apart from providing corollaries for their respective ideologies, this neatly echoes the house vs. basement argument of the first film.

To get Day, you have to pinch the tag-line from Dawn - “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” (No-one from there will miss it much, it only gets alluded to briefly anyway.) The supernaturalism of Night returns, in a film set during Halloween. But while Night uses the supernatural merely to extinguish the rational, Day goes on to fully embrace it.

In Dawn’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Hell, CoolBlackGuy Peter mentions voodoo customs and that his ancestry is Jamaican. (Most black Americans are African in origin.) This time he’s called John, comes with a fully-fledged “yah-man” Carribbean accent, a fondness for wacky baccy and everything bar a rasta hat. Crucially he lives in a caravan outside the main bunker, with his Irish (equally non-Anglo Saxon) co-pilot. In what is probably the film’s skeleton key he offers us:

“You want to put some kind of explanation on all this? Here’s one as good as any other. We’re being punished by the Creator. He visited a curse on us. Maybe He didn’t want to see us blow ourselves up, put a big hole in the sky. Maybe He just wanted to show us He’s still the Boss Man. Maybe He figure, we getting’ too big for our britches, tryin’ to figure His shit out.”

True, this account never gets proven in any formal sort of way. But all the explanations from previous films (the meteorite in Night, the gas in The Crazies) have been standard McGuffins tossed in casually either to silence our questions or to taunt and confuse us further. This one sticks, largely because it suggests our very searching for the Rosebud of a ‘rational explanation’ is part of what’s getting God so pissed off in the first place.

While in Dawn it’s the characters with failings who don’t survive, here it’s much more explicitly the bad who get punished – from Sartre to Brecht to some combination of Dante and Bosch. Almost all the soldiers cross themselves before they die and the (probably over) extended scenes of them being torn apart and devoured are reminiscent of the folk-demons of the underworld who would rip apart their victims.

The film opens with a calendar showing October 31st and closes with another showing November 1st. (Meaning a lot of action gets compressed into one day, but never mind that.) The calendar itself stands for human audacity, us intent on imposing our will on the movements of the natural world. But there’s also a supernatural resonance to the dates. 31st is Halloween or the Celtic Samhain, where “the barriers between the worlds [would] fade and the forces of chaos invade the realms of order, the material world conjoining with the world of the dead.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain) November 1st is All Saint’s Day, the day when such barriers have been closed again.

John keeps saying they should escape their duties and flit off to an island, and in the final scene they do. In Dawn some characters are looking for “the island”. Asked what island they respond blankly – “any island”. Of course they’re all going to die. Dawn was about nomadism, staying settled means stepping into a trap. This island might be no less a state of mind, but it represents something other than folly. This island represents salvation, its white beaches the heaven the good guys have reserved for them.


LAND OF THE DEAD (2005)

Night is followed by dawn, in turn by day and then by…land? This trivial detail, unfortunately, is telling.

Land pushes even further into the zombie-ridden future than Day, with humanity pressed back into gated compounds. As Day was the de facto sequel to Night, this is to Dawn. Except this time the humans are divided along class lines, the super-rich inhabiting consumerist paradise Fiddler’s Green while the humbler humans camp in the outskirts - and must brave the zombie realms to forage for them.

The main failing of the film lies right there. The original trilogy is very much set in our world turned only half a notch towards horror. Pushing everything into the future makes everything bigger and more transparent, but works as a process of removal which blunts the social satire element. What’s more this post-apocalypse world is actually pretty clich├ęd Max Max stuff to boot, and would have looked out-dated in the Eighties (when it was first mooted). It’s got the borrowed Humphrey Bogart elements from all those films, the hero (Riley) who tries to avoid involvement in the rebel underground but finds himself getting pulled in etc etc. (It was originally called Dead Reckoning, the name of the tank-like device in the film everyone wants to possess, which was the title of an old Bogart flick.)

Worse, it even gets distracted from it’s own simple premise. Romero had for may years talked about making a movie about contemporary LA, with the zombies standing in for the homeless. The ‘exclusive’ Fiddler’s Green is meant to pre-exist the zombie apocalypse. (We see flickery ads for it.) But on top of this get grafted lots of September 11th and Iraq War parallels. For example, it’s made an office-block-like tower rather than the walled gardens you’d expect, all so missiles can be pointed at it and the World Trade Centre parallels emphasised. It’s as if Dawn had been continually sidetracked by a subplot about Watergate. (After seeing the film I read Romero admitting “sometime after the invasion of Iraq we… tried to put more emphasis on the new-normal post-9/11 era”.)

Another noticeable plot device is that the trouble-causing Cholo rebels not at the class imbalance but because as a Latino he’s not admitted even when he’s amassed the necessary cash. Caste not class is intended to be the object of our outrage here.

It would be tempting to say that in this film the zombies get the best lines. They definitely are given the best scenes. In the film’s greatest conceit the CoolBlackGuy of the earlier films is now made a zombie, nicknamed Big Daddy. His outrage at the frequent human forays into his territory, and consequent ‘murders’ of his undead mates, somehow instills in him the rudiments of intelligence and he leads an undead assault on Fiddler’s Green. Like in the early scenes of Animal Farm, you’re left to root for the underpriveliged zombies getting their own back! It’s perhaps significant that Land is the only film to start with a zombie scene, then move onto the human characters. The world is now theirs, it’s just that we’re obstinately refusing to concede it to them.

There’s some good scenes where he gets distracted by the petrol pump or can’t figure why the now-unplugged road-drill isn’t working. We could have done with more of those, suggesting his nascent intelligence is actually quite nebulous and can easily be derailed. Unfortunately the film takes it all the other way. He becomes a deux et machina figure of vengeance, remorselessly going after the evil head of Fiddler’s Green (Dennis Hopper) despite the fact he’s got no reason to even know who the guy is. As the ‘good’ zombie Big Daddy is only allowed to kill the villain. This selective morality is even more emphasised by the ending when, having killed anyone who’s (like) bad, the zombies en masse then decide to leave. A surviving human explains that maybe they weren’t so bad after all. Just peckish?

Romero’s as good as ever at capturing moments. There’s a classic one right at the beginning, with a zombie jazz band ‘playing’ a desultory parody of a New Orleans funeral march. Unfortunately he’s as bad as ever at capturing characters and in this more conventional film that starts to matter. Despite the Bogart comparisons Riley has none of his sense of moral ambiguity, he’s just plain bland in his goodness. Unlike the heroes of earlier films he won’t shoot his buddies when they get zombie-bit. (Needless to say, instead of the ramifications of this getting explored, someone less good just happens along and does it.)

Ultimately, the film only fitfully feels like part of the same universe as the others. There’s the pop-up shocks the others eschewed, but are a generic horror staple. (The zombies aren’t supposed to be smart enough to hide, but they manage it well enough.) It feels not only conventional but not a particularly good conventional film, or even a not particularly good conventional film from the eighties which has only just got released. Romero’s original ideas only occasionally turning up to surprise us into remembering who’s film we’re watching. Fourth films in trilogies. Never smart.

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