FEATURE: Shocktober - Land of the Dead

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. Spoilers!



So Land of the Dead is basically the French Revolution... but with zombies.

Bear with me here. In the wake of the zombie apocalypse, the human population has sought refuge in the ruins of Pittsburgh and set up their own society, complete with an electric barricade called 'The Throat'. In amongst these survivors is Riley Denbo who is retiring from his job as chief hunter gatherer having gained a good reputation for his work in fetching critical supplies in for the society. He works with Cholo who's a bit of a hothead and has aspirations of moving into a luxury apartment block called Fiddler's Green where all the rich people now live. See, in the wake of the apocalypse, society has fallen back into a feudal system where the rich seem to get richer and the poor get exploited in a variety of ways. Sound familiar?

Considering it was released in 2005, there is an odd prescience to the events of Land of the Dead that set it apart from its predecessors. Whereas Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead feel reactionary to their contemporary societies, Land feels downright prophetic. Given the prevalence of the Occupy movement post-financial crisis and the way in which it highlighted the huge gap between the rich and poor in society, Land explores the way in which this system is untenable. 

It's ruled by people (Dennis Hopper's Kaufman) who have very little knowledge of how the outside world works and rely on other people (Simon Baker's Riley) to sort it out for them. There's exploitation at every stage of this society, from Cholo's violent tendencies, Slack's prostitution and eventual use for zombie-baiting to the zombies being used as tourist attractions (hello Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright). There is corruption at every level in this new society and that's even before we get to what the zombies are currently up to.

So how does this all fit into Land of the Dead being the French Revolution?

In the late 18th century, revolutions were par for the course; you had the Americans breaking off from British rule and throwing tea around and you had the French railing against their aristocratic system. We English timed ours badly and missed the revolutionary fervour, but that didn't stop everyone getting very worried about what would happen if that fervour headed across the sea. Part of the reason for these revolutions was a growing awareness of what we now know as human rights and the aristocracy was seen as a tyrannical and oppressive force.

The French Revolution became the subject and worry of a huge amount of writers, all of whom wanting to offer their two cents on the issues that were arising. One of the most prolific was political theorist and philosopher, Edmund Burke. For Burke in his writings on the Revolution, the revolutionaries were a monstrous force, grotesque in their corruption of society; boundaries are fractured and people are contorted into a rabid force that cannot be controlled. He's not the only one to proffer this representation either; Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, although written much later, takes great delight in portraying fictional but key revolutionary figures like Madame Defarge as a warped, violent woman.

Returning to the Land of the Dead, a similar sort of class system is going on here. It's a feudalistic society predicated on getting to Fiddler's Green, the ultimate in social aspiration that this post-apocalyptic world has to offer. At the beginning of the film, the boundaries are very clear; the human section of the city is protected by 'The Throat' and the rich are further protected by the Fiddler's Green tower. There doesn't appear to be much social movement as the tower is fiercely guarded by Kaufman's selection committees, as Cholo finds out.

However, now is the time we get to what the zombies are up to because, if you hadn't already guessed where this is going, they are the revolutionaries about to tear everything down. Because they are evolving. Riley observes it early on when he sees the zombie dubbed Big Daddy in the credits calling out to others. Like the French revolutionaries, they have a growing awareness of what they are and what they are capable of. Big Daddy acts as a leader, rallying around the others, teaching them how to communicate with each other, how to use weapons and how to coordinate an attack using these basic tools.

It's important to note the various costumes here, especially for the contrast between Big Daddy and Kaufman. Big Daddy's a gas station attendant and still wears his uniform from back in the good old alive days. He's surrounded by zombies who are noticeable for their lack of formal wear; there's menial jobs, every day clothes that are a far cry from the elegantly turned out suits of the human characters fleeing from their Pittsburgh location. In short, the zombies are the underclasses here, the proletariat ready to tear down the established order which they of course then do. It's also crucial that Big Daddy is the one to kill Kaufman, the king usually found at the top of his castle, Fiddler's Green. It would have been more fitting to my argument if Kaufman was decapitated, but hey, you can't have everything.

Although I've linked it explicitly to the French Revolution, the zombie proletariat rising could easily be applied to any moment since in which the upper echelons of society have a bit of a wobble about what the poor are doing. We saw one recently following the financial crisis when the media had to demonise the Occupy protestors because everyone who wasn't the 99% started getting a bit nervous. It happens in any potential revolutionary situation; demonise the mob who are dissatisfied with the system and calm everyone down. 

The great thing about Land of the Dead though? The zombies win.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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