CRITICS WHO REFER to George Romero's zombie films as great social commentary are like first year college students with a semester of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn under their belts. Having found someone who is willing to stick a finger in the eye of the establishment--however nonsensical the underlying claims and beliefs might be--critics praise Romero for his brave artistry and metaphorical take on the United States just like teenagers lecture their parents on the evils of America's dead white males and the pernicious effects of capitalism.
Night of the Living Dead is the most apolitical of Romero's films, but the ending--the film's hero, a black man, is shot by a white zombie hunter--sparked much discussion and soul-searching when it was released in the racially discordant year of 1968. Realizing the jackpot he had stumbled onto, Romero made a conscious effort to insert political controversy into his films. Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a childish critique of American consumerism and Day of the Dead (1985) revolves around a cartoonish portrait of the military.
But the most over-the-top Romero movie has to Land of the Dead (2005). Romero's response to 9/11 seems to be that America got what it deserved. Heavy-handed metaphors abound: fireworks are used to distract the zombies, just as Romero believes appeals to patriotism are used to distract Americans; when the humans raid the zombie town for its resources, their greed and cruelty invite blowback from the zombified inhabitants; when the living dead finally attack the tower holding the city's wealthy inhabitants (led by Dennis Hopper, playing a combination of Donald Trump and George W. Bush), they smash open the glass doors with a wrench, an axe, a jackhammer, and other tools. Workers of the world unite indeed.
Deciding that even those memes were too subtle for the audience to pick up on, Romero has added a new tool to his arsenal with Diary of the Dead: voiceover. That's right, just in case you were too stupid to pick up on the fact that racism is bad and authority figures are not to be trusted, the narrator will go ahead and tell you so. Thinking back on a way to demonstrate just how powerful (read: heavy handed and moralizing) this film was, one image pops out. At the end of the movie a couple of rednecks are shown using zombies for target practice. The formerly-living are tied up to a tree and pumped full of lead by a boozy pair of camoflauged Larry the Cable Guy wannabes. Even worse, a female zombie has been tied to an overpass by her ponytail; one of the sneering southerners blows her head off with a shotgun. Then, right before the credits start, a bloody tear runs down her face.
Oh, and in case you didn't get it (rednecks, the symbol of human cruelty: bad), Romero decides to throw in a voiceover on top of the image: "Are we worth saving?" the narrator asks. It is, quite simply, lazy filmmaking. It also shows a complete lack of respect for the audience. I think we get the point. Perhaps next time Romero could just flash a title card on the screen with a sentence explaining his world view. Just remember, George: no big words. We clearly aren't smart enough to get the point if it's not broken down for us in the simplest terms possible.
Diary of the Dead focuses its venom on the media; following the travails of a team of student filmmakers and their put-upon professor as they try to survive the zombie onslaught spreading across the countryside, the movie pretends to be an assemblage of found footage and documentary-style footage shot by the protagonists. (Think Night of the Living Dead meets The Blair Witch Project.) The reason the student director continues filming instead of ditching the camera and running like hell? Because the media is lying about the zombie outbreak, and the videos he uploads to MySpace are the only way for the people to get the truth. Or something like that.
Along the way we get plenty of the same Romero tropes. The military/national guard is totally untrustworthy; the entire police force is comprised of racists and murderers; the only decent folks the students find along the way are a warehouse full of African-American looters. The movie isn't all political badgering--we are in a zombie movie, after all. There are a couple of creative kills, and the makeup work is very solid. And along the way we meet several interesting characters, including a deaf-mute Amish farmer and a boozed up British professor who is quite handy with a bow and arrow. If you listen carefully to the news reports you'll pick up on cameos by Stephen King, Wes Craven, and other horror gurus. But all in all the film lacks punch and respect for its intended audience. It might be time for Romero to hang it up.
Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.