"Cinema is wasted on cinema. Most cinema is bedtime stories for adults." – Peter Greenaway
Consensus seems to be that this is the worst film in George Romero's zombie trilogy. Personally I think it's Romero's best film, and one of the bleakest, if not best, horror movies ever made.
Three points. Firstly, what people fail to realise is that the humans are actually the bad guys in Romero's zombie universe. They are adept at selling out their friends, stabbing their companions in the back, acting violent, brutal and flittering away their lives with mindless banalities. In contrast, the zombies are representative of a kind of primal humanity which, because it always remains at the core of mankind, can not be escaped.
In this film, we have a group of people trapped in a military bunker whilst thousands of zombies wait outside. The humans are divided into three groups: the hastily militarist right wing, the scarily experimental left wing and the apathetic (and hedonistic) middle ground who just want to drink and live peacefully whilst the world goes to hell. Romero's point, though, is that despite their differing ideologies, everyone is selfishly looking out for their own interests, no matter how altruistic they may seem.
Secondly, this film acts as a precursor to fare like "The Mist", in that it is about a small group of people who, when put under extreme pressure, begin to turn against one another, exposing their prejudices, insecurities, sexist feelings and petty jealousies. Romero's point: a small group of humans can be far more divided, vicious and bestial than any number of ravenous undead.
Thirdly – and this is what distinguishes the film from all other horror movies – the film says that because most, if not all, actions are motivated by self interest, mankind is ultimately doomed. Forget all the ancillary themes often attached to this film – Reganism, the threat of nuclear war, feminism, Aids etc – while they're valid, this film takes a far grander, far more hopeless, view of things.
The zombies and the humans are divided by what Freud called the pleasure principle and the reality principle. The zombies, as a kind of stripped down, primal version of humanity, simply eat, breathe and wander about looking for food. Satisfying their primitive instincts are their only purpose. As one scientist says, "they gain no nutrition from the flesh they consume." In other words, they eat solely to satisfy a desire to eat (much as wealthy nations no longer eat to survive, but to prolong pleasure). Humans, in contrast, are able to defer instant gratification, constructing a variety of long term plans.
What the humans in this film realise, however, is that the rewards of the reality principle, of all their long term schemes, are no more advanced or noble than the drives of the zombies. The lead scientist in the film, for example, conducts experiments not because he wants to save humanity, but because he is thinking about future accolades and scientific prestige.
These themes are summed up in one scientist's interactions with a domesticated zombie called Bub, who performs only when rewarded. "They can be tricked into being good little girls and boys," he says, "same way we were tricked into it on the promise of some larger reward."
For the humans, however, any chance of a long term reward is slowly being eradicated. The last survivors on the planet and unable to fathom any future, the humans increasingly see no point in surviving. "It's the beginning of civilised behaviour," one scientist says, pointing out that the zombies operate on the same performance/reward level as humans, "civil behaviour is what distinguishes us from the lower forms. Civility must be rewarded, if it isn't, there's no use for it. There's just no use...for it at all."
The notion that there is "no use" for any and all human actions is expanded when one character discusses the various immigration papers, tax returns and official documents that the American Government stored in the bunker. All this information stored, all these records kept...toward what end? What is the use of human history? To what goal does it climb?
Ultimately, the world Romero creates here is one that is ruled by self interest. Goal oriented, man's actions are guided by pleasure, constantly striving to achieve his ambitions and protect his interests. The only easy way to get someone to not spend their lives as a Machiavellian power zealot would be to persuade them that they will enjoy an eternity in heaven. Heaven being pleasure incarnate.
Man is merely a dopamine zombie, fingering his neuro-chemical G-spot in one form or the other, no distinction between low-order pleasure and high-order pleasure. By a similar argument, we'll never achieve true happiness through the pursuit of pleasure because we can never be truly comfortable while we are in a pleasurable state. If we're experiencing pleasure it's because we must need something. Take temperature. Only if we're too hot or cold will we be able to experience the pleasure of a cold drink or hot bath. Once our temperature has stabilised, we're indifferent to either experience. If we are in no danger or need of any kind, we're in a comfortable but indifferent state. Sensory pleasure is not happiness, it is joy. The state of indifference is true happiness.
Now reconsider the final scene of the film, where the female character escapes and sits on a beach with the apathetic, hedonistic middle men who refused to fight throughout the film. They haven't escaped. They've become 21st century zombies. Get your mind around that, and this film will have you slitting your wrists.
8.5/10 – Ignore the one dimensional characters and the $500,000 budget. This film attains a depth of utter hopelessness that few films match.
Worth two viewings.