Fireworks figure prominently in "George A. Romero's Land of the Dead," the latest sequel to the legendary horror filmmaker's living-dead franchise. Called, appropriately enough, "sky flowers," the stirring pyrotechnic displays are used by the film's zombie-fighting heroes as a strategic distraction -- a light show to dazzle the undead while the living make excursions outside their fortress-like refuge to scavenge for supplies in a land overrun by cannibalistic corpses. As the film's living protagonists gather up what remaining food and drink they can, a sea of zombie extras stand gazing upward, in slack-jawed and wide-eyed uniformity, their pallid faces made whiter by the glow of the night sky.

Fortunately, we are not zombies.

Not all of us are going to want to trek down to the Mall this Independence Day (or, for that matter, to the Iwo Jima Memorial, another prime viewing spot), braving traffic and crowded Metro cars for less than an hour of chanting "ooh" and "aaah" in unison. Some are going to want to stay home for the big show, perhaps watching it on TV after the broadcast of the concert on the Capitol lawn. Others may decide to celebrate quietly with friends, cocktail in one hand and sparkler in the other, viewing the festivities from the well-kept secret of their apartment building's roof. Families with kids might want to catch a parade.

For others still, the fireworks aren't even the main attraction, but a sideshow to the human circus taking place everywhere you look: kids with firecrackers here; girls in red, white and blue sunglasses over there; shirtless guys wrestling in the mud of an open fire hydrant somewhere else.

I still remember the time a few years ago when I took my toddler son to the Mall for his first Fourth of July. No sooner had the explosions of colored light begun over our patch of carefully chosen real estate, than he turned his back on the fireworks to people-watch. At 21/2, he already knew that just because you do something together doesn't mean you have to do it the same.

The point is this, if you haven't guessed it already: It's all about freedom.

And not the rah-rah, politicized, you're-either-with-us-or-you're-against-us, lock-step kind of freedom either (call that "freedom fries" freedom) but the kind that allows -- no, make that celebrates -- dissent. Sure, the Fourth is America's birthday, but while everyone is invited, we're not all expected to show up at the same party.

Red-state Republicans, blue-state Democrats and Green Party Greens are hereby encouraged to get down, in whatever way they choose fit, on this most un-zombie-like of American holidays. This weekend, it isn't just okay to do things a little differently than your neighbor, it's downright patriotic. Here follows our annual guide -- a metaphor for liberty in Q&A and list form -- to the variety of Independence Day offerings out there.

-- Michael O'Sullivan