Review Date: November 9, 2005
Released by: Universal Home Video
Release date: 10/18/2005
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
Here it is, at long last – Land of the Dead
, the latest caper in George Romero’s “living dead” series. Fans always suspected that Romero wasn’t through with zombies, even if it took him twenty years to finally release a follow-up to Day of the Dead
. Though last year’s Dawn of the Dead
remake may have stolen some of its thunder (though its success helped persuade Universal to bankroll this production), the movie was still eagerly anticipated by fans all over the world. It did respectable business in the United States, earning back several times what it cost to make, and turned a profit on the international market. But is it any good, or has Romero, working with a Hollywood budget and truly professional talent, lost touch with his indie roots? Keep reading and find out.
It has been many years since the dead first rose, and though humanity is down it’s not quite out. All around the country fortified outposts were set up in major cities, and groups were formed to raid zombie-infested rural and suburban areas for supplies. Land of the Dead
opens during one such raid. Using a heavily armored truck named “Dead Reckoning”, a party led by Riley Denbo (Simon Baker
) storms into what is left of a small community, deserted save for the undead. Using fireworks – which distract zombies by forcing them to look up at the sky – they set about their work. Against Riley’s orders his second-in-command Cholo (John Leguizamo
) breaks into an abandoned liquor store and one of the men with him is bitten by a zombie, causing him to commit suicide. Meanwhile, the fireworks are not having quite the desired effect. A black zombie (Eugene Clark
) wearing a gas station uniform with the logo “Big Daddy” doesn’t seem affected by them, and appears to be communicating with the others, snapping them out of their trances. When the machine shooting the fireworks breaks down altogether Riley orders the mission aborted.
The team returns to its home base, an unnamed city protected by rivers on three sides and electric fences and heavy fortifications on the other. Riley, who has planned to leave the city for some time, has just purchased a car – an exceedingly rare commodity – but when he goes to pick it up at the garage he finds it missing. Him and his friend Charlie (Robert Joy
) – a disfigured and autistic man who is nonetheless an excellent marksman – go to a local nightclub to find out what happened to it, since the joint’s owner was the one who sold it to him. They don’t get much of a chance to resolve the matter, though, because Riley spots a young woman named Slack (Asia Argento
) being thrown into an enclosed ring with several zombies, apparently for the purposes of entertainment. Riley rescues her, and Charlie snipes the club owner down when he tries to shoot them. All hell breaks loose as people flee the place in terror. The police promptly show up and arrest everyone involved.
Meanwhile, Cholo pays a visit to him and Riley’s employer, one Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper
). From his office and apartment in Fiddler’s Green – a massive and luxurious high rise where all the city’s well-to-do live – Kaufman rules over the metropolis like a god, exercising direct and indirect power. When he’s not out running supply missions Cholo is doing Kaufman’s dirty work, eliminating undesirables from the city’s slums. But Cholo is not content to remain a slum dweller himself. He has saved up enough money to put a down payment on an apartment in Fiddler’s Green. When he tells Kaufman this, though, he is told – politely – that he is not the type of tenant the building is looking for, and then has him escorted out by security. Not content to take the embarrassment lightly, Cholo gathers together the crew of Dead Reckoning and flees into the countryside with the vehicle. He calls Kaufman and issues an ultimatum – either he pays them $5 million, or they will use the vehicle’s rocket launchers to destroy Fiddler’s Green! Not wanting to part with his ill-gotten money, Kaufman releases Riley and company from jail and tells them they are free to leave the city – if they can stop Cholo and get Dead Reckoning back.
The version of Land of the Dead
that is presented here is George Romero’s director’s cut, running approximately three minutes longer than the version that played in theaters. The only big addition is a brief scene where a resident of Fiddler’s Green hangs himself and comes back as a zombie. Other than that the changes are mostly minor. Bits and pieces of footage are added here and there, certain scenes are edited slightly differently and there is noticeably more blood and gore. But it is still essentially the same version that audiences saw when it was released this summer.
Coming so long after the previous film in the “Living Dead” series, it was all but certain that Land of the Dead
would divide fans. While it has all the hallmarks of a Romero zombie film – violence, elaborate gore set-pieces and social and political commentary – it is far closer to a typical Hollywood film than any of the previous three entries in the series. It is hard to believe that a black and white, independently made regional production costing just over $100,000 could, almost forty years later, have a sequel costing nearly $20 million and made with respected Hollywood talent. Along the way the series began to look and feel more and more like typical big studio fare. In Night of the Living Dead
you did not know who would live and who wouldn’t because everybody died in the end, good and bad. In Dawn of the Dead
it was not always easy to tell which of the protagonists would survive, mainly for the lack of a clear-cut human villain. In Day of the Dead
though it started to become easy to tell who was doomed, and in Land of the Dead
that is even more the case. The special effects men might as well have put a heavenly aura around the characters who are going to make it in the end. It’s that obvious, and it’s disappointing.
There are plenty of shocks that might make an audience member jump (certainly my girlfriend did when we saw it in the theater) and the atmosphere of the film is nothing if not nightmarish. The bleak, destroyed world is shown in as much detail possible, and very little exposition takes place during daylight. But Romero's techniques for scaring audiences haven't evolved much over the years. By and large he uses the same method that he used in Dawn of the Dead
and Day of the Dead
- someone will not look behind them or not pay attention to what's lurking in a dark corner and the zombie will jump them. In this way the scares become predictable. Your heart might skip a beat the first time, but after awhile it becomes regrettably easy to tell when someone is going to be attacked (you’d also think that after all these years of zombie fighting people would learn to watch their backs more closely).
In Land of the Dead
, Romero stays with the tried and true zombie formula that he invented three and a half decades ago. By and large the living dead behave in accordance with the rules that have been laid out for them by the previous films (even the rebellion launched by “Big Daddy” isn’t that much of a stretch, since mass zombie attacks are now a tradition). Romero makes no real attempt to change the formula, which was exactly the right choice. His rules of “zombieology” are so elegant and so logical that they need no further revision. In fact, those rules make so much sense and are so accepted that zombie filmmakers since have had to work hard to distance themselves from those rules so as not to seem like they just cloning Romero’s work (though the late Lucio Fulci has taken much criticism for it, those rules work so well that it’s hard to fault him and screenwriter Elisa Briganti for copying them verbatim in Zombie
). It’s that mentality of “we gotta change something so we’re different than George!” that has led to questionable “innovations” like hyperactive zombies that can outrun Olympic athletes.
The movie is full of political and social overtones which even the constant mayhem and bloodshed cannot hide. In fact, this is probably the most overtly political film that Romero has made since The Crazies
in 1973. Perhaps too much so. "We don't negotiate with terrorists," Kaufman says in one of the most annoyingly blatant George W. Bush references in recent memory (it's even more obnoxious than Anakin Skywalker's "If you're not with me then you're my enemy!" line from Revenge of the Sith
). Romero seems to be converging on two points with his message in the film. In the "making-of" featurette he mentions that it's a story about people living in the past, of not wanting to accept that things have changed. But it's also very much about ignoring problems, about not acknowledging them or dealing with them because it's too much work or because the reality is too hard to accept, about letting things simmer until they suddenly boil over.
These two themes converge on each other. In the original Dawn of the Dead
a scientist makes the comment that there can be no divisions amongst living beings, yet in the city class differences have become even more pronounced than ever. With no apparent legislative body, courts or legal code, the orders of Kaufman are the only real law (the only place that seems to have a functioning government at all is Fiddler's Green, which apparently has a board of directors and a membership committee). The residents of Fiddler's Green live much like they did in normal times. There are restaurants, stores and plenty of security guards to ensure their safety. On the street law and order is imposed by Kaufman's police forces (whose uniforms seem to have been designed with an intentionally retro look to them, as if they came out of an earlier part of the twentieth century when police were routinely used to suppress things like labor unrest), while Cholo and other henchmen carry out summary executions of people that Kaufman doesn't want around. The residents of the rest of the city occupy themselves with plenty of vices provided by him (which he refers to as his “responsibility”). Drug addiction, alcoholism and prostitution seem to be common.
The way that the film presents these differences is a little bit too much. Whether it be his mannerisms, the cigars he smokes, the champagne he drinks, the music he listens to or his stereotypical black butler and chauffer, Kaufman is a walking cliché. He embodies every negative value and characteristic that is attributed to the rich, whether true or not. In his world view human beings are completely disposable commodities – even Cholo, who is a remarkably loyal and dedicated employee, is treated like garbage by him and thrown out. Dennis Hopper's performance, in addition to being uneven and unconvincing, does nothing to diminish the traits that Romero assigns to the character. Though Kaufman remains an effective human villain (far more so than, say, Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead
), Hopper's performance, along with the character's clichéd writing, hurt.
But when you come down to it, Land of the Dead
still looks and feels like a Romero zombie movie, despite the Hollywood slickness. It is a sincere and entertaining film, but also an imperfect one, the weakest of his four zombie movies. But it does retain the spirit of his other undead adventures. Besides the gore and besides the social and political commentary, it has something else to it, something that bonds it with the other films in the series and distances it from the rest of the pack. Whether it be the scores of Italian rip-offs or the intense but pointless remake of Dawn of the Dead
, the movie has something that few Romero imitations have - a soul.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with 16x9 enhancement. Being a new film coming from one of Hollywood's big studios, one wouldn't expect anything less than a stellar picture, and that is indeed what we get here. Land of the Dead
is a film full of darkness, smoke and fog, and yet the authoring is first rate, with no instances of significant artifacting. The image is sharp and crisp, shadow detail is largely first-rate, and the colors are strong. This was George Romero's first film in a true widescreen format, and the transfer does it justice.
Two soundtrack options are available, a Dolby Surround 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track. Though your choice of which one will depend on what your equipment set-up is, either way you can't go wrong with either track. This is an aggressively designed soundtrack and its presentation on this disc is almost perfect.
Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
The first big extra here – well, the only big extra, in fact – is a running commentary with George Romero, editor Michael Doherty and producer Peter Grunwald. It gets off to a tense start with the men seemingly not knowing what to say and leaving lots of quiet spots, but then picks up quickly, with the men turning conversational. Their talk is mostly focused on the technical aspects of the production such as the sets, the locations, the special effects (of particular interest are their revelations on just how much of the fortified city was created artificially) and the difference between this cut and the theatrical cut. With all this production talk the story and the actors often get shortchanged in the discussion, and I would in particular have liked to hear Romero talk about the way that social and political events of the past five years influenced his script, as he has mentioned elsewhere. The commentary is still interesting, just not as interesting as I would have hoped for.
Aside from the commentary, this release also contains numerous featurettes, though some of them are essentially “fluff” material that strives more to promote than to inform. In particular we have the first short piece, Undead Again
, a classic EPK-style “making of” short which runs thirteen minutes. It’s full of behind-the-scenes footage and all the major cast and crew are interviewed, though they spend much of their time praising Romero and his genius (praise that’s completely justified, of course, but under the circumstances it’s redundant). The most interesting aspect is when Romero mentions that Dennis Hopper styled his performance after Donald Rumsfeld, and how he took inspiration from the Bush Administration in how he depicted the leadership of Fiddler’s Green. However, the editor drops the issue as suddenly as it is brought up, and from a business aspect that might have been for the best. Since this is clearly a promotional-type piece it would make little sense from a sales standpoint to remind everyone of how politically divided the country has become (which might also explain why the commentary avoids the same issue).
The next group of featurettes all focus on the film’s technical aspects. Bringing the Dead to Life
focuses primarily on special effects man Greg Nicotero, who demonstrates how he, using a mixture of make-up effects, puppets and animatronics, created the film’s zombies. Running nine and a half minutes, this is without a doubt the most interesting of the video supplements on this release. Next we have Zombie Effects: From Green Screen to Finished Screen
, a three minute feature which visually demonstrates the way green screens and CGI were used to create the type of nightmarish physical locations that are seen in the film. Lastly there’s Bringing the Storyboards to Life
, which compares the film’s storyboards to the finished product, and runs about eight minutes.
The rest of the extras are mostly just filler. There’s about three minutes of deleted footage included, but it’s mostly just short little bits that were cut out of different scenes. The only big revelation is a brief scene where a guy making out with an attractive girl suddenly finds himself kissing a zombie instead! Then there’s A Day With the Living Dead
, which is a video tour of the set with John Leguizamo, which runs seven and a half minutes. Next up is When Shaun Met George
, which features Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg – the two creative geniuses behind Shaun of the Dead
– being made up as zombies for a bit part in Land of the Dead
(watch for them during the bar scene where Asia Argento’s character is introduced). The feature runs thirteen minutes – unnecessarily long – but it is fun to watch the boyish enthusiasm of the two men. After that is Scenes of Carnage
, which is nothing more than a minute and a half of footage showing the most gruesome kills from the movie, set to classical-sounding music. Lastly there’s Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call
, which features badly-rendered CGI zombies dancing like they’re auditioning for a Jennifer Lopez music video. It runs about a minute, and is unquestionably the most useless extra on this release.
The best that can really be said about the featurettes is that even though none of them really go in-depth into their respective topics, taken altogether they do at least give a fairly comprehensive look at the production. Strangely, though, there are no trailers or TV spots included.
This is the movie that many said - with good reason - would never happen, and horror fans are blessed that they were wrong. George Romero hasn't lost his touch, even if he's no longer in top form. Simply by virtue of the movie alone Land of the Dead
should count as one of 2005's top horror DVDs, and even though this release stumbles a bit in the extras department the excellent video transfer and sound mix should remain huge selling points for it. Buy it to enjoy, buy it to scare your girlfriend with or just buy it because you're a Romero completist, but by all means get yourself a copy.
Movie – B
Image Quality – A-
Sound – A
Supplements – B
- Running Time - 1 hour 37 minutes
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 5.1 Surround
- English 5.1 DTS
- English subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Audio commentary with George Romero, Peter Grunwald and Michael Doherty
- Making-of featurette
- Zombie effects featurette
- Green screen to finished scene comparison
- Storyboard to screen comparison
- Video tour with John Leguizamo
- When Shaun Met George featurette
- Deleted footage
- Scenes of Carnage – Zombie death footage
- Scream Tests – Animated zombie footage