Zombies, man. They creep Judge Dan Mancini out.
Our review of Land Of The Dead: Unrated Director's Cut, published October 18th, 2005, is also available.
The dead shall inherit the Earth.
Twenty years after George A. Romero seemingly closed the book on his classic Dead trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead), he returned to the realm of the formerly-living-but-still-plodding-around for a fourth outing, Land of the Dead. The director aspired to make the epic smackdown between the living and the dead that he'd planned for 1985's Day of the Dead but had been forced to scale back on (read: abandon) due to budgetary limitations. The question on everyone's minds as Land of the Dead was poised to launch in theaters was, can Romero really recapture the gory magic?
Facts of the Case
Years into the zombie holocaust, something odd is happening among the undead. A walking corpse who was once a gas station attendant nicknamed Big Daddy (Eugene Clark, Resurrecting the Champ) has developed rudimentary intelligence, vestiges of his lost humanity. He loosely organizes his fellow zombies in a unified assault on a cordoned off area of Pittsburgh that has become a refuge for the living.
Social injustice rules the day in the fortress enclave. The wealthy are holed up in a luxurious high rise called Fiddler's Green while the poor live in slums, wanting food and medicine. The entire city is ruled by a crass capitalist named Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider). Riley Denbo (Simon Baker, L.A. Confidential) and Cholo De Mora (John Leguizamo, Moulin Rouge) lead a team that take an armored all-terrain vehicle called Dead Reckoning out of the enclave to collect essential supplies on regular basis. It is their raids that have enflamed Big Daddy and the other "stenches."
Riley and his scarred and none-too-bright buddy Charlie (Robert Joy, Atlantic City) end up on the wrong side of Kaufman's law after they get into a shootout to save a soldier-turned-hooker named Slack (Asia Argento, Scarlet Diva). When Kaufman thwarts Cholo's efforts to move into Fiddler's Green and find acceptance among the city's elite, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning just as the army of zombies overruns the enclave. Kaufman has no choice but to turn to Riley and his companions to recover the vehicle and stop the zombie onslaught.
Sometime in the two decades between Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead, George A. Romero began to believe his own social satirist hype. Parts of Land of the Dead feel like you're being attacked by a zombie Romero who shuffles up behind you in his oversized spectacles, grabs you by the neck, eats your brains, then pukes them back into your skull along with a healthy dose of his own political ideology. Yeah, it's that heavy-handed. At the height of his powers, when he served up Dawn of the Dead, Romero was capable of blending thrills, chills, laughs, and subversive politics with effortless elan. He was funny; he was scary; he was smart. In Land of the Dead, he takes frequent breaks from the carnage to hammer you over the head with subtext that's so blatantly obvious it could have been written by Michael Moore. During the picture in picture feature on this disc, Romero informs us that Kaufman is based on Donald Rumsfeld. Seriously? I never could've picked up on that on my own; I mean, it's not at all hyper-obvious. Part of the problem is that four decades and four films into his horror experiment, Romero's metaphors are dead (and not likely to rise from the grave). Yes, Mr. Romero, the human beings are more monstrous than the monsters. We get it. Can we cut to someone getting his face chewed off now?
As long as we're on the subject of people getting their faces chewed off, when Romero turns his attention to onscreen zombie carnage, no one does it better—not Zack Snyder, not Danny Boyle, not Edgar Wright. Land of the Dead's ideas may be inartfully presented, but its mayhem, scares, and bloody gags are killer (pun intended). It's not quite as gruesome as Day of the Dead, but it's still drenched in gallons of bright red awesome. A sequence in which we watch a cluster of zombies, lit by flashlights, devouring victims in bloody, ghastly, dementedly inventive ways is the sort of repulsive but can't-look-away horror feast for the eyes that one finds only in Romero's zombie pictures. It's terrifying yet somehow playful. Romero's secret weapon is effects guru Greg Nicotero, who got his start doing the excellent zombie make-ups and effects in Day of the Dead and went to work on everything from Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness to Pulp Fiction to the Narnia movies. Nicotero is fully in his element in Land of the Dead, using every trick in the book from traditional make-up to animatronic puppets to CGI to create some truly hideous, witty, and memorable undead gags.
The other thing the movie has going for it is a decidedly '80s action-horror atmosphere. Hopper's socioeconomic lectures notwithstanding, Romero demonstrates a tight, old school sense of pacing and fun. Action scenes like Dead Reckoning tooling through dark neighborhoods and mowing down "stenches" are doled out proportionally with chilling, suspenseful sequences such as when Cholo discovers that one of the city's elite has hanged himself and is coming back to (un)life. Despite its flaws, Land of the Dead offers a finer, more satisfying mix of horror and action than, say, Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead, released a year earlier (Snyder's film tends to favor action over horror; he never ratchets up the suspense the way Romero does). Add in Nicotero's smart and effective mix of modern and old school horror make-up effects and Land of the Dead becomes one hell of an entertaining zombie flick, despite Romero's love affair with own reputation.
The movie looks great on Blu-ray. The disc offers the Unrated version of the movie (which runs about four minutes longer than the theatrical cut) in a 1080p VC-1 transfer. Framed at 2.40:1, it offers reasonably sharp detail, dynamic color reproduction, and a layer of fine grain that gives the image a celluloid appearance. Black levels are solid without dragging the overall image into incomprehensible muddiness during the many nighttime sequences. The DTS HD Master Audio track is bold, vibrant, and crystal clear. As with the video transfer, it's an improvement over the DVD and leaves little or nothing to complain about.
All of the supplements from the Unrated DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. Romero, producer Peter Grunwald, and editor Michael Doherty provide a somewhat dry but informative feature-length audio commentary. It's the best of the supplements. "The Remaining Bits" is a brief collection of deleted and extended scenes. "When Shaun Met George" is a brief but charming featurette that follows Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead fame during their set visit to Land of the Dead (the duo even makes a cameo in the film as a pair of tormented zombies). "Zombie Effects" and "Scenes of Carnage" are special effects show reels set to music. And "Bringing the Storyboards to Life" demonstrates the faithfulness with which Romero brought his original vision to the screen.
The two meatier documentaries from the original DVD—"Undead Again: The Making of Land of the Dead" and "A Day in the Life of the Living Dead"—have been diced up and reformatted into U-Control picture in picture content that can be viewed simultaneously with the movie. Honestly, both documentaries were mostly loaded with marketing fluff, so the reformatting isn't a bad thing.
Romero's Day of the Dead (1985) was a step down in quality from his 1978 zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead. Land of the Dead is another downward step from Day (don't even get me started on 2007's Diary of the Dead). Still, despite a few missteps, the movie is proof positive that Romero's old school shambling zombies can stand toe-to-toe in the fright department with Danny Boyle's and Zack Snyder's sprinting undead any day of the week. Land of the Dead may not be as good as the films in his classic Dead trilogy, but it's still worthy of the director's name.
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