When Romero came on board with Universal to make his fourth zombie film, he had to tone things down a little bit in order to secure an R rating so that the film could get theatrical play without any issues. He obliged, the film hit theaters, and now that's been slapped onto a shiny silver platter for home viewing, he's been able to restore the four minutes that were taken out of the movie.
Originally titled Dead Reckoning (for reasons that make perfect sense once you see the film), legendary American horror film director George A. Romero's highly anticipated fourth foray into the world of the walking dead is Land Of The Dead. Though Romero jump started the genre in 1968 with Night Of The Living Dead and followed it up with Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead it had been two decades since his last zombie opus, and it took the blockbuster success of the Dawn Of The Dead remake and other recent zombies films like 28 Days Later to get his fourth entry out of the gates. Ironic? A little bit. But Romero likes irony, that much is obvious.
The world has been overrun by the living dead. There are pockets of 'civilization' scattered around American, mostly in the big cities, but the rest of the country is a wasteland. A man named Riley (Simon Baker of Red Planet and The Ring 2) leads a group of lower class citizens whose job it is to score the wasteland area outside of Pittsburgh to bring in much needed food and supplies from what's left of the grocery stores, farming areas and shopping centers, and try not to get killed by the 'stenches' (their nickname for the zombies) in the process. To help in this mission, a rich man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper of Blue Velvet and Easy Rider) has financed the building of a super tank named Dead Reckoning – it's pretty much an indestructible eighteen wheeler turned into the ultimate zombie killing machine.
When Kaufman spurns Cholo (John Leguizamo, recently seen in the Assault On Precinct 13 remake), the man who was to replace Riley as the leader of the scavenger group, Cholo hijacks Dead Reckoning and threatens to blow up the building that the rich and elite members of society have holed themselves up in, the very same building which Kaufman refuses Cholo access to. Kaufman, who doesn't 'negotiate with terrorists' ropes Riley and his friends, a dimwit named Charlie (Robert Joy who worked with Romero back in 1993 on The Dark Half) who happens to be really good with a rifle, and a fiery ex-hooker named Slack (Asia Argento, foxy tattooed daughter of Dario Argento who produced Dawn Of The Dead), to get Dead Reckoning back before Cholo destroys everything he's worked to build up. To ensure things go smoothly, Kaufman has three of his hired soldiers accompany them on their mission to steal back the super tank.
What neither Riley, Cholo, or Kaufman realize is that there's a threat outside the protective walls of their armed compound above and beyond the usual zombie antics. The dead are starting to learn, they're starting to follow directions, and they're starting to learn how to work together. And what do they dead want? They want to return to their old life, to the life they knew before it all hit the fan, and that life took place inside the city and that's exactly where they're going to go.
Sounds like a pretty decent premise for a zombie movie, doesn't it? Especially a Romero zombie movie, as the ideas behind all of what happens are ripe for satire and black comedy, two elements which made his first three 'dead films' so successful and so much better than the scores of imitators that followed. When the end credits hit the screen, the premise still sounds good and the ideas still sound good and the story still sounds good, but I couldn't help but feel that there were a couple of problems with the execution that, when the dust settles, put this one on the bottom rung of the Romero/Dead Film ladder. It's not that the film is bad, quite the opposite in fact, it's pretty good, but there are some issues…
Character development has always been a key ingredient in a successful horror film. If you don't care about the leads, it's hard to generate any sympathy for them and as such, when the tension mounts, it isn't as effective or as scary. This was the biggest flaw in Zach Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead remake and the key reason that the original film is the better of the two, and ironically enough, it's the biggest flaw in Land Of The Dead. It's not that the rag tag group of heroes that Riley assembles is unlikable, they're not. They're nice enough people, you just don't feel much for them because you know so little about them. Riley's past is hinted at briefly. Charlie? We know Riley pulled him out of a fire and that's about it. Slack? We know Kaufman doesn't like her and that she may or may not have feelings for Riley judging by the way she looks at him. We know Cholo is pretty pissed off at Kaufman after working for him for so long and getting the shaft when it all came down. And sadly, that's about the extent of it. There's enough there to move the story along and enough there to string the plot on, but there's not enough there to involve you with these people they way you became involved with them in Romero's three earlier zombie films and that's a damn shame because the idea behind Land Of The Dead is a very good one. Though this directors cut does restore some brief snippets of interplay between characters and it does flesh things out a little bit more with some extended dialogue, it's still not quite enough to fix the problem, even if it is a step in the right direction.
The other problem with the film? The CGI. Thankfully, most of the obvious edits to the gore scenes have been fixed on this uncut version of the film. There's still nothing here on the level of Rhodes' death scene in Day Of The Dead or some of the grislier moments in Dawn Of The Dead and none of the death scenes have the power of the matricide scene in Night Of The Living Dead, but the restored snippets of gratuitous grue do help things out in that regard. If you've seen the theatrical cut of the movie, you'll likely have noticed how obvious some of the cuts where – thankfully, Universal has allowed the trim to be reinserted and that, like the restored bits of character development, do make Land Of The Dead a better film. Unfortunately, for every fantastic organic effect we have, we're hit with a crappy CGI one. Almost all of the head shots, an important factor in the action scenes of the film, are CGI and when you see what is obviously computer generated blood spray, it simultaneously reminds you how good the organic effects work is and how crappy the computer generated ones are.
It's not all bad news, though. Romero's wit is omnipresent throughout and while a lot of the comic relief from the three soldiers that Kaufman assigns to work with the team falls flat on its face, the more satirical aspects of the movie do work really nicely especially when you take into account the filmmaker's leftwing slant and contrast that to the real world parodies we see plaid out in front of us. The zombies once again are an obvious representation of the general public, and this time out Romero hits us with a bit of a class war between the right and the poor that isn't that far removed from the way certain political groups tend to pander to their big business friends or how the rich often times exploit the working class. While this may sound out of place for a zombie film the script works it all in nicely and while there is a certain heavy handedness to some of it (Kaufman's death scene is about as subtle as a brick to the head… money truly is the root of all evil in this film), it's at least handled in an intelligent enough fashion to make for an interesting contrast in amongst the walking corpses and the brain splatter.
Romero's strengths in the editing room are evidenced nicely throughout the film as it moves along at a very good pace and makes use of some expertly timed jump scares throughout the movie. The tone of the film is quite bleak, and there are a few stand out scenes scattered throughout the movie such as when an army of zombies emerge from the murky depths of the river or when the camera pans up from the street to give us a birds-eye view of the carnage below. The film is quite well made on a technical level and it's a shame that the film didn't quite hit its potential.
Performances are okay across the board. No one is particularly excellent – Hopper is Hopper, Asia Argento looks hot but brings nothing to her role, and Riley is just sufficient in the lead. The only real complaint about the actors is the 'big daddy' zombie who moans like a bad Scooby Doo ghost throughout the movie whenever he discovers something or gets upset about something. I realize that the zombies are learning as the movie progresses, but truth be told his moans were laughable. John Leguizamo is decent Cholo, bringing some sleaze and shiftiness to his role that makes it work better than it would have in someone else's hands.
When it all boils down to the nitty gritty, Romero's film is a reflection of the times, just like the other three zombie films he's made have been. We live in a society where people think for themselves less and less and take what's spoon-fed to them as the gospel truth. We live in a society where a film's merit isn't judged on characterization but on action, flash, and effects. Romero has given us, the zombie masses, exactly what we asked for. The cheers of the people sitting around me in the theater confirmed this, as did their incessant talking when there wasn't enough action going on. The beautiful thing about that is he's done it in his own style. It's a "dumbed down" film but it's still a Romero film – as much a black comedy and social satires as a horror film – and it's still very much worth seeing. There's some irony in that. But Romero likes irony, that much is obvious.
Now, what you're probably wanting to know is what are the key differences between what hit theaters and what's on this disc? Well, first and foremost is the bloodshed. Almost all of the zombie attack scenes play a little longer and without anything blocking the action, which results in considerably more gore in these moments. The scene where the zombies close in on the skyscraper towards the end of the film is definitely bloodier, and the gut-munching scene that happens around the same time that Savini's machete zombie shows up is also nastier. A scene where Cholo finds a hung corpse is also put back in, and while it's a short moment, it's a pretty good one. That's pretty much it, aside from the aforementioned brief moments of more expository dialogue and a quick moment where we learn a little bit of Cholo's back story. The restored footage does help the movie quite a bit, as the obvious and jarring edits are no longer an issue and it feels more like a Romero movie than a Hollywood production (though in a sense, the movie really is both).
Universal has given Land Of The Dead a very nice 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the original aspect ratio of the film and does justice to the bleak landscape that Romero has created for his film. The black levels are strong and deep and don't break up at all, the skin tones look lifelike and natural aside from the reanimated corpses that are obviously supposed to look sickly and rotten. The colors are pretty strong, the reds especially which come through quite vividly but not so much as to overwhelm you or to bleed into surrounding hues. Print damage is a non-issue although there is some moderate to heavy grain noticeable in quite a few scenes. There is some mild line shimmering in a few spots, you'll see it in the usual spots like along roof tops and on car grills, but there's a decent if not exceptionally good level of fine detail present in the image from start to finish. Universal has done a fine job on this transfer, though it is far from perfect.
The audio on this DVD is also top notch, and Universal gives you the choice of watching the film in either an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix or a DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Optional subtitles are provided in French or Spanish and the feature includes a closed captioning option in English only.
If your hardware is up to it, check out the DTS mix as it is very strong and clear. The bass is quite powerful and the mix really does a nice job of bringing the sound effects to life. This being a fairly aggressive sound mix, you can expect plenty of fun directional effects like bullets whizzing past you, explosions coming up around you, and plenty of thump coming out of the subwoofer. The Dolby Digital track is almost as good, the really noticeable difference being bass response in which, not surprisingly, the DTS track edges it out. Overall though, both tracks sound great. You won't have any issues understanding the dialogue, the score and effects are balanced nicely and the levels never seem over powering. Everything comes through loud and clear here, just as it should be.
First up, as far as the extra features are concerned, is a full length commentary track with director George Romero and producer Peter Grunwald who are joined by Michael Doherty, who served as editor on the project. While there's quite a bit of information covered in this track, the delivery is fairly dry and almost lifeless at times, there doesn't seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for long stretches at a time which makes it difficult to get through despite the fact that you really can learn a lot from listening to it and this isn't helped by continual instances of dead air. Regardless, the commentary does a good job of filling us in on the technical side of things, as it talks about shooting locations and some of the effects work as well as some of the rating issues that they had to deal with. They could have gone more in depth in terms of covering casting and why certain people were chose for certain roles, but this is worth skimming through if you're a fan of the film or of Romero in general.
Undead Again: The Making Of Land Of The Dead is an all too brief (thirteen minutes, give or take) look behind the scenes at how the movie was made. Surprisingly enough, Romero comes right out and refers to Hopper and his cronies as the Bush administration, pretty much confirming everyone's suspicions of the political allegories present in the feature. There's plenty of raw set footage here, some interview clips with George, Asia, Baker and Hopper, and while it really needed to be much longer to really flesh out the story of the film, it's certainly an enjoyable look at how it all played out.
Up next is A Day With The Living Dead, which clocks in at about seven minutes in length. This is a short look at a day on the set through the eyes of John Leguizamo, who spends most of the time hamming it up for the camera. It's a mildly amusing and very candid look at his work on the film, but it's hardly in depth.
The Remaining Bits is a three minute collection of scenes that didn't make it into even the director's cut of the film. These are almost all quick bits of dialogue but there are a couple of little gory bits in here that are rather amusing and make this one worth checking out, despite not having anything of any real substance to be found here.
When Shaun Met George is a look at the meeting of George Romero with Edgar Wright and Simon Penn, the creators of Shaun Of The Dead. This is a fun piece, as you can tell that Wright and Penn are completely stoked to be playing zombie extras in a Romero film and their enthusiasm is pretty infectious – it's hard not to have fun watching these guys get into their parts.
Bringing The Dead To Life is an interesting, but again, all too brief look at the KNB Effects team and the work that they did on the film. Greg Nicotero, the man behind the make up magic, guides us through the creation of some of the more recognizable zombie make up that is scattered throughout the film and for those who dig on 'how'd they do it' type material, this proves to be a worthwhile investigation. Romero gives his thoughts on Nicotero and his work, and vice versa, and this is one of the better and more complimentary supplements on this release.
Scenes Of Carnage is up next and while the title certainly gets your attention, all this really happens to be is a compilation of the gore scenes from the film set to ninety seconds of music. While it's fun to check out all of the gore at once, this isn't showing us anything we didn't see in the movie and it's kind of pointless, really.
Zombie Effects – From Green Screen To Finished Scene is another effects piece that examines rather poor CGI used in the movie. If you're into computer effects you'll like what you see here but if your preference is for the real thing, the old school organic effects, this won't float your boat as it's got nothing to do with make up effects or fake blood. That being said, seeing the before and after versions of certain specific effects set pieces from the movie is at least mildly interesting.
Bringing The Storyboards To Life is exactly what it sounds like - a storyboard to film comparisons for a couple of sequences from the movie.
Coming to a close, we find Scream Tests – Zombie Casting Calls which isn't screen test material as the title overtly implies but in actuality turns out to be sixty seconds or so worth of bad CGI zombie extras in rough form.
The theatrical trailer for Land Of The Dead is nowhere to be found though there are previews for three other completely unrelated Universal DVD releases as well as a promo spot for the Land Of The Dead video game (which looks pretty cool, I must say).
While it may sound like Universal has stacked this release, most of these supplements are very brief and a scant few of them go into the detail that most horror fans are going to want to see and have seen in the past on Romero releases from Anchor Bay and Elite. There are a lot of different extra features on here, but they're quick and sadly some of them just aren't that interesting, making this a bit of a wasted opportunity.
While Universal definitely could have put more effort into the extra features on this release, the director's cut of Land Of The Dead is still a strong film – it plays out better than its theatrical counterpart and restores the bloodshed to where it needs to be. The audio and video presentation is very good and overall, for horror movie fans, this one is very easy to recommend.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.