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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Land of the Dead - Unrated Director's Cut
Land of the Dead - Unrated Director's Cut
Universal // Unrated // October 18, 2005
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Walker | posted October 16, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Film:
Twenty years is a long time to wait for anything, especially if what you're waiting for is a film from your favorite director. Sure, it hasn't been twenty years since George Romero last made a movie, but it has been a full two decades since Day of the Dead, his last cinematic visit to the plague-ridden world of flesh eating zombies.

In all honesty, I had given up on Romero completing what he started in 1968's Night of the Living Dead. As the legends have it, Romero had originally conceived of a zombie trilogy that essentially chronicled the downfall of the human race—Dawn of the Dead was the second film in the series, and Day of the Dead was the final installment. The original script for Day of the Dead brought the zombie plague to an end, leaving a sense of cynical hope that mankind was being given some sort of second chance. But because of massive budget cuts, that version was never shot, and Day of the Dead simply ended.

Romero's films have never been blockbusters – especially the films that followed Day of the Dead – and as the years passed, it seemed like he would not get to make another zombie film. Then the rumors began to circulate that the filmmaker was planning a fourth film. Some accounts had the film being called Twilight of the Dead, or Dead Reckoning. But those were just rumors, and there was still the issue of the money that would be needed to make the film. Romero is a great filmmaker, movies like Martin and Knightriders attest to his talent beyond zombie films, but in the world of Hollywood, he has never been a "bankable commodity". So, while I desperately wanted him to make another zombie film, I had my doubts that it would ever happen.

It wasn't until a few years ago that it seemed like there might be a hope. When a new wave of films emerged that were clearly inspire by the mythology Romero had created, suddenly it seemed like there might be a chance for the director step back up to the plate. Films like Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and the non-Romero Dawn of the Dead remake all signaled a new interest in the flesh-eating ghoul genre. And while it took a while for someone in Hollywood to come to their senses, Romero was finally given the money he needed to make his fourth zombie film, Land of the Dead.

Land of the Dead takes place an undisclosed number of years after the dead have risen, and borrows a bit from the Day of the Dead script that was never shot. Society has fallen, but in the aftermath of the unthinkable horror, the human race has somehow managed to rebuild itself. In a heavily fortified city that is supposed to be Pittsburg (it's never actually named in the film), its almost like nothing ever happened, and if it weren't for the electric fences and armed guards that keep the "walkers" from getting into the city, life would almost seem normal. Too normal in fact, as it is quickly apparent that this new society has been rebuilt using the same paradigm that existed before the dead rose from the grave. There are still the very rich, who live in Fiddler's Green, a deluxe high rise apartment and enjoy the finer things in life. And then there are the poor, living in the shadow of the rich, hoping to climb the social ladder that will transform them from the have-nots to the haves.

Outside the barricades of the city is a deadly threat that goes largely ignored—out of sight, out of mind—as day to day life goes on as usual. But the zombies that were once nothing more than unthinking shambling masses are now evolving into something different. They can now think and communicate. And with the ability to act and react, the living dead are no longer content with being used for target practice.

Romero's work has always used horror and fantasy as a metaphor for much deeper social commentary and emotional rumination. There's never much sermonizing in his films, but mixed in with the guts and gore there is subtext and societal observations. On the surface Romero's Martin may be a vampire movie, but it's really about disaffected youth, alienation and loneliness. The Crazies, about a biological weapons mishap in a small Pennsylvania town is more relevant today than it was in 1973, serving as an eerie glimpse at the current state of affairs in Iraq. And of course there are the Dead films, each a statement about the era in which it was made.

Land of the Dead continues Romero's subversive take on horror filmmaking. He has created a brilliant, nightmarish world where live humans are thrown into cages with chained zombies that fight it out for "dinner." It is an almost post-apocalyptic society where a team of mercenaries forage the countryside in a tricked out truck christened Dead Reckoning. But remove the zombies from the equation, and you have a film that mirrors much of contemporary society. Nestled above the city in his luxury apartment, rich businessman Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) controls Fiddler's Green. He pays the military that guards the city and the mercenaries that bring back the supplies needed for survival. Kaufman also controls the gambling, prostitution and drugs that flood the streets of city keeping the poor working class forever in a state of anesthesized poverty. He presents himself as a benevolent leader, but is really nothing more than greedy businessman, a morally repugnant villain that serves as Romero's comment on the Bush administration.

As much as I loved Day of the Dead (I'm one of the few people that really liked the movie), I was always disappointed that it wasn't the film it should have been. For two decades, like so many other die-hard Romero fans, I hoped he would be given the opportunity to revisit the genre that he defined. But when it was announced that Romero was in fact getting back behind the camera for another zombie film, I must admit, I was a bit apprehensive.

My apprehension came from the other George – George Lucas. When Lucas finally returned to the Star Wars saga after almost twenty years, the result, The Phantom Menace, was mind boggling in its ineptitude. Coming on the heels of Lucas' Revenge of the Sith, the monumentally disappointing conclusion to the Star Wars saga, my fear was that Romero would have lost his edge. But then I stopped and thought seriously: Romero's movies have withstood the test of time, without enhanced special effects or a slew of merchandising keeping the public overfed.

My doubts and concerns were laid to rest when Land of the Dead opened theatrically this summer. At 60-something years-old, and with an estimated budget of $15 million, Romero accomplished what Lucas was unable to do with nearly ten times the money—he's made a movie that needed no excuses. Special effects didn't come at the expense of storytelling. Characters didn't utter cringe-inducing dialog. And most important, Romero kept his underlying political agenda from degenerating into ham-fisted polemics delivered with the subtlety of a jackhammer enema. In short, Romero proved he still had what it took to make a great film.

Two decades is a long time to wait for any film or filmmaker. But for Land of the Dead and George Romero, the wait has been worth it. Romero delivers a film that mixes guts and gore with character and social commentary. He proves once again that horror films don't have to forsake intelligence of frights. And most important, he delivers one of the best horror films since the last time he took us to the land of the dead.

Land of the Dead is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture transfer is clean, but certain scenes appear darker on home video than during the theatrical run. This is especially true during the opening scene, a night exterior that is way too dark. I would have to see a theatrical print of the film again to say for sure that the DVD doesn't maintain the proper color and light levels, but some stuff is so dark I have to believe someone wasn't paying attention during the transfer process.

Land of the Dead is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The audio mix is solid, and doesn't raise the same sort of integrity questions as the video transfer.

Land of the Dead is available on DVD in two versions – the R-rated theatrical version, and an unrated director's cut. Before you get excited about the unrated version, let me tell you what that version consists of. The unrated cut of Land of the Dead is approximately four minutes longer than the theatrical version. Nearly three of those minutes are accounted for with one scene involving John Leguizamo's character dealing with a crisis in the apartment next to Kaufman's penthouse. The rest of the director's cut content consists of a few extra seconds of gore here and there, the camera holding on something for a moment longer, and increased CGI blood splatter, none of which make a great film any better. Die hard Romero fans and gorehounds may be disappointed to find that the extra footage does not amount to much, profoundly impact on the movie itself, or even seem that noticeable. Ultimately, the theatrical cut of the movie was strong enough on its own, and this slightly longer version is really no better than that version (although you could argue it is more complete, and is therefore better).

This leads us to the bonus material, and where I'm sure to get in trouble. With nine featurettes and an audio commentary by Romero with producer Peter Grunwald and editor Michael Daughtery, you could say the Land of the Dead DVD is loaded with bonus material. But as a devout fan of Romero, I can say that all the bonus material on this disc is nothing more than standard studio filler designed to convince consumers they're getting more for their buck. Personally, I'd rather forsake every single bonus feature on every single DVD if it meant getting films for a significantly reduced price. The behind the scenes documentary "Undead Again: The Making of Land of the Dead" is one of the better featurettes, but compare to the documentary on the impressive three-disc Dawn of the Dead set, this doc is pathetic. It, like all the other bonus material, stinks of a thrown together studio publicity job that went to the lowest bidder. Of all the mini-docs to be found on the disc, "Bringing the Dead to Life," a look at the special effects process, is the best. "Zombie Effects: From Green Screen to Finished Scene" is an interesting, but too short look at how digital effects were used in the film, while "The Reaming Bits" is a little over two minutes of material that didn't make it back into the director's cut. "When Shaun met George" is a cute little documentary about Shaun of the Dead creators Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg meeting Romero, and comes across as one of the more well-thought out of all the incidental material. "Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call," on the other hand, is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen – a computer generated bit of animation with poorly rendered zombies dancing. What Romero fans were they thinking of when they added this crap?

Finally, we come to the audio commentary. Fans of Romero know that he's not exactly the most talkative person on audio commentaries, and that he's usually joined by such partners in crime as Tom Savini and others involved in the making of his films. This time the director is joined by Grunwald and Daughtery, neither of whom are much more talkative than Romero, resulting in long gaps of silence. Romero has some interesting stuff to say, but the difference between this commentary and those on his other films is that more time had passed with the other films, giving the director time to ruminate on how he felt about the film. I still believe the audio tracks on Anchor Bay release of Martin and Knightriders are two of the most sincere sounding commentaries I've ever heard. Land of the Dead's track is not lacking in sincerity, it's just lacking in the sort of resonance that can only be found when years have passed since a film has been made.

Final Thoughts:
If you're a die hard fan of Romero, you must buy this film. If you're not a die hard fan, in addition to being an idiot, you should at the very least rent it. With not much difference in content between the theatrical and the unrated version, you'll do fine with whatever version you get, but you might as well make an effort to get the director's cut. Most important, get the Land of the Dead DVD for the movie, not for the bonus material. The movie is great, the bonus material is just something for people who need an excuse above beyond a solid film to spend their money. Invest in quality film, not quantity supplementary material.

David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]
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