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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Land of the Dead (HD DVD)
Land of the Dead (HD DVD)
Universal // Unrated // September 26, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 30, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The template for the zombie flick was defined by Night of the Living Dead and especially Dawn of the Dead, and any movie that has hordes of the walking undead feasting on the living will inevitably be compared to George Romero's zombie trilogy. Not even Romero himself gets a free pass, and when Land of the Dead -- the director's first gut-munching horror movie in twenty years -- was released last summer, even some of his most ardent fans were vocal about their disappointment. I've kind of come around since, but at the time, I was one of 'em thanks to my unattainably high expectations. His Dawn of the Dead is singlehandedly responsible for not only my obsession with horror but my love of movies, period, and it's unrealistic that Romero or anyone else could ever top Dawn.... Each of Romero's zombie movies have been vastly different than the last, and Land of the Dead plays more like an action flick than an atmospheric horror film.

Set some indeterminate time after the world had first been ravaged by the undead, Land of the Dead opens with civilization in shambles. Zombies outnumber their walking, talking food supply, and what few survivors there are have holed themselves up in a handful of outposts throughout the country. One of the most heavily fortified outposts is Pittsburgh...or at least, an unnamed city modeled after Romero's hometown. Surrounded by water on three sides and only accessible by a single, since-secured bridge, the Steel City seems like one of the only places in the U.S. that the zombies can't sink their rotting teeth into. Multi-millionaire kingpin Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) doesn't just keep the zombies out; he makes sure the huddled masses are locked in. Those select few blue-bloods who can afford it reside in Fiddler's Green, an exclusive tower of condominiums complete with restaurants and a shopping mall. Everyone else...? Shanties. Kaufman keeps the dregs of his new society under control by depriving them of the essentials, shoving them under his thumb through his network of sex, drugs, and gambling. Those who oppose Kaufman are quietly disposed of by his garbagemen, most notoriously the eager-to-please Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo) who sees these nasty little covert jobs as his ticket into high society.

Since the city's supplies of food, booze, and medicine have long since been exhausted, Kaufman sends his flunkies in a heavily armored mobile fortress nicknamed Dead Reckoning to loot deserted stores and supermarkets. As supplies dwindle, Riley (Simon Baker) and his crew are forced to venture out further and further, trying to acquire what's needed without being swarmed by the undead. The dead aren't all that bright, though, easily distracted by fireworks that Riley and company launch in the air as they make their rounds. Riley's fed up with Pittsburgh, ready to trek to the deserted wastelands of Canada where there aren't any people or zombies to stand in his way, and seeing Cholo's irresponsibility cost one of his men his life just makes him that much more determined to take off. Cholo has duped himself into thinking this is his last time getting his hands dirty too, but when he's snubbed by Kaufman, Cholo swipes Dead Reckoning and threatens to shell Fiddler's Green if the big man doesn't fork over five million of his meaningless dollars. Kaufman enlists Riley's help in retrieving the roving fortress, assuring him that he'll be allowed free passage out of Pittsburgh if he can stop Cholo before the city's left in ruins. With a trigger-happy prostitute (Asia Argento) and a disfigured deadshot (Robert Joy) by his side, Riley agrees to bring an end to his one-time right-hand-man's reign of terror, but Pittsburgh has a lot more to worry about than a heavily-armed Latino. The zombies from Dead Reckoning's last raid have learned a few things from their tormentors, and the hulking Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) has assembled an army of the undead for a siege on Fiddler's Green.

If I'd spent the past year and a half in a coma and woke up just in time to walk into Land of the Dead after the opening credits, I wouldn't have guessed that it was a 64 year old George Romero behind the camera. It's quite a bit different than any of his other zombie films; for one, it's the biggest bankroll he's had for any of his Dead movies, and the scale of the production eclipses anything else he's done to date. Night, Dawn, and Day were anchored around a handful of survivors holed up in some claustrophobic stronghold, but Land of the Dead encompasses an entire city and even some of its outlying areas. Along with its geographic expansion, the size of its cast has been beefed up too, and it's also the first of the Dead to star any particularly recognizable actors.

Still, aside from some of the ground rules of the undead, none of Romero's zombie films have had much in common with each other, and the fact that Land of the Dead is so different than the movies he shot decades ago shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did. Even with all of the gut-munching splattered throughout, Land of the Dead more closely resembles a B-action flick than any of the other three Dead movies. Grab an automatic rifle, blast dinner plate-sized holes through a couple thousand rotting skulls, hop into your oversized tank, and head north to Canada. The end. Because Land of the Dead is such a lean, action-driven movie, there isn't enough time for most of its characters to be fleshed out more than one-note archetypes, which is a dramatic shift from the three movies before it. They're all essentially the same characters at the end of the movie as they are at the beginning (well, if you don't count some of 'em being knocked off), and they're cleanly divided into Good Guys and Bad Guys. The other Dead movies felt as if anyone could be torn apart at any time, but Land of the Dead is a classic B-action flick: the self-assured heroes are gonna walk away unscathed, and the boo-hiss villains will meet some grisly, over-the-top end. That persistent sense of dread from the other Dead movies is sorely missed, not that I would've really cared what happened to these forgettable, mostly anonymous characters anyway.

With the exception of Bub in Day of the Dead, the zombies in this movie are more advanced than anything we've seen from Romero, and that grated on the nerves of some Dead fans. With one glaring exception, it didn't really bother me all that much. After all, Bill Hinzman -- the very first Romero zombie -- picked up a rock to smash a car window in Night of the Living Dead, and the evolution of the undead however many years of movie-time later doesn't seem out of place. My only gripe is that Big Daddy, the leader of the zombies, is too human. Hell, he's the most prominent zombie in the movie and is never shown gnawing on anyone. I get that part of Romero's metaphor is that zombies really aren't that different from us, but...yeah, they really are, George, what with the rotting and flesh-eating and infecting us happy-meals-on-legs and all. Aside from that (which are admittedly some pretty big "aside from..."s), some of the key undead just seem like slow-moving, dim-witted, laconic humans. I'm sure that's Romero's point, but I preferred it when they were painted more as a force of nature rather than a sort of tribe. Big Daddy probably deserves his own paragraph of endless bitching, but even without a word of dialogue, Eugene Clark managed to overact every time he was on-camera. Every reaction he has to anything consists of a drawn-out, 240 decibal bellow, and it seemed like half the time that'd be followed by some sort of crane shot as if this were The Shawshank Redemption or something.

The whole Dead Reckoning angle is a waste, and I would've rather had some of that time spent better establishing the state of the world as of Land of the Dead. It doesn't give a strong sense of how much time civilization has been in tatters, and although Romero is heavy-handed with the class struggle angle, he doesn't offer much of an impression how day-to-day life has really changed. The comparatively subtle social commentary Romero infused into his other zombie movies has been tossed out. Land of the Dead has its share of social and political commentary, but it's not mixed in all that deftly, so instead of subtext, there's just highlighted, quadruple-underlined text. Even my fifth time through, I'm still caught off-guard by how abruptly Land of the Dead trails off. The movie ends but doesn't really have an ending, and neither what passes for a climax nor its conclusion really satisfy. What happens in the climax is fine, but...it's not really a climax.

I'm being much harder on Land of the Dead than I would be if it had a different writer/director's name in its opening credits, but I don't want to give the impression that it's unredeemably bad. For one, Romero appears to have taken into consideration some of his fans' gripes about Day of the Dead, switching gears away from the glacial pace of its first hour to something much more breakneck. The increased tempo has its downsides, but still, Land... plows forward quickly enough that the pacing never has a chance to drag, and even this lengthier 97 minute cut feels like it runs half that. The movie has a cacklingly dark sense of humor, and especially in this more gruesome director's cut, Land of the Dead is unflinchingly gory. Tonsils are torn out of a soldier's mouth, a guy is grabbed by his lips and then his skin is yanked over his head, a severed arm is split in half like a wish bone...and that's just three of dozens upon dozens of brutal kills. The quality of Greg Nicotero's effects work and the production design make Land of the Dead look like it has at least a $35-$40 million price tag, and I'm still floored that Romero and his immensely talented crew pulled it off for $17 million and change.

How to summarize this long-winded write-up...? As many flaws as it has, Land of the Dead is almost beyond any argument one of the five or six best zombie movies ever filmed. The glossy production values and spectacular kill scenes give it a leg up on Romero's many imitators, but because it's by the man who wrote the template for the zombie film and because it pales in comparison to his masterpiece, I can't help but nitpick more than I probably should. It's better described as 'brutal fun' than anything close to 'good', and the more I watch Land of the Dead, the more I warm up to it. Twenty years from now, Land of the Dead won't be treated to the sort of fawning praise Dawn of the Dead enjoys and it won't be as polarizing as Day of the Dead. It's the most disposable of Romero's zombie movies, but there's nothing wrong with a mindless action-zombie flick. Just go in knowing that that is what you're going to get, not Dawn of the Dead 2.

Video: I believe Land of the Dead's 2.39:1 aspect ratio is a first for Romero in his nearly forty year career as a director. This high-definition presentation is fairly average for an HD DVD, but considering how high the format has set the bar to date, "average" is hardly a bad thing. The film does have somewhat of a stylized look; it paints its night scenes with a distinctive blue and gray, the level of film grain gives it a somewhat gritty texture, and colors as a whole are slightly exaggerated. It could a result of this stylization that the level of fine detail present in Land of the Dead doesn't rank among the most impressive HD DVDs to date, but it is a tremendous improvement over the lackluster, unusually soft DVD. (If anything, it might look too good; the increased resolution makes some of the CGI splatter stand out as more artificial than last year's DVD.) Contrast looks odd in some night shots, which I'd guess is a factor of Romero playing with the palette, and the sometimes limited shadow detail can probably be traced back to the original photography as well.

I also spotted some posterization in the night skies of a few shots: first shortly after the Dead Reckoning crew announced that the firework-spouting mortars were jammed and again as the legion of zombies prepared to cross the river. This admittedly could be a factor of my display -- I'm watching on a plasma, after all -- but this is the first disc out of the forty-plus HD DVDs I've watched where anything like that leapt out at me mid-movie. Even if the posterization is a flaw with this HD DVD, it's fairly inconsequential, appearing in a small area of the screen for just a few short seconds.

Land of the Dead ranks as good rather than great compared to some of the most exceptional HD DVDs to date, but it's a dramatic improvement over the regular DVD, and considering this particular movie's visual approach, I doubt it could realistically look much better than what Universal is offering here.

Audio: The two genres that test home theaters more than any other are horror and action, and as Land of the Dead is a hybrid of the two, its Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack is the best of both worlds. This is an extremely active mix: the moans of the undead and the screams of their victims claw their way from every channel, and imaging and the larger-than-average number of pans across the soundstage are both strong. This isn't the type of soundtrack where you're likely to come across reviews talking about sterling dynamic range or shimmering highs. Lower frequencies dominate the mix, and the sheer number of explosions and gunfire -- not to mention a twenty-ton mobile fortress -- serve up a hellish amount of bass. There were a few moments where I expected a little more kick to the low-end, but the subwoofer still gets a pretty steady workout from the first frame to the last. The dialogue is never overwhelmed by all the low-frequency thunder, and the film's sound effects are rendered with impressive clarity.

The audio options vary from side to side. The HD DVD portion of the disc serves up English and Spanish Dolby Digital Plus tracks, while the DVD side offers English audio in Dolby Digital and DTS. Both sides include subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements: Land of the Dead is a combo disc, meaning that one side of the disc has a high-definition presentation of the movie for HD DVD owners, and the other side is a standard definition version that'll function in any ordinary DVD player. The only of the extras to appear on both sides of the disc is the audio commentary with George Romero, producer Peter Grunwald, and editor Michael Doherty. It's a very subdued commentary, and when they have something to say, it almost always falls into one of the following categories: describing whatever's happening on-screen, pointing out things digitally added to or removed from the frame, or noting how a bit of gore differed from the theatrical cut. Romero did answer a couple of the questions I had -- Can animals be zombified? Why fireworks? Was Dead Reckoning actually driveable? -- but there's nothing really insightful (Romero's tirade on sex and romance in horror is as close as you get), and casual fans won't find it worth the hour and a half-plus investment.

The other extras are only available on the standard definition side of the disc, and if you already have the unrated DVD, there's nothing you haven't seen before. There's an ordinary and uninteresting 12 minute making-of featurette, but John Leguizamo's 7 minute "A Day with the Living Dead" tour, a 10 minute featurette with Greg Nicotero showing how he brought the dead to life, and Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright zombie-cameo-diary give a much better impression of what the shoot must have been like behind-the-scenes.

There are 3 minutes' worth of extra footage, although it looks like everything worthwhile had already been reinstated into this director's cut, and a 2 minute montage of gore is also tacked on. Both sets of footage are letterboxed and non-anamorphic.

Like Red Dragon, Land of the Dead includes a set of before-and-after shots showing off the digital effects work, and there's also an eight minute set of storyboard comparisons. Finally, "Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call" is a CGI test of zombies dancing for a minute, although if you make it through the whole thing without fast-forwarding, you're a better man than I am, Charlie Brown.

Conclusion: Land of the Dead -- a gory but otherwise surprisingly straightforward action movie -- ranks somewhere in the middle of George Romero's four zombie films. It's not and will never be recognized as the classic that Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are, but despite its many flaws, I've still found myself watching it again and again. My appreciation for Land of the Dead inches forward every time I see it, and the movie's grisly make-up effects and breakneck pace should make for a great popcorn flick this coming Halloween. Although the HD DVD doesn't offer anything new to zombiephiles who already bought the unrated DVD last year, I personally found the boost in image and sound quality to make Land of the Dead worth picking up again. Recommended.

The usual disclaimer: the screengrabs in this review were lifted from the DVD side of the disc and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of the movie on HD DVD.
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