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Land of the Dead

Universal // Unrated // September 30, 2008
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 24, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Night of the Living
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and Dawn of the Dead defined the template for the zombie flick, and any movie with legions of the ravenous undead feasting on the living will always be compared to George Romero's initial zombie trilogy. Not even Romero himself gets a free pass, and when Land of the Dead -- the director's first gut-muncher in twenty years -- was released in 2005, even many of his most ardent fans walked away disappointed. I've kind of come around since, but at the time, I was one of 'em. I can point to Romero's Dawn of the Dead for not only sparking my obsession with horror but with my fascination with movies, period. It's hard to picture anyone -- even the man who singlehandedly created the modern zombie flick -- ever matching what he accomplished with Dawn.... Still, Romero isn't leaning on nostalgia or trying to warm over a formula he'd penned decades earlier. Each of his zombie movies has been vastly different than the one before it, and with Land of the Dead, Romero has left claustrophobic horror largely behind in favor of straightahead action.

Set some indeterminate time after the world had first been ravaged by the undead, Land of the Dead opens with civilization in tatters. Zombies grossly outnumber their walking, talking food supply, and what few survivors are left have holed up in a handful of outposts scattered throughout the country. One of the most heavily fortified strongholds 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 bridge, the Steel City seems like one of the only places on these shores that the undead can't sink their rotting teeth into.

Multi-millionaire kingpin Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) doesn't just want to keep the zombies out, though; he makes sure that the huddled masses are locked in. Those select few blue-bloods who can afford the price tag set up shop in Fiddler's Green, an exclusive tower of condominiums complete with restaurants and a ritzy 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. Anyone with the balls to stand up against Kaufman is quietly knocked off by his garbagemen, a group headed up by the eager-to-please Cholo (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 out in a heavily armored mobile fortress nicknamed Dead Reckoning to loot deserted stores and supermarkets. As supplies from surrounding areas continue to dwindle, Riley (Simon Baker) and his crew have to venture out further and further, trying to get their hands on the necessities without being overwhelmed by swarms of the undead. 'Course, zombies aren't all that bright, so easily distracted by bright, shiny things that Riley and company can usually walk away safely by launching fireworks into the air as they make their rounds.

Riley's had it with Pittsburgh, determined to head out to the deserted wastelands of Canada where there aren't any people or zombies to get in his way, and seeing Cholo's greed and arrogance knock off one of his men just makes him that much more hellbent on taking 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 bucks. (Hey, you never know...) Kaufman seeks out Riley's help in getting his hands back on that roving fortress, assuring him that he'll be allowed free passage out of Pittsburgh if he can stop Cholo before the city's in smoldering ruins. With a trigger-happy hooker (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 whole hell of a lot more to worry about than one heavily-armed Latino. The zombies from Dead Reckoning's last raid have picked up a few new tricks, 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 few years dozing off in a coma and woke up just in time to stroll into Land of the Dead after the opening credits, I don't think I would've guessed that it was a 64 year old George Romero standing behind the camera. It's
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quite a bit different than any of his other zombie flicks; for one, this is the biggest bankroll he's had for any of his Dead movies, and the scale of the production eclipses anything else he's done in four full decades in the industry. Night, Dawn, and Day were each anchored around a handful of survivors holed up in some claustrophobic stronghold, but Land of the Dead encompasses an entire city and its outlying areas. Along with that expanded setting, the size of its cast has been beefed up too, and this is also the first of the Dead to star any particularly recognizable faces.

Aside from some of the ground rules of the undead, none of Romero's zombie films have had all that much in common with each other, and the fact that Land of the Dead is so different than the movies he'd shot decades earlier shouldn't have caught me as off-guard 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 previous three Dead movies. Grab a semi-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 really isn't the time for most of its characters to be fleshed out beyond one-note cardboard cutouts, and that's a pretty dramatic shift from the three installments before it. The survivors, at least, are all essentially the same characters at the end of the movie as they are at the beginning, and they're neatly, 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 plays more like a straightahead action flick: you can tell a few minutes in that the self-assured, noble heroes are all gonna walk away unscathed, and the grrr-boo-hiss villains will be gruesomely ripped apart and munched on. That persistent sense of dread from the other Dead movies would be sorely missed, but I really couldn't give a shit what happens to these forgettable, borderline-anonymous characters anyway.

Aside from Day of the Dead's Bub, the zombies in this movie are more advanced than anything we've seen from Romero, and that grated on the nerves of some Dead loyalists. With one glaring exception, it didn't really bother me all that much, though. 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 over 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 once 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 kinda are, George, what with the rotting and flesh-eating and infecting all of us happy-meals-on-legs and everything. Aside from the whole cadaverous, cannibalism thing, some of the key undead just seem like slow-moving, dim-witted 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 some sort of tribe. Big Daddy probably deserves his own paragraph of endless bitching, but even without a word of dialogue, Eugene Clark somehow manages to overact every damn time he lurches in front of the camera. Every reaction he has to anything consists of a drawn-out, 240 decibal bellow, and it seems like half the time, that'd be followed by some sort of swooping crane shot as if this were The Shawshank Redemption or something.

The whole Dead Reckoning angle is a complete waste, and I would've rather had some of that time spent better establishing the state of society as a whole. Land of the Dead 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 sixth 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 kinda weak conclusion really satisfy. What happens in the climax is fine, just doesn't feel like a climax.

I'm being much harder on Land of the Dead than I would be if it had a different
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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 the criticism swirling around Day of the Dead, switching gears away from the glacial pace of that movie's first hour to something much more breakneck. The increased tempo has its downsides, but 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, some poor schlub is grabbed by his lips and has his skin 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 sopping with splatter. The quality of Greg Nicotero's skilled effects work and the production design make Land of the Dead look like it's toting at least a $35 to $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 beyond almost any argument one of the five or six best zombie movies ever filmed. The glossy production values and spectacularly gruesome kills 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 resist nitpicking more than it probably deserves. It's better described as 'brutal fun' than anything all that close to 'good', but 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 bombarded with the sort of fawning praise that swirls around Dawn of the Dead, and it won't be nearly as polarizing as Day of the Dead. Land of the Dead may be 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: The VC-1 encode on Land of the Dead looks identical to the HD DVD that Universal released back in 2006, but that's not a bad
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thing. This Blu-ray disc isn't going to top any year-end lists or anything, but it's still a solid presentation. The photography is somewhat stylized; ample film grain gives Land of the Dead a fairly gritty texture, the night scenes that make up most of the movie are painted in a distinctive blue and gray, and its palette as a whole is slightly exaggerated. Fine detail ranks only as average, and a fair number of shots aren't all that crisply defined, but it's a tremendous step-up over the lackluster and unusually soft DVD release from a few years back. Definition and clarity get such a boost that some of the digital splatter really stands out as CGI. Contrast looks a bit off in a handful of the night shots, although that could be the result of Romero playing with the color timing, and the sometimes limited shadow detail can likely be traced back to the original photography as well. It's not reference quality, no, but this Blu-ray disc still looks nice enough and is a massive improvement over the 2005 DVD.

Land of the Dead is presented on this single-layer Blu-ray disc at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and I believe that's a first for Romero in forty years behind the camera.

Audio: Land of the Dead is a hybrid of horror and straightahead action -- two genres that are almost always a lock for first-rate soundtracks -- and its 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track is extremely aggressive. The moans of the undead and the screams of their victims claw their way from every direction, and imaging and the numerous pans across channels flesh out an immersive and unsettling atmosphere. This is a movie whose story hinges on a thunderous, twenty ton mobile fortress armed to the teeth, and the overwhelming number of explosions and bursts of gunfire also serve up a hellish amount of bass. There were a few scattered moments where I expected a little more of a kick from the LFE, but the subwoofer still gets a pretty steady workout throughout. Land of the Dead's dialogue is never dominated by all the low-frequency devastation, and the film's sound effects are rendered with reasonably impressive distinctness and clarity.

The low-end did seem more pronounced in this lossless soundtrack than in the Dolby Digital Plus audio on Universal's HD DVD, but toggling back and forth between them, the two sounded fairly close to my ears. Land of the Dead also includes a DTS dub in Spanish alongside subtitles in English (SDH), Spanish, and French.

Extras: Land of the Dead carves up a few of the extras from the DVD and HD DVD for its picture-in-picture U-Control feature. It
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would be annoying that the only way to view that footage on this Blu-ray disc is in a tiny PiP window, but honestly, those three making-of pieces really weren't all that great in the first place. The U-Control is nicked from a bland, awfully ordinary 12 minute making-of featurette, John Leguizamo's 7 minute "A Day with the Living Dead" tour, and a 10 minute makeup effects featurette with Greg Nicotero (the "N" in KNB FX) revealing how he and his team brought the dead back to life. With excerpts from that meager amount of material placed against the backdrop of a 97 minute horror flick, it goes without saying that the U-Control is sparsely used and, honestly, kind of a waste.

All of the other extras from previous releases have been carried over, though, beginning with an audio commentary featuring George Romero, producer Peter Grunwald, and editor Michael Doherty. It's an unusually subdued track that almost never strays from the same few topics: describing whatever's happening on-screen, pointing out elements digitally added to or snipped out of the frame, or noting how a bit of gore differed from the theatrical cut. Romero did field 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 it gets), and casual fans probably won't find it worth the hour and a half-plus investment.

There are also a few minutes' worth of extra footage -- although it looks like everything worthwhile had already been reinstated into this director's cut -- along with a two minute splatter montage. Both sets of footage are letterboxed and non-anamorphic in standard definition. Land of the Dead tosses on a set of before-and-after shots highlighting the digital effects work, and there's also an eight minute set of storyboard comparisons. "Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call" is a minute-long effects test of CGI zombies dancing around, and Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright chime in with a zombie-cameo-diary that looks to give a pretty solid impression of what the shoot must have been like behind-the-scenes.

Conclusion: Land of the Dead -- a gory but otherwise surprisingly straightforward action flick -- falls somewhere in the middle of George Romero's first four zombie films. It's not even close to being a classic in the same vein as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, but even with its many flaws, I've still found myself watching Land of the Dead again and again, and the movie's grisly make-up effects and breakneck pace should make for a hell of a popcorn flick this Halloween. The reformatting of a few of the extras for a useless U-Control feature is kind of a drag, and it's not a compelling upgrade to the ravenous undead who already shelled out for the HD DVD a couple years back, but for zombie completists, the boost in image and sound quality over the DVD make Land of the Dead worth digging up again. Recommended.
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