Am I the only one that thinks zombies are kinda... cuddly? I know I'm supposed to be terrified by them, but a bunch of pale, oozy, maggot-infested undead monsters only makes me immediately think of Michael Jackson's "Thriller.". I always expect them to suddenly start dancing and doing the Vincent Price shuffle, and any shock value they may have once had has now, for me, been lost to campy excess.
I know this is not George Romero's fault. The godfather of the zombie movie, he virtually created the subgenre with 1967's landmark 'Night of the Living Dead.' That black-and-white opus did more than terrify millions, garner critical kudos and gross millions -- it fully politicized the horror film, and helped to usher in a seminal period for the genre. The 1970s has never been equaled in terms of delivering raw, unapologetic and thought-provoking terror films, and if the rest of Romero's career never quite equaled the singular achievement of 'Night,' well, the guy still has one hell of a cinematic epitaph to revel in.
Of course, Romero would go on to direct two more 'Dead' films, 1978's widely acclaimed 'Dawn of the Dead,' and the less well-received 'Day of the Dead' in 1985. (Interestingly, all three have been remade -- a sure sign the guy created something supremely influential.) Yet it was still somewhat surprising that twenty years later, Romero would again forge back into zombie-land for 2005's 'Land of the Dead.' Coming after such 'Dead'-inspired hits as '28 Days Later,' the 2003 remake of 'Dawn of the Dead' and the hilarious parody 'Shaun of the Dead' (2004), was there still any blood left to squeeze from an undead turnip? And could lightning strike yet again for Romero, who has never been one to shy away from imparting grand social messages along with his gore -- not exactly what the iPod generation seems to want from its horror?
Turns out 'Land of the Dead' does feel like too little, too late. A box office bomb when released last summer (though Universal pitting it against 'War of the Worlds' probably wasn't the best example of counterprogramming), few in the mainstream seemed to care about Romero anymore, despite his high esteem in the horror community. The film's heady mix of social satire, barely concealed swipes at the Bush administration and copious amounts of gratuitous gore went by largely unnoticed, and not helping much was that Romero's filmmaking aesthetic, like fellow "genre bum" John Carpenter, remains firmly stuck in the '70s. 'Land of the Dead' is slow-paced, kinda chintzy and a bit too self-important for its own good. These kind of throwback B-movies were great fun a couple of decades ago -- 'Dawn of the Dead' and 'Escape from New York' in particular -- but there is a fine line between nostalgic pastiche and creative mummification.
The story of 'Land of the Dead' kicks off a number of years after 'Day.' The world is now overrun by zombies, and the survivors have split into a class system of the haves and have-nots. While blue collar everymen like Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) toil in the streets, doing the dirty work of keeping civilians safe from the zombies, rich and arrogant entrepreneurs like Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) live like kings up in big modern high rises. Of course, it wouldn't be a Romero flick if the all hell didn't break loose. The zombies always find a way in (or is that out?), and the two classes will soon come crashing together. With very bloody results.
'Land of the Dead' hit DVD in an Unrated Director's Cut late last year, and watching that version again on this HD DVD, I'm left with the same impression of the film. It's gory and over-the-top, and smart and subversive -- everything we want in a Romero flick. Yet like 'Day of the Dead,' it doesn't add up to enough. Quite frankly, once you've seen one decapitated head, or a bunch of gooey intestines ripped out of a latex body, you've kinda seen them all. Romero's zombie imagery was certainy shocking in 'Night' and 'Dawn,' but in the years since it has become neutered. The mere concept of zombies is no longer incendiary or terrifying, so it is only the characters and the politics that are left to drive 'Land.' Unfortunately -- and I know this is heretical to Romero fans -- but I think both '28 Days Later' and the 'Dawn of the Dead' remake were far more pointed in their satire, but less heavy-handed about it. They also had more interesting characters. Nor is the action in 'Land' anything special. Ironically, the teacher has now been outclassed by his students.
I suppose zombie fans will still like 'Land of the Dead.' It certainly delivers on the bottom line. There is some sick and disgusting stuff here -- one moment involving a heart being pulled through the mouth of a victim is particularly cringe-inducing -- but since 'Land of the Dead' aspires to be more than just a gross-out show, is that really enough? I still admire Romero for sticking to his guns and attempting to bring cultural commentary back into horror, but nothing in 'Land' shocked me, disturbed me or really made me think. It all just kind of nauseated me. Bummer.
'Land of the Dead' didn't look all that great on standard DVD. Overly soft, it lacked the pop of the best transfers, so I was looking forward to this HD DVD presentation in hopes of improvement. Overall I was quite satisfied. If 'Land of the Dead' is not the greatest of HD DVD transfers I've seen, it still offers a solid improvement over the standard-def release.
In a first for George Romero, 'Land of the Dead' was shot and is presented here in 2.40:1 widescreen. Too bad Romero didn't go widescreen earlier, as he has a fine eye for expansive compositions, and this is probably the best-looking of his four zombie flicks. The source material is in excellent, as you would expect for a new release -- no blemishes, dirt or other defects here. There is a thin veneer of grain throughout, but it looks quite pleasing and film-like. Blacks are rich and pure, and color reproduction quite vibrant. The film takes place primarily at night, and the blue-gray and orange palette comes through rather nicely. Hues are consistently vivid throughout, with no bleeding (har har) or chroma noise apparent.
Best of all, however, is that unlike many transfers of horror films, this one is not overly dark. Contrast is near-perfect across the entire spectrum. Despite being bathed in shadows, the fall-off to black is not too steep, so fine details are visible even in the darkest long shots. Crucial in a horror film like this is the ability to see both foreground and backgrounds, as what fun is it to watch a zombie sneaking up on an unsuspecting victim if you can't see all the icky ooze and puss? Again, this is not the most incredible transfer I've ever seen in terms of depth, but it is clearly superior to the rather flat standard-def release. Also commendable is that compression artifacts are not a problem, and despite pixelation and posterization on the previous DVD I saw no comparable issues here.
Like the video, 'Land of the Dead' boasts a solid audio presentation that delivers the goods even if it won't blow you away. Universal offers up a new Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (encoded at a very healthy 1.5mbps) that is generally enveloping, if a bit formulaic after a while.
For me, 'Land of the Dead' is not really horror but more of an action movie. The most prominent aspect of the film's sound design is the aggressive surround use during any scene involving a gun, an explosion or a moving vehicle. Trucks and tanks rumble around, many gunshots are fired and plenty of things blow up real good, all accompanied by a healthy amount of discrete effects and deep low bass. Atmospheric effects are present, largely during the outdoor, mass zombie-attack scenes, but otherwise surrounds are reserved for bombast. Occasionally the soundtrack betrayed it's mid-budget origins, with high-end sounding a bit tinny and the effects canned. Dialogue reproduction, however, is natural and sounds well-balanced in the mix. The only real disappointment is the lack of presence to the score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. What little there is of it is all but lost, which adds to the realism of the film but doesn't help to enliven the soundtrack much.
Note that the standard DVD side of this HD DVD/DVD combo disc features a DTS track, but it has not been ported over as an option on the HD DVD side.
'Land of the Dead' is another HD DVD/DVD combo disc where most of the extras on the DVD side. Of which I'm not a particular fan of, as I get easily annoyed with disc-flipping (I thought these next-gen formats were supposed to rid us of this scourge?) In any case, all of the same extras as the standard-def release are here, though unfortunately the list of bulletpoints on the back of the box is far more impressive than the actual contents.
The only extra to feature on the HD DVD side of the platter is the screen-specific audio commentary with George Romero, producer Peter Grunwald and editor Michael Doherty. I was taken aback at how weak a track it is. All seem so subdued as to be on the verge of narcolepsy, and what information that is imparted is dull and boring. I always hate commentaries where the participants simply regurgitate what is happening on the screen, or tell me which effects were CGI and which weren't. Given the rich history of the 'Dead' films, this commentary is surprisingly bloodless.
The remaining extras are on the DVD side of the combo, but the total running time of the many featurettes is quite short. "Undead Again: The Making of 'Land of the Dead'" is your typical EPK with onset cast and crew interviews, but doesn't do much damage at only 12 minutes. Better are three video diary-esque vignettes made by specific cast and crew: "A Day with the Living Dead" (7 minutes) takes us on a tour of the set courtesy of John Leguizamo; "Bringing the 'Dead' to Life" (10 minutes) dissects the film's many gruesome sights with makeup guru Greg Nicotero; and best of all is "When Shaun Met George" (8 minutes), by longtime 'Dead' fan and 'Shaun of the Dead' filmmaker Simon Pegg, who is vastly entertaining. Get this guy more work already, Hollywood!
More tasty tidbits include a trio of technical-oriented features. "Zombie Effects" features a set of before-and-after shots of the film's digital effects work, which is a far cry from the simplistic gore of the original 'Night of the Living Dead.' There is also an eight-minute set of storyboard comparisons dubbed "Bringing the Storyboards to Life," while "Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call" is a CGI test of zombies dancing, but even at one minute it's quite tiresome.
Rounding out the extras are "The Remaining Bits," a collection billed as "not your average deleted scenes!" Unfortunately, at less than three minutes, it seems all the good stuff was already reinstated into this Unrated Director's Cut. Lastly, "Scenes of Carnage" is a spliced-together music video of gory clips, but I already have forgotten it.
'Land of the Dead' falls somewhere in the middle of George Romero's zombie quadrilogy. Not the classic that is 'Night of the Living Dead,' nor as memorable in its satire as 'Dawn of the Dead,' but at least it is better than the dour, dismal 'Day of the Dead.' This HD DVD is pretty much a straight port of the standard-def DVD release, but with a better transfer and improved soundtrack that make for a solid upgrade. Even if you're a 'Dead' you don't really need to rush out and buy this one, but at least it is cool to finally have a zombie flick in high-def.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.