Land Of The Dead

Land Of The Dead (2005)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Dennis Hopper, Robert Joy
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, Storyboard Comparison

20 years after leaving his zombies behind in "Day Of The Dead" and countless tribulations to get another sequel financed, George A. Romero finally had the chance to revisit the sub-genre he made so successful – and that made him a living legend. With "Land Of The Dead" he was finally able to continue his zombie-cycle and show the world once again what a good zombie movie is made of.

When we left "Day Of The Dead, " the world was literally overrun by the undead, killing and eating anything that moved. There was no room left for humans, it seemed. In the beginning of "Land Of The Dead" we learn that the world has indeed been entirely overrun and that humans are insulated minorities, locked up in compounds or other zones they secured for themselves. Trying to live on rations they can scour during dangerous food-runs into former stores, mankind is oppressed and locked away into high security compounds. Some people even got rich off the situation by providing safe havens for people, like Mr. Kaufman, who owns and runs a skyscraper for the elite that can afford it. Somehow the message that his money has become worthless didn't filter through to Kaufman and his lackeys as they sit in their high rise, looking over the shambles of the city, filled with the walking dead.
But then something unexpected happens. A leader crystallizes from the hordes of zombies.
Big Daddy (Eugene Banks) seems to remember things from his former life and begins to show rational behavior. He begins leading the other zombies towards the city of light and finds ways to overcome obstacles and security measures put in place by the humans. He even learns to use a rifle and teaches others to do the same. If the zombies were dangerous before, suddenly they are armed and dangerous and lead by intelligence. Before long they manage to break into the human safe zone and threaten to run over Kaufman's haven.
The biggest problem now is that all the fences and security measures that were designed to keep the zombies out, now become traps and serve to keep all the humans in as the undead slowly advance.

I was a bit trepid when I first viewed "Land Of The Dead." Not only are 20 years a very long time between films, but also I was never truly able to connect with the third installment, "Day Of The Dead." An avid fan of "Dawn Of The Dead" I was hoping Romero would be able to capture the style and atmosphere of that film and fortunately I wasn't' disappointed. Interestingly, "Land Of The Dead" is nothing like "Dawn" really but is a super-charged "Day Of The Dead" in my book – and that works for me. I was also trepid because the zombie genre had seen a resurrection in recent years that has produced some remarkably scary and effective films. "Resident Evil" and "28 Days Later" as well as the remake of Romero's own "Dawn Of The Dead" were truly powerful films that took zombies into the 21st century and I was curious to see if George Romero could live up to the frenzy these films put on the screen. Once again, Romero exceeded my expectations easily by delivering a movie that is not nearly as frenetic as "28 Days Later" but keeps in his original style by offering up his trademark shambling zombies but in a contemporary world that has been updated to the hilt. The result is very cool.

Every filmmaker who is creating a zombie film these days has to ask himself what can be done to make zombies interesting and menacing, as we seem to have seen it all. Unlike other filmmakers who recently used frenetic camera work and almost supernatural zombie-abilities to create scares, George Romero decided once again that zombies being zombies is the scariest thing and he applies all his focus on that element. As a result we get some amazing camera shots of zombies bathed in moonlight. Some dramatic vistas of hordes shambling through the darkness. Close-ups of zombie faces rotting away and, of course, head shots, gut-busting intestine eating and splatter shots that paint the screen blood red. In short, the film has everything George Romero stood for in his greatest zombie films – an atmospheric bloodbath with style.

Having John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper on board didn't hurt either, as they throw their acting weight around while Simon Baker firmly roots the film as the protagonist. Overall, I found the film to be well cast, especially for a genre film, creating characters that feel natural and never unnaturally cool or overly distanced.

Universal Home Entertainment has now prepared a high definition version of the movie and released it in a HD-DVD/DVD combo, containing the high definition version of the movie non one side and the previously released DVD version on the flip side.

The transfer of the movie is magnificent and makes the most of the film. The level of detail is gorgeous while the color reproduction is leaps beyond the DVD version. However, it is the reproduction of blacks and shadows that elevate this transfer so much above the DVD version, as we get to see small details that may previously have been unnoticeable. Since most of the film is shot at night, this faithfulness in the reproduction of dark colors and tones gives additional depth to the transfer, making it quite a ride. Who would have thought that one day a George Romero zombie flick would serve as an early movie to drive sales of a new home video format?

The release comes complete with 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus audio tracks in English and Spanish. Both tracks are very aggressive and make use of the discrete channels practically constantly. There is always something going in the surrounds as well as the front of the sound field. With a wide frequency response and good bass extension, the track is extremely effective and aggressive, adding to the overall presentation of the movie. The overall balance is a bit off and music is noticeably louder than the dialogue and sound effects, although it is not quite as extreme as on some other titles. A re-balancing for home theater environments would have been welcome here as the acoustic dynamics of a home theater or living room are generally very different form that of a movie theater.
A word on the film's music also. I always found George Romero's movies extremely well scored and spotted. When you are watching "Dawn Of The Dead", for example, the Goblin score is so effective that it becomes one with the film and part of the film's vocabulary. Unfortunately "Land Of The Dead" manages that not quite as well. While the music in the film is not quite as jarring and obnoxious as in most other contemporary horror movies, it also contains its share of bad metal. At the same time, the film has some good sequences with good music underscoring and emphasizing the action, so overall the movie's score is a bit of a mixed bag. It works and is effective but could have been a bit more to the point in some instances. But that's really nitpicking…

The HD-DVD version contains the commentary track George Romero, producer Peter Grunwald and editor Michael Doherty that was also part of the DVD version. Romero has always been a good commentator on his films and this one is no exception. There are a few gaps but overall it provides good information about the making of the film.

And that is where the HD-DVD version ends. In order to see all the extras that are part of the release you will have to flip over the disc and throw in the DVD version. That is simply ridiculous. People are not paying $40 so they are forced to watch bonus materials on a DVD, flip over discs and repeatedly sit through the ridiculous FBI disclaimers and studio promos. This is, of course a technical limitation because until now it has not been possible to bond aHD-30 disc with a DVD-9, which is the least that would be required to add all the supplements to the HD-DVD side of the disc. Since it is a limitation the studios should exhibit enough restraint however not to give in to the temptation to put films on combos if they do need the HD-30 storage to hold it.

The extras that are provided contain a number of featurettes covering a lot of ground. They are generally pretty good and offer insight into the making of the zombie make-up, the inclusion of computer-generated zombies, a making-of and a featurette on how the filmmakers of "Shaun of the Dead" made their cameo appearances in the film. Also included are some deleted scenes, storyboard comparisons and other goodies.

This would be a killer HD-DVD, were it not for the stupid HD-DVD/DVD combo that forces high definition users to flip around the disc. I thought HD-DVD discs are for high definition users so I do not understand why they are penalized AND have to pay a premium for it. This reeks… When people buy a HD-DVD version of a movie they certainly do not want a DVD version with a bit of high def thrown in.

Other than that, "Land Of The Dead" is way cool. I know that for many of today's horror fans, the film won't offer enough frenzy and zombie overkill, as it relies more on atmosphere and style, but for old-school zombie and George Romero fans like myself, "Land Of The Dead" easily fulfilled expectations and is a fun ride.