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The return of one of cinema’s greatest horror directors to one of the greatest horror franchises was certainly a reason to get excited earlier on this year. Land of the Dead, the next iteration of the now infamous Dead series promised to be George A. Romero’s greatest achievement to date – or at least it was if the promotional tagline was to be believed. But did it live up to the obvious hype and fan euphoria that would inevitably follow in its wake? Read on to find out.

Land of the Dead: Director's Cut
Feature
I can answer that question with one simple, easy to understand word: no. I myself am an avid follower of Romero’s previous zombie films, and like a torrent of other people, I was ecstatic to see this legendary filmmaker return to the genre he helped cultivate. It was he who almost single-handedly invented the zombie flick, and it was he who carved himself a place in history by doing so. But where did it all go so wrong you might ask?

Well, the one thing that really kills it is that Romero brings absolutely nothing new to the franchise with Land of the Dead. It is the same old formula, the same old characters, the same old story, and you know what, it is all getting very long in the tooth now. I find myself somewhat bored, even frustrated with the story constantly set around a bunch of reckless cowboys who find it in themselves to use a heavily armoured garbage truck to blow up zombies. There was nothing new here, nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before in the originals and their subsequent remakes.

To make matters even worse, Land of the Dead practically has no substance to speak of. There was almost none but for a mere glint when a character’s background is explored for a fraction of a second, but then the film rapidly turns its attention to more bloodthirsty matters. Even then, Land of the Dead is not remotely scary or even fun in its undertaking. It is almost like the horror element has been taken out, right along with the goofball stuff that made the originals as entertaining as they were, and still are today. There used to be an almost amusing amount of entertainment in the zombie carnage, and all blended seamlessly with some genuinely creepy horror and scares. Here, nothing of the sort exists. Yes, it is gory and sometimes it borders on being vile, but I have seen worse – and better.

Land of the Dead: Director's Cut
Even the story, which is highly simplistic and unstructured does not seem like it was written by the same man who made all the previous entries in the franchise. Whereas Dawn of the Dead pitted untried characters against the impossible, while exploring themes of humanity and existence, Land of the Dead merely glimpses its characters and favours the carnage and gore above all else.

Without giving too much away, in this film the zombies are basically beginning to learn and understand what they are. And lead by a zombie who seems to have a flicker of intelligence, the zombie army heads for the inner city where a businessman has built a secure habitat for the wealthy to live, shop and stay safe. When this utopia comes under threat however, he calls to his aid a team of militant-like soldiers to keep the zombies at bay and ensure his building’s survival. It does not quite go according to plan though, as his main weapon (the previously mentioned armoured truck) is stolen by a disgruntled rebel. Sure, I suppose you could say it has a good concept and angle overall, but it is ultimately poorly executed and driven in a tangled misdirection.

As controversial as this will no doubt sound, what Romero has churned out here is almost as generic and lamentable as the majority of god-awful horror that we are treated to every year. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as half of that utter rubbish, but it comes pretty close in my humble opinion. But enough of all its negatives, let’s talk about some of its better qualities, and you can be sure that it does indeed have some, even if it is only a small handful.

The acting is actually quite good here, especially from Dennis Hopper in the role of seedy businessman, Kaufman. And even famed Shaun of the Dead talents Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright make a pretty nifty cameo appearance as two photo-booth zombies – a fitting way for Romero to pay homage to the two people responsible for making an entire feature film spoofing his very own Dawn of the Dead. Fans of both franchises should get a kick out of this, but it would have been nice for them to make a slightly longer and more recognizable appearance.

Land of the Dead: Director's Cut
The production and overall look of this film is another of its highlights. Though the budget was quite low, you wouldn’t really know it from many of the sets and special effects on display. The zombie makeup and effects in particular were sometimes so real and creepy-looking that they were perhaps the best thing about the entire film. The title sequence is another quality that has to be mentioned. It really sets the tone of the film with its collage of disturbing imagery and hair-raising sounds. If this film was produced with that title sequence in mind, then this would have been one hell of a ride. Alas, once the actual camera rolls, all hope is lost pretty quickly.

Land of the Dead came as a crushing disappointment to me. As a person in love with the horror genre, and especially Romero’s previous films, I perhaps feel more annoyed by his efforts here than I am willing to admit. I wanted a classic and another superb horror, stuffed to the brink with bloody, sickening gore, style beyond all others and a strong beating heart with plenty of substance – I didn’t get it.

I didn’t even get a solid film with plenty of things to appreciate. What I got was something that an everyday horror director might serve up, and that just isn’t good enough. I guess this film was always going to be more meticulously scrutinized than most; people wanted it to push all limits and boundaries, and it just doesn’t. If this is to be the end of the series, or indeed the re-emergence of it, then it is disappointing either way, at least it is in the opinion of this critic. Some will love it, others might even hate it, but I feel am somewhere in the middle – perhaps the worst place to be.

Land of the Dead: Director's Cut
Video
An overly dark image, with hardly any daytime sequences is what to expect from this film. The image is also laden with plenty of noise, giving it that gritty, sometimes dingy look. It fits the film perfectly, and it thankfully never gets in the way of the sharpness and detail the transfer offers. The colours are also quite vibrant and deep, and skin tones in even the gloomiest of areas are well preserved. Overall, the DVD transfer looks solid, performs well and will look great on all types of television sets.

I say this because I have recently upgraded to a high-definition LCD TV with an up-scaling DVD player capable of both 720p and 1080i output. I demoed the disc on my regular television set and DVD, and the newer system. On both, the image held up very well, but it looked that much sharper and more detailed on the LCD and up-scaling DVD player. Noise was slightly more noticeable, but that was about the only real difference in terms of the quality of the image. I also found the colours and overall breadth of the image to be improved as well, but I suppose is to be expected.

Audio
The Dolby Digital 5.1 score also proves to be a nice surprise. Audio is both crisp and clean, with plenty of ambiance and clarity to satisfy even the most ardent audiophile. Dialogue is rich, though a little on the quiet side, and there is plenty of bass to keep your subwoofer happy. Speaking of the bass, it happens to be extremely tight and focused, which really brings those action scenes to life. If there is one minor complaint to be made about the audio, I found there to be a slightly louder than normal background noise populating the score. I only heard it once or twice during the quieter scenes, so it isn’t exactly going to pester you. Other than that, this is one find sounding disc.

Land of the Dead: Director's Cut
Extras
Upon entering the DVD player, the first thing your Land of the Dead disc will treat you to is the anti-piracy video, which unfortunately cannot be skipped via the chapter button – it has to be fast-forwarded. I am seriously getting sick and tired of sitting though this video clip now. It appears on every single DVD you buy these days, and I just don’t get it. You’ve bought the DVD, so why are you being shown a video for anti-piracy?

If they want to cut down on the volume of criminals who are burning DVDs ten to the dozen, then persecute them not the people who are buying the genuine product! Forgive the rant, I just don’t see the point of slapping this message on genuine DVDs that you have purchased with your hard-earned cash. It seems pointless, not to mention extremely aggravating. Anyway, now I have had my chance to grumble, let’s move on to the special features the disc has to offer.

The first feature is a thirteen minute ‘making of’ segment called ‘Undead Again: The Making of Land of the Dead’. This is a little on the formulaic side for my liking, but does have some great footage of Romero making this film, and some other bits and bobs covering aspects such as the zombie makeup effects etc.

‘A Day With the Living Dead’ has John Leguizamo take us on a brief but fun tour of the set. What I like about this feature is that it shows just how low brow and unconventional these people are. Romero in particular is obviously as down to earth as you can imagine, and the cast and crew look like they are having a fantastic time making this film and being a part of it.

Land of the Dead: Director's Cut
‘Bringing the Dead to Life’ is an interesting feature dedicated to all the zombie effects, whereas ‘The Remaining Bits’ is a three minute deleted scene reel, which is decent enough but not great. Next on the selection screen is the feature commentary with George A. Romero, the producer and editor. I find it marginally confusing that this important and frankly great feature is not at the top of the list, but that might just be me. The commentary itself is one of the more interesting ones I have heard in 2005, and Romero naturally steals the show with his insightful and smooth commentary on all aspects of his film.

Another geek-out moment comes in the form of ‘When Shaun Met George’. Both Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright document their journey to the set of the film and to meet Mr. Romero himself. This is without a doubt one of the best features on the disc. ‘Scenes of Carnage’ is a gruesome minute-and-half featurette with no words, just images of zombies eating flesh, and all accompanied by a gentle piece of classical music – nice.

‘Zombie Effects: From Green Screen to Finished Scene’ is a short featurette showing different scenes from the movie in their incomplete and then finally completed stages. ‘Bringing the Storyboards to Life’ and ‘Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call’ round out the extras, along with trailers for Peter Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong and the horror, thriller The Skeleton Key.

Land of the Dead: Director's Cut
Overall
George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead is an above average horror flick wanting to be so much more – or does it? Is this the intended film Romero set out to create when he first put pen to paper, or did it not go entirely according to plan? Whatever the answer to that question, this is not the film I wanted it to be. Don’t get me wrong, Land of the Dead is not in any way a bad film, but it is no better than the bulk of the horror films out in theatres today. When we’ve come to expect great things from this (once?) masterful director, something as ordinary and tried and true as this looks oddly pitiful and mundane, especially for the Dead franchise.

The DVD is a real winner overall, with a superb image transfer that has a great silkily dark look, to a tight and highly polished sounding Dolby Digital 5.1 score. The extras are equally as solid, with plenty of features to watch though and possibly one of the best low brow audio commentaries so far this year. So, do you buy, do you rent or do you pass it up completely? Ask yourself this: are you a big Romero fan? If you are, you’ll need to check it out, but you also need to go in with low expectations. If you are not a fan of Romero’s work, then you might want to check out his earlier material such as Dawn of the Dead. For everybody else, you should at least rent it if there’s nothing else to choose from.


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