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The zombie plague is far beyond the point of no return. The rewind button has fallen off life’s remote control. The hourglass has been glued to the table. The transmission is stuck in neutral. The living dead have overrun the earth and the remains of humanity can do nothing but hide. Yet the hardships and injustices of everyday life march on. The more decadent of humanity hold better hiding places, and even in the time of apocalypse, a class war rages as the poor are left to fend for themselves on the rotten streets. There is no longer a middle class, only the rich, the poor, and the dead.

Land of the Dead
Professional supplies collector Riley (Simon Baker) has decided to throw in the towel and move to Northern Canada, a relatively unpopulated area where he can ignore the problem and grow old in ignorance of the death of mankind. Unfortunately he's put his future in the hands of the ruling class of Fiddler's Green; a zombie free oasis where overlord Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) and his associates have reestablished a class hierarchy, and flooded the streets with lower class maintaining vices. Through system corruption Riley’s escape plans go awry.

Meanwhile, our hero's cohort and moral opposite, Cholo (John Leguizamo), dreams of living as a member of the Fiddler's Green tower aristocracy. When hearing of his top henchman’s retirement plans Kaufman makes it very clear to Cholo that despite his loyalties, he is not worthy of life in The Greens. In retaliation, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning - a monster vehicle designed for zombie infested city infiltration - and demands a large sum of money. If Kaufman and his associates don't pay he will shell the tower. But Kaufman "doesn't negotiate with terrorists", and sends Riley and Company, who’re left rotting within The Greens' prison system, to retrieve Dead Reckoning. But outside The Greens' walls the living dead are evolving, beginning to communicate, and learning how to use weapons...
 
It's been a long time coming. The last time I waited years for a theatrical release I got The Phantom Menace, an entertaining, but undeniably disappointing film. After that I learned not to expect too much from any movie ever again, and it's work out pretty well for me so far. The lower you keep your expectations, the happier you’ll be, that’s my defeatist's attitude towards entertainment. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, the idea of a new George A. Romero zombie flick drove me into a fit of anticipation.
 
Romero did it. He delivered a film every bit as pulpy, entertaining, shocking, poignant, and contemporary as its predecessors. Characterizations are loose and archetypal, but their personalities are appropriately likeable or contemptible, and methods believable within the confines of the given universe. The dialogue is witty and endlessly quotable ("In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word 'trouble' loses much of its meaning."), the gore is juicy, there are plenty of fan-boy nods to the earlier films, and the plot builds effortlessly upon the 37 year old foundation beneath.

Land of the Dead
Then my impossibly muted expectations were surpassed. To my astonishment Land of the Dead was actually a rather frightening film. Who'd have thought Romero, a man in his mid-sixties, would still have it in him to make an audience jump out of its seats, especially when one considers the relative un-scariness of the previous installments, Dawn and Day of the Dead. It's been years since Uncle George made a truly great film, and even longer since he really terrified an audience in that good ol' Hollywood fashion.

The briskness of the plot was also unanticipated, as most of Romero's best work is known for its character focus, which normally doesn't lend itself too well to spry storytelling. Though I might have preferred a slightly longer running time, the story’s brevity works wonders in keeping decades old themes current.
 
Liberal minded whiners (like myself) looking for emblematic justifications of their political beliefs seem to have overlooked the living dead's plight in favour of more popular summer titles like Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds. If they'd paid attention (or even paid for a ticket) they'd have found one of the most vicious indictments of pre-September 11th America made yet. Romero musters more compassion and believability from his fantastical analogies than most of the market flooding, left wing documenters of the past few years. As this is a DVD review and not a political essay, I'll avoid contemplating this line of thought further, but will say I found the vision of hundreds of zombies unable to look away from such a patriotic symbol as fireworks, even as they are slaughtered by gunfire undeniably scathing. Even registered Republican Dennis Hopper knew that, despite the nomenclature, he was not necessarily playing a man named Kaufman.

Land of the Dead
All the leads are spot on, including the ever-reliable Hopper, the ever-enigmatic Leguizamo, and relative unknowns Baker and Robert Joy (as Riley’s savant sidekick). They play their parts with subtlety, adding a level of realism that wasn’t present in the film's predecessors. Yet, despite all their best efforts, these thespians can’t quite compete with the films three prime scene-stealers, Asia Argento, Pedro Miguel Arce, and Eugene Clark. Argento has the advantage of being drop-dead gorgeous, but still lends oodles of integrity to the merc, turned prostitute, turned merc again named Slack. Her chemistry with Baker is palpable without being hokey. Arce wrings every one of his five or six lines dry of laughs as the massive mercenary Pillsbury. When I first saw the film in the theater he drew cheers with each appearance, due partly to the dialogue Romero wrote for him, but there's no denying his understated sense of cool. Clark, on the other hand, revels in his ham-fisted portrayal of Big Daddy, the working class leader of the zombie revolution. Without a word of human dialogue he emotes all his anger, fear and sadness entirely through bellows and caterwauls. His performance may even rival that of Howard Sherman, who played the benevolent 'Bub the Zombie' in Day of the Dead.


The plight of the zombies and their increasing evolution is, above all, what made Land of the Dead my favorite movie of the summer. The minute the living dead started murdering for revenge rather than food I got shivers. This human awareness had been what I was craving all those years, and I didn't even know it until it happened. It is this evolution that makes Land of the Dead a success for even non-fans, as it makes the film a stand-alone work rather than a re-hash of the oft-visited visions of lumberous walking and graphic gut munching.

Video
I was surprised that Romero chose to utilize the 2.35:1 widescreen format, as he’s not utilized the process often in the past. His collaboration with DP Miroslaw Baszak (who was second DP on the Dawn of the Dead remake, proving Romero didn’t think it was all bad) has resulted in what may be the best looking film in his filmography. The use of colour is at times astonishingly artistic. Opening events are presented in muted blues, and the colour pallet increases as the film progresses, almost one hue at a time. In the past Romero has preferred a pulpy comic book look to his dead films, and in this regard Land of the Dead is no exception, however it emulates the comics of today, which have become a more respected art form and  utilize digital colouring technology.

Land of the Dead
The DVD transfer, while at times overtly grainy, flaunts these compositions pretty well. Most of the faults, including the grain, seem purposeful. Black levels are rich for most of the run time, though there are a few instances where they appear bluish. Edge enhancement is low, and I noticed no instances of compression problems. The film itself is a very dark one and the image can suffer, but again, this seems to be part of the original visual intent.

Audio
Just like his zombies, the music of Romero’s films continues to evolve. Night’s score was entirely comprised of copyright free library music, Dawn’s featured the prog-rock talents of Italian super group Goblin, and Day was a strictly synth affair, composed by John Harrison. In a lot of ways, Land of the Dead’s score is the most accomplished of the series, though not nearly as innovative or catchy as Goblin’s. The group effort symphonic melodies go a long way in selling this piece of quick and dirty, (relatively) low budget filmmaking as a big studio product. The sound effects, too, are more accomplished than the earlier entries, due mainly to advances in low budget sound design.

The DVD features a DTS and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, both of which are surprisingly lively with explosions, gunshots, and squishy intestinal chewing. The dialogue is clear, the score full, and the sound effects appropriately icky and/or enthralling. The spatial engrossment of the crowd scenes is especially enjoyable, as there’s nothing quite like utilizing a state of the art sound system for the playback of hundreds of moaning ghouls.

Extras
Though not as loaded as last years ultimate edition release of the original Dawn of the Dead, this unrated special edition gets the job more or less done. The reason viewers should choose this version above others isn’t so much the extras, but the fact that this is Romero’s preferred version. There are only a few minutes of extra footage, but it makes a difference to people like me who like their Romero films unregulated.

Land of the Dead
To obtain the theater friendly 'R' rating most gory shots simply had to be trimmed by a few frames. When that didn’t work, the effects crew pulled a “Kubrick” and had digital zombies cross in front of the most gruesome attacks, thus obscuring the unrated action. For the uncut version, all these shots are reinstated as they were originally filmed, and a few extra bits of mayhem were thrown in, namely Mouse’s de-boweling (the one character I could've done without) and EFX artist Greg Nicotero’s eyeball removal. The only fully deleted scene is one where Cholo runs across a Green’s tenet that has committed suicide on his way to visit Kaufman, providing proof to non-believers that a bite is not the only way to become one of the undead, any sort of death will do.

Romero is joined by producer Peter Grunwald and editor Michael Doherty on an uninspiring, but pleasant commentary track. The track is informative to a degree, and Romero is sure to point out every reused extra and crew or family cameo (including Nicotero’s, his daughter’s, and Tom Savani’s for all you non-fans that may have missed it), but one can’t help but notice the long stretches of silence. It seems that Romero’s wife, Christine Forrest, is a good catalyst for discussion as her presence on the Dawn and Day commentaries kept George talking.

Most of the talk is about the use of digital technology, a process obviously new to Romero. He’s sure to point out each and every instance of digital grading, matting, or effects, and seems to be a converted supporter of the process. Though I didn’t exactly learn very much for the track, I was reminded throughout of Romero’s warmth and compassion for his art, it really is too bad that his only two Hollywood features were some of his worst work. I’m sure that in a different time and place he’d be one of America’s most revered and popular directors.

The rest of the special features are pretty much entirely puff pieces. For starters we have two lackluster commercials, Undead Again and A Day with the Living Dead, masquerading as behind the scenes documentaries. Each “doc” looks like it was edited by an ADHD suffering child with a shotgun, and features the kind of awful metal music I was so happy to find absent from the film.

Land of the Dead
These are followed by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s home made featurette When Shaun Met George, a recount of the Shaun of the Dead alumni’s journey from the UK to Toronto to play bit parts as zombies. Not unexpectedly, this is the most entertaining extra on the disc, as Pegg and Wright are two of the most entertaining guys on the planet.

Under the Remaining Bits title you’ll find 3 minutes of deleted scenes, 6 in all. Each scene is presented in finished, but non-anamorphic video, and rough, on-set sound. These are all very expendable and were justifiably deleted, mostly consisting of shots of people and zombies walking from one location to another.

The unrated edition comes with 5 exclusive features. The first is a tour of Greg Nicotero’s KNB Effects shop, which like so many of the other extras is too short and plays like an advertisement in ass-kissing. Still there are some nice shots of make-up effects in progress, some of which may go unnoticed during the feature. Speaking of effects going unnoticed, next up is Scenes of Carnage, a music video set to all the unrated film’s goriest bits. Rounding the disc out are some green screen tests, a storyboard comparison, and a really cheap presentation of digital zombies doing the dance from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Overall
It’s too bad that a major studio only agreed to invest in Romero’s long awaited forth living dead film after the success of dozens of contemporary - and inferior - imitations, knock-offs, and homages. It’s even more infuriating that they all seem to have greatly out grossed it.

Land of the Dead
Perhaps some of the blame can be placed on distributor Universal for releasing the film in June rather than the much more suitable October. Perhaps if they would’ve switched its release date with that of the space opera Serenity (an idea I know I’m not the only to express), two fine features wouldn’t have failed at finding a larger audience. My friend and colleague Matt Joseph has suggested that these films were released theatrically with their DVD release dates in mind. I guess time will tell.

I can tell by comments made on this very site that I'm in the minority here. I'd like to think most readers would be willing to give it the film a chance, and maybe even those that didn't like it could give a second. I'm not usually one for forcing my opinion on others, but honestly beleive there's something wonderful to be found in Land of the Dead.


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