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The world (as humankind has known it) is merely a memory. In its place is the never-ending nightmare existence of us, the living, versus them, the ‘walkers.’ What's left of mankind is cordoned off behind the walls of a fortified city while the walking dead roam the vast wasteland beyond. The few wealthy and powerful try to maintain an illusion of life as it was, dwelling high above the city in the exclusive towers of Fiddler's Green, the last bastion of the ruling class. On the streets below, however, the remaining, less fortunate of the city's inhabitants eke out a hardscrabble life, seeking what little solace they can in the vices available – gambling, flesh trade, drugs – anything that offers even a fleeting respite from the hell their lives have become. (From Universal’s official synopsis)

 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead
The zombie resurrection of the new millennium, instigated by Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), was fully stoked when Zack Snyder’s 2004’s remake of Dawn of the Dead crossed $100 million in international profits. Snyder and writer James Gunn had taken cues from Boyle’s “infected” monsters, making their zombies into frantic, screaming danger machines. In the process, they mostly avoided the allegory and ironic humour present in George A. Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead (1978). This hard horror/action hybrid didn’t need metaphors to strike a chord and even Romero loyalists were hard-pressed to complain too much about running zombies when its box office success encouraged Universal Studios (who had originally cut Dawn of the Dead’s budget after the failure of Uwe Boll’s introductory video game adaptation, House of the Dead, 2003, when they feared that the latest zombie wave had already crested) to take a chance on a fourth official film in Romero’s long-dormant ‘dead’ legacy, later entitled Land of the Dead (2005). Following the tradition of Night of the Living Dead (1968), the aforementioned Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (1985), this new film tackled the political issues of its day with a comic book-inspired passion. It became perhaps the most definitive mainstream horror movie about post-9/11 politics. A warning to the weary-hearted, though there’s no room for allegorical subtleties in the Land of George A. Romero.

This fourth tale in the living dead saga (which, because the time between these movies has little chronological meaning, appears to occur alongside the events of Day of the Dead) is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the wealthiest survivors are sequestered in a fortified, decedent tower dubbed Fiddler’s Green. From here, they perpetuate the capitalist societal structures of pre-disaster America. They keep the lower classes (who literally live below the ruling class, in the tradition of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927) motivated to serve them with the false promise of a mobile social ladder. If they work hard, defending Fiddler’s Green against the dangers of flesh-eating zombies, perhaps, someday, they too can live among the elite.

Land of the Dead was and has continued to be largely overlooked by genre critics and fans, due in part to Romero’s ambitions exceeding his budget, as the film certainly doesn’t live up to the typical visual expectations of a major studio release. His years away from Hollywood productions left him unprepared to deal with post-digital filmmaking and led to a generically ‘gritty’ look, not unlike that of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. The politics and messages are also perhaps too on-the-nose and heavy-handed for cynical modern audiences to take seriously. However, exaggerated allegories and over-the-top personalities are an integral part of the of Romero’s Dead equation. The writer/director had proven he was capable of dramatic subtleties early in his career, when he made Season of the Witch (aka: Jack’s Wife and Hungry Wives, 1973) and the vastly underrated Martin (1978), but later chose to adopt the campy, pulpy feel of the EC Comics horror lines of the 1950s, culminating in the cartoonish anthology Creepshow in 1982. This somewhat dated storytelling style doesn’t always mesh with Land of the Dead’s more contemporary visual sense, but it was a marvelous method for conveying the impotent fury boiling throughout liberal America following the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush. Romero’s film offered left-wing horror fans a shrewd (though not always clever) refuge from the apocalypse in the form of a vicarious zombie rebellion. Ironically enough, the opposite occurred five years later, when AMC’s The Walking Dead TV series became a touchstone for disenfranchised conservatives during Obama’s presidency.

 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead
Despite his impulse to ham-handedly shove his audience’s faces into his metaphors, Romero definitely hit the nail on the head with a few of his allegories. For example, the smart zombie who leads the undead revolution that eventually uproots human decadence – dubbed “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark) – is introduced as a gas attendant who reenacts the basic tasks of filling tanks, even though his customers are all long dead. He is trapped in a dual metaphor – an exploitative menial task that serves a higher class and a reminder of the oil industry’s worthlessness in a post-apocalyptic world. However, the film’s most potent analogy is the manner in which zombies as easily distracted by fireworks. Throughout the film, humans use ‘sky flowers’ (their code word for fireworks) to escape hairy situations, usually while they are literally stealing resources from the living dead (the zombies haven’t socially evolved enough to know how to use these resources correctly, though the film indicates that they might someday). Sky flowers become a visual stand-in for the abstract concept of patriotism, indicating that the zombies are instinctively blinded (figuratively speaking) by an empty gesture that makes them feel good and incapable of acting in their own best interests. During the climactic siege on Fiddler’s Green, the zombies finally look away from the distraction and focus on the task at hand. With that focus finally achieved, their strength in numbers finally win the day.

Romero’s biggest failing is in his human characters, none which are as interesting as their undead counterparts. However, in giving the zombies more personality, he continued setting his flesh-eating ghouls apart in an era of shrieking, sprinting, ‘infected’ monsters. Such personality existed in the Dead series as far back as Dawn of the Dead, in which the zombies instinctively congregated in a shopping mall, because it “meant something to them” during their living days. The idea of the undead evolving and recalling their humanity is central to Day of the Dead’s plot. Though still largely mindless drones, the zombies exhibited fear of the humans that captured and tortured them. A particularly bright zombie dubbed ‘Bub’ (portrayed by Sherman Howard) emerges as mad scientist Dr. Logan’s (Richard Liberty) star pupil. He not only begins to remember his past and humanity, but develops a vengeful streak when he discovers that Logan has been murdered in cold blood. Land of the Dead continues this theme in the guise of Big Daddy’s undead revolutionary, as well as the bleary-eyed ghouls that feebly impersonate their living day jobs as butchers, marching bands, and groundskeepers. The fact that Big Daddy is black is, of course, another key component to Romero’s formula, as three of the four movies feature black male lead protagonists (the third has a black male secondary protagonist and a white female lead).

 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead
Romero claimed to have shopped around an early version of Land of the Dead, under the title Dead Reckoning, literally weeks before the events of September 11th, then deliberately chose to sit on his earlier ideas as he watched the post-terrorist culture evolve. During an interview with Rue Morgue Magazine’s Dave Alexander, Romero admitted that, despite all of the obvious nods to the Bush Administration, Land of the Dead really represented the ways in which everyday people “ignored the problem” while continuing to pursue consumer obsessions (a clear extension of the themes from Dawn of the Dead, rather than the more Cold War-themed Day of the Dead)

Most people are ignoring the problem and living on. I grew up with fears that the Russians were going to bomb my neighborhood in the Bronx; my kids now have to worry that some terrorist will come and blow up their neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It’s stunning to me how this shit doesn’t change. That’s the reflection of today and an administration where these people have set up an infrastructure and it’s protected by rivers. I mean, how long did the United States think it was protected by big oceans? So, it has all of those elements. It’s about taking whatever the situation happens to be and worrying more about ‘Can I get my favorite cologne?’, instead of solving the problem.

Video


Land of the Dead was released by Universal on R-rated DVD and unrated director’s cut DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray. All of the unrated releases were pretty solid and I have to admit that I didn’t really see a need for Scream Factory to remaster and re-release it. While the upgrade isn’t as notable as the company’s same-day Dawn of the Dead ‘04 release, it is an upgrade, nonetheless. The Scream collection features both the R-rated and unrated versions. Both transfers were derived from a 2K scan of the original interpositive, but, apparently, the director’s cut footage was not available in negative form, so those sequences were taken from the original Blu-ray’s HD footage. The Scream disc’s better compression ensures that even the non-remastered inserts are ever so slightly superior to the older release. For comparison’s sake, I’ve included caps from the Scream Blu-ray (top) and the Universal disc (bottom), though you’ll definitely have to click on the caps and blow them up to really tell the difference (see the hanging man caps to compare the director’s cut only footage).

 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead
Romero and cinematographer MirosÅ‚aw Baszak aimed to make Land of the Dead look very dark and cool, which was definitely a problem for the DVD releases. Both Blu-ray transfers squeeze enough detail out of the material that only a handful of scenes verge on incomprehensible. The remaster eeks out a smidge more detail by depleting some of the compression noise and boosting the contrast. The trade-off for the tighter texture, deeper blacks, and more natural grain is a bit of edge enhancement. I think it’s worth it, especially given the remaster’s lack of muddy wide-angle shots. Colour quality is similar, but the Scream transfer trades some of the Universal transfer’s yellows and greens for more eclectic lavenders and reds (this obviously doesn’t apply to the unrated footage). Blue-tinted night shots are more or less not affected.

Audio


Both cuts of Land of the Dead are presented in their original 5.1 sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. Most of the film is dialogue-driven, so there are long stretches where not a whole lot is going on aurally. These bits feature clean performances and tidy environmental ambience. The action sequences more than make up for the lack of noise with plenty of gunshots, groaning vehicle engines, and roaring zombies. The creatively gruesome kills also give the surround channels a workout with their flying gore and spraying blood. Composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek mix electronic and symphonic sounds into a somewhat generic, but usually exciting score that underlines the film’s action more than its scares. The coolest audio trick (which happens a few times) is one where the music and effects are slowly sucked out of the scene to represent one character’s focus while he aims his rifle. After he fires, everything returns to normal.

 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead

Extras


Disc One (R-rated cut):
  • Cholo’s Reckoning (15:37, HD) – Actor John Leguizamo praises Romero’s work, talks about the relevant politics of zombie movies, and recalls the joys and dangers of shooting the film in a freezing Toronto winter.
  • Charlie’s Story – Actor Robert Joy chats about working with Romero on The Dark Half (1993) and Land of the Dead, his burn makeup, and the other cast members.
  • The Pillsbury Factor (17:29, HD) – Actor Pedro Miguel Arce tells a story about breaking into acting, says that Pillsbury was originally written for a woman (he was willing to play it in drag), and recalls meeting celebrities during the Pittsburgh premiere.
  • Four of the Apocalypse (18:50, HD) – Lead zombie performers Eugene Clark (Big Daddy), Jennifer Baxter (Number Nine), Boyd Banks (Butcher; he also appears as a human in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake), and Jasmin Geijo (Tambourine Man) wax nostalgic about the casting process, their relationships to each other, the makeup processes, and more.
  • Dream of the Dead (24:40, HD) – This made-for-IFC featurette was directed by Roy Frumkes and includes plenty of exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. It’s not as substantial as Frumkes’ quintessential Dawn of the Dead doc, Diary of the Dead (1985), but gets by on pure, fan-driven charm. It includes optional commentary with the director.
  • Dream of the Dead deleted scenes (18:03, HD)
  • Land of the Dead deleted scenes (2:55, SD)
  • Trailer
  • Photo gallery


 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead
Disc Two (unrated cut):
  • Commentary with Zombie Performers Matt Blazi, Glena Chao, Michael Felsher, and Rob Mayr – The second disc’s only exclusive extra is a fun little group track that is moderated by Felsher (of Red Shirt pictures). Their amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes fill out the feature runtime quite well.
  • Commentary with writer/director George A. Romero, producer Peter Grunwald, and editor Michael Doherty – The original DVD/BD/HD DVD commentary is ultimately informative, but is quite slow moving and more technically-based than I’d prefer. I suppose Romero and company would’ve been much more political and thematically minded if they were recording a retrospective track in 2017.
  • When Shaun Met George (12:59, SD) – Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright shot this video journal on-set while they were planning and shooting their cameo appearances in the film.
  • Bringing the Dead to Life (9:31, SD) – A special effects featurette with the cast & crew.
  • Scenes of Carnage (1:42, SD) – A montage of extended versions of the movie’s most gruesome moments.
  • Zombie Effects: From Green Screen to Finished Scene (3:18, SD) – Before and after comparisons of some of the digital effects shots.
  • Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call (1:05, SD) – Gag effects tests of CG zombies doing “Thriller” dance moves.
  • Bringing the Storyboards to Life (7:54, SD) – Storyboard to film comparisons.
  • Undead Again: The Making Of Land Of The Dead[/i] (12:56, SD) – A generalized EPK with on-set footage and cast & crew interviews.
  • A Day with the Living Dead (7:34, SD) – John Leguizamo hosts a tour behind-the-scenes.


 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead

Overall


Despite being a long-time fan, I assumed Land of the Dead wasn’t going to age as well as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. But, here we are, 12 years later, and it may actually have become more relevant in our current political culture. It turns out that it’s easier to root for zombies who eat the rich in 2017 than it was in 2005. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray, with its modest video upgrade and exclusive featurettes/interviews, is as good an excuse as any to revisit George Romero’s last great movie.

 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead

 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead

 Land of the Dead
 Land of the Dead
*Note: The above images are taken from the Scream Factory Blu-ray (top) and the original Universal Blu-ray (bottom), then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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