George A. Romero's Land of the Dead [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Fabulous Films
Review written by and copyright: Charlie & Tex (17th February 2021).
The Film

"George A. Romero's Land of the Dead" (2005)

“I’ll never get sick of zombies - I’ll just get sick of producers.”

These were the words of George Romero in 1989, not long after the very public dissolution of his friendship with business-partner Richard P. Rubenstien, which saw Romero kick out of his own production of Pet Sematary and replaced by Mary Lambert. He added: “I have an idea now I’d really like to do…and if I can find out the sort of legal way to do it, I’ll do it - I’d love to do it!” But with his initial three zombie films creating a perfect trilogy, and few projects making it in front of the camera, it seemed that Romero had inadvertently delivered his last word on the genre, although some fans still clung to hope.

It was 15 years, but the dead walked the earth once more when Land of the Dead exhumed the genre and put it back into the hands of the man whom created it, returning zombies to their shuffling state rather than having them under starter’s orders when going in for the kill. It certainly wasn’t an easy road. Initially titled "Dead Reckoning", Romero took the more expensive elements discarded from his original script for Day of the Dead and used it as the basis, where a bunch of survivors lived in a fenced-off environment, getting on with their lives and whilst the military enforce security along the compound’s electric fences. Too expensive at the time, fortunes changed when a big studio was interested in taking on the living dead.

But not the one you’d think. Initially courting 20th Century Fox, they were willing to finance the project, making the proviso that it be called (believe it or not…) Night of the Living Dead, something Romero was not happy about. When they relented and offered “Night of the Living Dead: Dead Reckoning” as the moniker, it became clear that they were out to own the valuable title of the initial entry in the series, putting an end to the negotiations. To the rescue came Universal Pictures, ironically the very company which had ditched Romero’s Mummy project at the 11th hour in favour of the Brendan Fraser action-fest, but they ponied up the money and meat was back on the menu.

With the dead now occupying the remainder the United States, only a few pockets of survivors remain. A perimeter has been built around the city of Pittsburgh, PA, keeping the zombies out and the outnumbered humans inside. A microcosm of the way things were, the have-nots live out a miserable existence in meagre accommodation or on the streets, while those of status live at Fiddler’s Green, a luxury high-rise apartment complex run by Kaufman, the architect of the walled city and self-appointed protector of the people. At his command are troops of soldiers, doing his bidding to keep the city safe and protect the status of those living in luxury, with the centrepiece being Dead Reckoning, a heavily-armoured battle-truck capable of destroying anything in its way.

The zombies are now being ignored, not the threat they once were whilst contained outside the perimeter fence outside the city. Some are brought in for the purposes of keeping the plebeians entertained, through having photos taken with them or via illegal ‘zombie fights’, feeding the various vices as gamblers drink and place bets on which will be the last “stench” standing. With desires satiated, Kaufman keeps the attention of the great unwashed away from Fiddler’s Green, as nicer society exists as though nothing has happened.



His back firmly against the wall, Riley Denbo, a former employee of Kaufman’s reluctantly agrees to recover the truck when it’s stolen by disgruntled colleague Cholo (John Leguizamo). Tagging along are ever-loyal Charlie (Robert Joy), Slack, (Asia Argento) a kick-ass young woman with a score to settle and a squad of commandos with questionable allegiances. With the zombies getting smarter as both they and Cholo threaten to destroy Fiddler’s Green, it’s not only a question of time, but what might be best for the society.

With the dead now a pain the arse rather than a serious threat, when raiding the outskirts for supplies Cholo and his men launch fireworks or ‘sky-flowers’ to distract the zombies by getting them to look up as the raiders sneak past to get the precious luxuries. However, a hulking-great member of the living dead has learned what they are up to, and gathers a band of fellow shufflers on a march towards Fiddler’s Green, where the luck of its inhabitants might have just run out.

As four years of a certain president are now firmly in the past, along a virulent plague engulfing the earth, it’s easy to read more directly into the racial and class subtext Romero injected into Land of the Dead. Cholo gets his hands dirty “taking out the garbage” for Kaufman and those living in luxury, always destined to be returned to the slums when no longer useful. We all remember when certain exemptions for the hospitality industry were quickly appended to a very controversial policy, all so that the garbage of the wealthy could still be taken out for them without getting their hands dirty. Within the film, in spite of all Cholo has done to keep Kaufman in power, he learns that his heritage automatically precludes him from taking up residence at Fidder’s Green, setting him on course for revenge against a system he was welcome into as long as he knew his place.

Another of the main elements of social commentary is that of the homeless, which Romero pointed out at even the most early of stages of writing how the dead represent the disenfranchised in society, wandering the outskirts of the cities whilst being simultaneously ignored and kept away from the populous. He also expands upon the building of a hollow Utopia from Dawn of the Dead, living off the old world with no plan of what to do once it all runs out, which you can easily read as a comment on the whole fossil fuel situation. Here, Kaufman and the elite live the high-life through the lower-classes risking their lives to keep it all going, having his goons raiding neighbouring towns for supplies of luxury items with which to keep up the pretense that all is still right with the world. For a studio film, Romero still manages to get his own philosophies in there!

Next to the previous three entries, there are fewer characters to genuinely care about, and a protagonist whom merely reacts to what’s going on around him rather than being his own entity. A couple of our heroes seem to be thrown in so as to be “cool additions” rather than serve the story, and to that end, they function perfectly as ciphers, but it’s not easy to warm to them. A relative of ours took one look at the squad assigned to assist in the recovery of Dead Reckoning and sneered: “It’s the clichéd commandos”, which isn’t overstating the nature of these particular [tertiary] characters. Most interesting of the principles is Charlie, horrifically burned when saving Riley, a man low in IQ but high on loyalty. He almost represents the ultimate evolution of zombies, from their use of tools in Dawn of the Dead, through to emerging intelligence seen in Day of the Dead’s “Bub” and ending up essentially equal to those previously ruling the earth.

There are those who still refer to the initial trio of entries as “The Dead Trilogy”, cordoning off the other set as something else entirely. The first three were innovative, pushing boundaries to the point where they had to be released unrated, with Romero refusing to take the easy way out and make more money by cutting them down. The entries after that all attained “R”-ratings and attracted little fuss when they hit cinemas. We have no outright hatred for the “sequel trilogy” - hell, we even have a few nice things to say about Survival of the Dead. Not many, but there are a couple.



That being said, to enjoy Land of the Dead to the fullest, you obviously have to divorce it from the previous films, as comparisons to the powerhouse series only leaves it out in the cold, even inspiring outright hostility from the more devoted of enthusiasts. There is lots to like here, with the gore scenes really delivering the goods through excellent makeup and their digital enhancement in a way which hadn’t been seen to that degree up ‘til that point. The characters are likeable enough, providing material on which to hang Romero’s have/have-not social commentary and some very satisfying comeuppances for those richly deserving it. Let’s not forget some very cool cameos for the fans, including “Blades” from Dawn of the Dead, played once again by Tom Savini, patching things up with Romero after the remake of Night of the Living Dead somewhat soured their friendship, and what could be better than that? How about a brief appearance by Day of the Dead‘s “Bub”, looming out of the darkness near the start of the film?

This was the only film Romero did for a major studio, and the relinquishing of control which comes with it turned out to be both constricting and frustrating for him. The resulting product feels like just that: product. A lot of Ol’ George’s individual style has been stripped away, leaving a very slick package which has less earthiness than his other work. While it might be argued that it’s merely a progression of style which has been literally afforded by a much larger budget, the proliferation of all things zombie in the intervening time has left it even less distinctive, as most are stuck in a rut of looking like mid-2000s Living Dead films. Romero’s satirical streak is, thankfully, still intact, and the social commentary speaks for itself. John Waters lamented about not having a happy balance between unlimited resources and loss of control when he himself made his only film for Universal, and both directors declined to repeat the experience after the finished product was compromised from their intent.

With Land of the Dead pushing the zombies as financially far as possible, Romero decided that to retain control (and actually get a film financed within a blockbuster-driven market) he would made the following instalment a low-budget, indie reboot with Diary of the Dead. With Land of the Dead being the most luxurious entry in the series, how well does Fabulous Film’s new 2-disc edition stand up to the previous release? Let’s take a look…

Video

Both the Unrated and Theatrical versions are presented in 2.40:1, Land of the Dead has always been a handsome-looking Blu-ray, but it now benefits from a re-encode into the more recent AVC format rather than the dated VC-1, and with TVs now bigger and better, the increased levels of refinement will be certainly be noticed and appreciated. Skin blemishes and marks have nowhere to hide this time around, with every single minute of good-living and each drop of 150-proof brandy evident on Hopper’s face. The added benefits of the new encode also give a little more depth of to the black-levels, which were pretty good before, but are now just that bit better. Possibly most welcome was the effect on the colours, which were way out in some scenes on the old release, but are nice and even here. From Hopper’s penthouse window, it no longer looks as though he was in partnership with Connor McCloud to save the world, as the unnaturally blu-ish/red-ish sky seems like it’s being covered by a shield-system.

Audio

We get the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks as before, but why fix what isn’t broken? It has always been an aggressive sound-mix, with hefty explosions and gunfire ripping through all speakers, creating a real sense of space within the mayhem. As an equipment test, we always used the piece where the zombies begin to realise that the ‘sky-flowers’ are merely a distraction, and stop fooling for it - fireworks explode all over the shop, juxtaposing surround action with subwoofer weight, and we’re happy to report that it sounds as good as ever. Dialogue is also pleasingly natural, and it all makes for a great night in front of the TV. DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo tracks are also available, accessible through the remote audio key.

Extras

DISC ONE

Cholo's Reckoning - an interview with actor John Leguizamo (15:37): The former Super Mario Brother talks about his childhood experiences with the works of George Romero, He also talks about his fondness for Land of the Dead and how much of a great guy George Romero was. Leguizamo comes across as a great guy and he is an engaging interviewee.

Charlie's Story – an interview with actor Robert Joy (15:09): The actor who played the sight-licking sidekick gives us fifteen minutes of insight into how he got the gig on Land (he worked with Romero on The Dark Half) and how much he loved the director. Robert Joy is a relaxed, intelligent and articulate individual, and his observations on the character adds an extra layer to the character.

The Pillsbury Factor – an interview with actor Pedro Miguel Arce (17:29). This is fun stuff, as the interview with Arce begins with a shot of the actor staring down into the camera for an almost uncomfortable degree of time. It’s quickly revealed that the actor is the very antithesis of his Pilsbury character; he’s bright, engaging, gregarious and funny, telling the story of how he got into movies. He reveals that his character was supposed to be female, but he got the part because they couldn’t find a 350lb actress. This is great fun, as Arce’s such a fun guy.

Four of the Apocalypse – an interview with actors Eugene Clark, Jennifer Baxter, Boyd Banks and Jasmin Geljo (18:50): Four of the main zombies feature here and each of them tell their stories about how they watched Romero’s films in their younger years, previous associations with the director and their experiences on the shoot. The most disarming of the bunch is Eugene Clark (Big Daddy), who is utterly charming and describes how he trounced the competition at his audition.

Dream of the Dead documentary (24:40): The director's cut with optional commentary by director Roy Frumkes. Documentarian Frumkes is back once more pursuing the Dead series more doggedly than a horde of ravenous zombies. Make-up wizard Tom Savini becomes the focus of Frumkes’ attention as he prepares to reprises the role of “Blades”, which he originated in Dawn of the Dead. This framework allows interviews from key production about the issues and challenges faced - such as having to rely on CGI - Frumkes liberally uses archive footage from Document of the Dead to contrast Romero and Savini in the late 70s to (what was) the present day. It’s a fine footnote to Roy Frumkes’ original, groundbreaking documentary. Featurette producer Michael Felscher sits down and talks with Roy Frumkes about his life in documentaries and how he got into George Romero’s orbit. It’s a great listen and the contrasting styles (purely a generational thing) work so well that you wish you could listen to him for longer than the 24 minutes here.

Deleted footage from Land of the Dead: This totals less than three minutes, but there’s some cool footage here including a couple of cool scenes that really should have been left in. (2:55)

Theatrical Trailer (1:45): You know it, you love it and it’s here for your delectation. Though the original Night of the Living Dead a in the public domain, it’s still great to see and hear clips from it to set the tone for the new horrors to come.




DISC TWO

Audio Commentary with zombie performers Matt Blazi, Glena Chao, Michael Felsher and Rob Mayr: Featurette producer Michael Felsher takes the moderator position for this freewheeling, lighthearted commentary track. Everyone here was a fan of George Romero and they all explain how they got to be zombies in Land of the Dead. It’s a fun listen, with no dead air and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.

Audio Commentary with writer/director George A. Romero, producer Peter Grunwald and editor Michael Doherty: The key production people talk candidly about the making of the film in this vintage audio commentary and have a certain degree of fun as they do so. Romero is as genial as ever, always happy to give credit where credit is due and explains the origins of the story and the contemporary real-live parallels and influences in the script.

When Shaun Met George (12:59): Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright explain how their love of zombie films led them to have cameos in George Romero’s fourth instalment in his Dead series. The entire process is documented from first contact to filming their bit. The sheer geeky enthusiasm of the pair is evident in every second, including meeting George Romero, the man who inspired them to make their first feature film, Shaun of the Dead.

Bringing the Dead to Life (9:31): Clocking in at just under ten minutes, this is similar to the Undead Again, but with the emphasis on the people responsible for dreaming up and executing the practical effects for Land of the Dead, featuring glowing praise from the cast & crew for Greg Nicotero, who took on the FX mantle from Tom Savini.

Scenes of Carnage (1:42): This very short piece (less than two minutes) consists of shots of graphic zombie violence set to classical music.

Zombie Effects: From Green Screen to Finished Scene (3:18): Though many fans were disappointed that Romero leant so heavily on CGI effects in this entry (much of it was down to practicality - why spend several hours on-set, potentially costing several hundred thousand dollars in production time setting up practical squibs, when you can CGI it in post-production?), and some of the resulting effects were questionable even at the time, this wee featurette shows you the process from raw production footage to the finished shots.

Scream Test – Zombie Casting Call (1:05): Oh, dear - this was something that was obviously an in-joke, presenting roughly-animated zombies doing a certain dance made famous in a particular Michael Jackson video from the early 80s. Sadly, licensing issues meant that using the song that goes with it and replacing it with a silly generic redneck tune makes it pretty embarrassing and pointless.

Bringing the Storyboards to Life (7:54): A short - but still interesting- look at comparisons between how Romero’s vision was translated into visual form on the page and then to film. Nice to demonstrate just how storyboards can help shape the look of a scene.

Undead Again -The Making of Land of the Dead (12:56): This is essentially an EPK (electronic press kit for you youngsters), showing George Romero on the set, intercut with interviews with the cast & crew, including Romero, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento & John Leguizamo. Some nice bits are included, but it’s still ultimately a puff-piece.

A Day with the Living Dead hosted by John Leguizamo (7:14): This is pretty-much what you expect, with your genial host guiding the viewer through a day on the set of Land of the Dead. This is fun stuff, with Mr L channelling his enthusiasm into showing everything you expect to see on such a shoot. He talks to the cast (including Dennis Hopper) and shows off some of the effects work. The most interesting revelation comes during Leguizamo’s introduction when he mentions that the film was originally entitled Dead Reckoning.


One curious thing is that selecting the option of “Deleted Scenes from Dream of the Dead”, you are taken to the excised footage from Land of the Dead rather than those of the documentary.

Overall

Land of the Dead is not the great disappointment most make it out to be. It’s a big-budget, high octane zombie film from the great man himself. Romero still manages to squeeze in social commentary in spite of it being a studio project. The zombies take another leap forward in their evolution, solidly continuing the theme from the previous films, and it’s all delivered via a copious serving of gore and plenty of action to wash it down with. It’s probably the slickest offering from the director, and if that helps casual viewers seek out his other zombie films, then it more than justifies its existence in the hallowed halls of George A Romero cinema.

As for this particular release, for years, those living outside of the Region-A area have pressed their noses against the window, drooling at catalogue titles from Shout/Scream Factory, loaded up with brand-new special features which make others look utterly mediocre by comparison. Now, Fabulous Films seeks to redress the balance by bringing the UK Land of the Dead, including both Unrated and R-rated versions of the films, along with almost all of the juicy extras from the stateside edition. They are to be commended for their efforts.

Buy with confidence!

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, amazon.de, amazon.it, amazon.es and amazon.se.