STUDIO: Universal
MSRP: $29.99
Deleted scenes

Fans of the works of zombie maestro George Romero probably thought we’d never see another title sequence containing both his name and the word Dead flash before our eyes, instead having to sate our cravings with unsavory imitators and recurring DVD releases of his past work. But two decades after Joe Pilato was savagely bisected with a roar of “Choke on ‘em!”, we’re finally getting a fourth entry in Romero’s Dead series. Is Land of the Dead the messy magnum opus we prayed for?

The Flick

Sometime after whatever event brought the dead back to life, a large group of human survivors have made their home in Fiddler’s Green, a triangular chunk of real estate protected from the shambling undead by electric fences and two rivers. Using various vehicles and a large assault truck called Dead Reckoning (the original, and superior, title of the film), a group of scavengers led by righteous Riley (Simon Baker) and egocentric Cholo (John Leguizamo) travel to nearby towns and ransack the remnants for useful items, all while avoiding the hordes of “stenches”, aka the living dead.

A huge fan of retro videogaming, Leguizamo had the clout to make him the sole owner of Lethal Enforcers for the Vectrex.

Both of these men have personal goals beyond continued daily existence. Riley is “looking for a world without fences” – he wants to retire from his job, take a car and head north to Canada, a place he imagines (for whatever reason) is a quiet paradise devoid of flesh-eating ghouls. Cholo is more interested in his status – he’s trying to acquire enough wealth to move into the luxurious central skyscraper and join the upper crust.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans. After rescuing feisty prostitute Slack (Asia Argento) from a zombie cage match and shooting up a bar with his crispy-faced sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy), Riley winds up behind bars. And when Cholo’s class ascension is rebuffed by Fiddler’s Green overlord Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), he swipes the Dead Reckoning and demands millions in ransom or he’ll use the vehicle’s artillery to blast Kaufman’s opulent tower to smithereens. As the designer of Kaufman’s prized possession, Riley is recruited to retrieve it. Meanwhile, the hordes of walking dead, led by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), have developed a moderate level of intelligence and are advancing en masse upon the guarded metropolis seeking chow… and possibly some payback.

Man… when Robert Downey Jr. backslides, he really goes all in.

While watching Land of the Dead, my brain was torn (not shredded apart by the sickly fingers of the rotters). One side was thrilled with the prospect of Romero getting another opportunity to provide more Dead-related delights. Chunky headshots. Copious gunfire. Diverse characters. The mobile deceased gnawing on the luscious meat of the living.

The other side of my cranium made the error of taking the script under consideration. Romero’s Dead series have always contained satire and societal statements prevalent at the time (and usually made a sick sort of sense), but this time they’re as subtle as a .357 hollowpoint to the cerebellum. Yeah, I get the analogies – the glaring disparity of class structure, Kaufman as the cocky elitist personification of the Bush administration, the perception that Canada is perhaps now a better place to live than America, the mindless populace awakening to the way things are, et cetera, et cetera. I just wish the subversion was presented a bit more slyly. And rationally – while I understand the notion of humanity unwilling to discard their past habits and the importance of money as a means of acquisition or determination of social ranking, it’s highly suspect in context. For example, Cholo demands millions in cash from Kaufman, but by then he’s made himself a pariah from Fiddler’s Green, and since there’s no known civilization anywhere else why would it still have value (and why wouldn’t his cohorts point that out)? It’s beyond absurd.

"Oh, these? Pretty sensational, yeah? Well, you’re gonna have to buy Scarlet Diva to get the full starkers. Or B. Monkey. Or New Rose Hotel…"

There are a few other niggling complaints: My empathy for the undead started to wane by the sixth or seventh time Big Daddy earnestly moaned skyward. Nothing of the situation’s science is mentioned, implying the vestiges of mankind are okay with the global zombification. I despise when characters in horror movies say stuff like “This is like a bad dream”, and a veteran like Romero should certainly know better (there’s actually an unhealthy percentage of clichéd dialogue). And there isn’t a single surprise in regard to which humans meet a grim and gory fate.

But ultimately the bloodlusting half of my brain trounced those overthinking lobes of logic. Guided by Romero’s uncomplicated execution, the movie’s Road Warrior-esque scenario is fairly engaging (if simplistic), and the players are interesting even if they don’t receive what could ever be called an excess of development (Leguizamo makes the most of his character, assisted by an extra scene edited back into the film). And in between the class conflicts there’s all that wicked carnage. I flip for practical effects, and even if Romero hasn’t quite crafted a modern masterpiece to rival his previous ex-trilogy, at least the twisted folks at KNB Effects have outdone themselves — their work is on display in full glistening glory thanks to this unrated version of the flick.

7.0 out of 10

Canadian television actor Peter Outerbridge ponders how he could get a role in a George Romero movie without a single goddamn line of dialogue.

The Look

It’s a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, but aside from a few zombie lids, nothing really pops. Most of the film takes place at night, and the picture is softer than intestines and often murky to the point where the blood looks nearly black. In the scenes with more lighting the color seems a little flat, but you’ll still see decent detail of every crack of rotten flesh on the visages of the walking dead.

7.0 out of 10

The Noise

The DTS audio has so much bass, I thought the Dead Reckoning pulled up outside my media room (it turned out to just be the UPS truck with my order of Rohypnol and my copies of Lolita Weekly). But the audio is outstanding, loaded with zipping bullets, juicy torn flesh and squishy spilled guts.

9.2 out of 10

It may have been the lack of music, but John wasn’t wildly impressed by Simon’s energetic Tony Manero impersonation.

The Goodies

A glimpse at the loaded special features menu, which covers two pages, may give paroxysms of grisly glee, but only leads to disappointment when (aside from the commentary track) you’ll tear through them in a little over a half hour.

First up is the too-brief featurette “Undead Again: The Making of Land of the Dead”, which is pretty standard behind-the-scenes footage spliced with interview clips running around 12 minutes. It does give the impression that the cast and crew thoroughly enjoyed the experience (regardless of lengthy night shoots and chilly weather), and that Romero is humble, affable and extremely tall. After this, Leguizamo wanders around for approximately 7 minutes in “A Day with the Living Dead”, chatting with crew members and giving a few peeks at the zombie creation process. It makes Leguizamo out to be a funnier and cooler cat than most of his film roles would have you believe, but it’s way too short.

The best of the featurettes (or at least my fave) is “Bringing the Dead to Life”, which follows gore grandmaster Greg Nicotero as he gives an in-depth look at the makeup effects created by his company. All the detail on how people and zombies are disfigured, dismantled and/or destroyed in full latex splendor. Outstanding stuff, but at a mere 9 minutes, it should’ve been at least thrice as long (thrice!). Also too brief (a recurring theme, yeah?) is “When Shaun Met George”, a documentary-style 12-minute quickie that follows Shaun of the Dead creators Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright as they journey to Toronto for their brief cameo appearance in the film. They may have made my favorite movie of 2004, but they’re just average guys gushing with fanboy joy at the prospect of meeting Romero, and it’s great to watch.

"I dunno, man… this doesn’t feel a little too Vernon Wells to you?"

“The Remaining Bits” is around three minutes of alternate or deleted scenes (including one gory moment that should’ve made the cut), all presented with no introduction or finished sound for some curious reason. “Scenes of Carnage” is 2 minutes of the film’s gruesome moments set to tranquil music, while “Zombie Effects: From Green Screen to Finished Scene” and “Bringing the Storyboards to Life” are self-explanatory before-and-after or on-screen comparisons which are unaccompanied by any sort of narration or other info. And then “Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call” is a minute of dancing digital zombies, perhaps one of the most needless special features I’ve ever seen.

And there’s the commentary track, in which Romero is joined by editor Michael Doherty and producer Peter Grunwald. It’s a little intermittent, but informative and mostly enjoyable, giving time to the production itself and the history of Romero’s zombies. Still, it would’ve been great to get Nicotero on there (especially considering the slaughter), or maybe the Shaun of the Dead guys. A missed opportunity, which seems like a pretty good description of the features in total.

6.8 out of 10

The Artwork

A rather striking desaturated image of a severed zombie hand clinging to the fence protecting the humans gives a sense of the bleak tale being told. Big Daddy and some “hero zombies”, backed by an endless sea of the undead, look on hungrily (though I’m not sure why they’re on the same side of the fence as Fiddler’s Green, seen on the horizon). Simple but iconic.

8.0 out of 10

Overall: 7.0 out of 10

Weird… even the zombie apocalypse seems like a perfectly acceptable context for gratuitous lesbianism.