Am I the only one that thinks zombies are kinda... cuddly? I know I'm supposed to be terrified by them, but a bunch of pale, oozy, maggot-infested undead monsters only makes me immediately think of Michael Jackson's "Thriller.". I always expect them to suddenly start dancing and doing the Vincent Price shuffle, and any shock value they may have once had has now, for me, been lost to campy excess.
I know this is not George Romero's fault. The godfather of the zombie movie, he virtually created the subgenre with 1967's landmark 'Night of the Living Dead.' That black-and-white opus did more than terrify millions, garner critical kudos and gross millions -- it fully politicized the horror film, and helped to usher in a seminal period for the genre. The 1970s has never been equaled in terms of delivering raw, unapologetic and thought-provoking terror films, and if the rest of Romero's career never quite equaled the singular achievement of 'Night,' well, the guy still has one hell of a cinematic epitaph to revel in.
Of course, Romero would go on to direct two more 'Dead' films, 1978's widely acclaimed 'Dawn of the Dead,' and the less well-received 'Day of the Dead' in 1985. (Interestingly, all three have been remade -- a sure sign the guy created something supremely influential.) Yet it was still somewhat surprising that twenty years later, Romero would again forge back into zombie-land for 2005's 'Land of the Dead.' Coming after such 'Dead'-inspired hits as '28 Days Later,' the 2003 remake of 'Dawn of the Dead' and the hilarious parody 'Shaun of the Dead' (2004), was there still any blood left to squeeze from an undead turnip? And could lightning strike yet again for Romero, who has never been one to shy away from imparting grand social messages along with his gore -- not exactly what the iPod generation seems to want from its horror?
Turns out 'Land of the Dead' does feel like too little, too late. A box office bomb when released last summer (though Universal pitting it against 'War of the Worlds' probably wasn't the best example of counterprogramming), few in the mainstream seemed to care about Romero anymore, despite his high esteem in the horror community. The film's heady mix of social satire, barely concealed swipes at the Bush administration and copious amounts of gratuitous gore went by largely unnoticed, and not helping much was that Romero's filmmaking aesthetic, like fellow "genre bum" John Carpenter, remains firmly stuck in the '70s. 'Land of the Dead' is slow-paced, kinda chintzy and a bit too self-important for its own good. These kind of throwback B-movies were great fun a couple of decades ago -- 'Dawn of the Dead' and 'Escape from New York' in particular -- but there is a fine line between nostalgic pastiche and creative mummification.
The story of 'Land of the Dead' kicks off a number of years after 'Day.' The world is now overrun by zombies, and the survivors have split into a class system of the haves and have-nots. While blue collar everymen like Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) toil in the streets, doing the dirty work of keeping civilians safe from the zombies, rich and arrogant entrepreneurs like Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) live like kings up in big modern high rises. Of course, it wouldn't be a Romero flick if the all hell didn't break loose. The zombies always find a way in (or is that out?), and the two classes will soon come crashing together. With very bloody results.
'Land of the Dead' hit DVD and HD DVD previously in an Unrated Director's Cut, and for this re-view on Blu-ray I'm left with the same impression of the film. It's gory and over-the-top, and smart and subversive -- everything we want in a Romero flick. Yet like 'Day of the Dead,' it doesn't add up to enough. Quite frankly, once you've seen one decapitated head, or a bunch of gooey intestines ripped out of a latex body, you've kinda seen them all. Romero's zombie imagery was certainly shocking in 'Night' and 'Dawn,' but in the years since it has become neutered. The mere concept of zombies is no longer incendiary or terrifying, so it is only the characters and the politics that are left to drive 'Land.' Unfortunately -- and I know this is heretical to Romero fans -- but I think both '28 Days Later' and the 'Dawn of the Dead' remake were far more pointed in their satire, but less heavy-handed about it. They also had more interesting characters. Nor is the action in 'Land' anything special. How ironic for Romero -- the teacher has now been outclassed by his students.
I suppose zombie fans will still like 'Land of the Dead.' It certainly delivers on the bottom line. There is some sick and disgusting stuff here -- one moment involving a heart being pulled through the mouth of a victim is particularly cringe-inducing -- but since 'Land of the Dead' aspires to be more than just a gross-out show, is that really enough? I still admire Romero for sticking to his guns and attempting to bring cultural commentary back into horror, but nothing in 'Land' shocked me, disturbed me or really made me think. It all just kind of nauseated me. Bummer.
'Land of the Dead' didn't look all that great on standard DVD -- overly soft, and lacking the pop of the best transfer. The HD DVD version that Universal released in 2006 was an improvement, if not a massive upgrade. This Blu-ray recycles the same master, and again we get a (re-encoded) 1080p/VC-1 presentation. As before, it's solid high-def.
In a first for George Romero, 'Land of the Dead' was shot and is presented here in 2.40:1 widescreen. Too bad Romero didn't go widescreen earlier, as he has a fine eye for expansive compositions, and this is probably the best-looking of his four zombie flicks. The source material is in excellent shape, as you would expect for a new release -- no blemishes, dirt or other defects here. There is a thin veneer of grain throughout, but it looks quite pleasing and film-like. Blacks are rich and pure, and color reproduction quite vibrant. The film takes place primarily at night, and the blue-gray and orange palette comes through rather nicely. Hues are consistently vivid throughout, with no bleeding (har har) or chroma noise apparent.
Best of all, however, is the fact that, unlike many transfers of horror films, this one is not overly dark. Contrast is near-perfect across the entire spectrum. Despite being bathed in shadows, the fall-off to black isn't too steep, so fine details are visible even in the darkest long shots. Crucial in a horror film like this is the ability to see both foreground and backgrounds, as what fun is it to watch a zombie sneaking up on an unsuspecting victim if you can't see all the icky ooze and puss? Again, this is not the most incredible transfer I've ever seen in terms of depth, but it is clearly superior to the rather flat standard-def release. Also commendable is that compression artifacts are not a problem, and despite pixelation and posterization on the previous DVD I saw no comparable issues here.
Universal offered up a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5mbps) on the previous HD DVD of 'Land of the Dead.' That's been retooled here in English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). I've been pleased if not blown away by most of Universal's recent DTS-MA upgrades on their recent Blu-ray catalog releases, and this one is no exception. It's fine, if not all that substantial.
'Land of the Dead' is really more action movie than horror. The most prominent aspect of the film's sound design is the aggressive surround use during any scene involving a gun, an explosion or a moving vehicle. Trucks and tanks rumble around, many gunshots are fired and plenty of things blow up real good, all accompanied by a healthy amount of discrete effects. The rear sound stage is marginally more effective here in DTS-MA, with slightly improved directionality and more punch to dynamic range. Atmospheric effects are present, largely during the outdoor, mass zombie-attack scenes, though I could not detect much improvement.
As before, the soundtrack sounds mid-budget at times, with high-end still sounding a bit tin-eared. Dialogue reproduction, however, is natural and sounds well-balanced in the mix. Low bass is good but not superior. Also failing to generate improvement in DTS-MA is the score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. What little of it there is all but lost, which adds to the realism of the film but doesn't help to enliven the soundtrack much. There are no major issues with the source, and this is a clean, polished presentation. Just don't expect a huge upgrade.
'Land of the Dead' was first released as an HD DVD/DVD combo disc, with most of the extras residing on the DVD side. I was never a fan of that approach, as it was annoying to have to disc-flip, and besides, isn't the point of a high-def format that you'll get the entire experience in HD? In any case, Universal has ported over (and, in in some cases, repurposed) the original HD DVD and DVD content on Blu-ray, all contained on one BD-25 single-layer disc. All video materials are provided in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
'Land of the Dead' falls somewhere in the middle of George Romero's zombie quadrilogy. Not the classic that is 'Night of the Living Dead,' nor as memorable in its satire as 'Dawn of the Dead,' but at least it's better than the dour, dismal 'Day of the Dead.' This Blu-ray offers the same fine video as the previous HD DVD, but adds high-res audio, and repurposes some of the extras into a PIP track. As none of the material from the previous HD DVD is missing, I can then easily recommend this Blu-ray for purchase if you're fan of the film. All others, stick with a rental.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.