For some horror fans, the late, great George A. Romero is considered the George Lucas of horror: he created a trilogy of classic films that changed the face of the genre forever, then years later returned with a second trilogy that was less well-received. But whereas Lucas’ second set of Star Wars films close off his universe, answering unasked questions and making his world feel smaller by tying every corner of it together, Romero’s 2000s trilogy expands his living dead world further and brings the series into a new millennium. They don’t diminish the legacy of his first three zombie movies. If anything, they make it richer.
Land of the Dead, new to Collector's Edition Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory (a disc was previously available from Universal), marks Romero’s return to the zombie genre he created after a 20-year absence and is his first (and only) made for a major studio. It’s the director’s examination of post-9/11 fears and the increasing class disparity in America.
The wealthiest 1% have barricaded themselves in high rises towering over the city while the rest of the country is forced to fight for scraps amidst the zombie apocalypse below. Within this world operates Riley Denbo (Simon Baker), a scavenger who helps supply those living on the ground with food and supplies courtesy of his armored truck Dead Reckoning. He runs missions for Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), who rules over the high rise city and has promised Riley’s second-in-command Cholo (John Leguizamo) an apartment among the wealthy in Fiddler’s Green. When those plans fall through, however, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and plans to level Fiddler’s Green, leading Kaufman to hire Riley and a crew of military police—as well as Slack (Asia Argento), who is rescued along the way—to retrieve the truck and stop Cholo. As all of this drama is unfolding, an army of zombies, led by the increasingly intelligent Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), make their way to the city.
Though it’s not up to the impossibly high standards of his first three living dead epics, Land of the Dead is easily the best of Romero’s latter trilogy and probably his last best film. Like several of his other works, his original vision was compromised by working within a studio system. He was once again forced to make concessions on the film; Romero had written the lead role for a black actor but wasn’t allowed to cast one, so he cast Eugene Clark as “Big Daddy,” the lead zombie. The film also had to go out in theaters with an R rating, and while the theatrical cut did retain a considerable amount of gore, I would always prefer to see Romero work without his hands tied in any way (for comparison’s sake, both the R-rated and the unrated cut are included on this Blu-ray). But, despite some of these limitations, Romero’s commentary on the world is as bleak and savage as ever.
Here, the ruling class are simply ignoring the problem while both the rest of the population and the zombies themselves organize an insurgency. In many ways, Land predicts major events like the economic collapse and the Occupy Wall Street movement just a few years later, or even the massive tax reforms of recent months which benefit the wealthiest Americans while forcing the rest of us to suffer. Romero recognized this disparity years ago. It’s precisely what Land is all about.
If I have reservations about the movie even more than 10 years later, it’s that Romero doesn’t explore these ideas enough. Much of Land’s real estate is given over to being a straightforward action movie, and while it’s certainly entertaining in that regard, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s a richer, better movie underneath just crying to take shape. Something like Dawn of the Dead was more successful at balancing the thoughtful, socially conscious horror with the comic book action to which Romero often felt drawn. The commentary exists on the fringes of Land, but it’s more or less a straightforward zombie action movie. But it’s also a really solid zombie action movie, with a couple of strong characters and some moments of the gnarly gore for which Romero is known (more so in the unrated cut, of course). While Simon Baker is probably a very nice person, he’s too bland at the movie’s center, failing to register as anything but "generic white hero guy." Thankfully he’s backed up by the likes of Leguizamo, Robert Joy (as his scarred sidekick Charlie), and, especially, Asia Argento, who isn’t given much to do but leaps off the screen with a dark charisma unmatched by any of her co-stars. That she is horror royalty only makes her casting that much more special.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Land of the Dead offers two cuts of the movie: the 93-minute R-rated cut released to theaters and the 97-minute director’s cut previously available on Universal’s Blu-ray. Both versions of the movie are offered in 1080p HD, but the theatrical cut has been given a brand new 2K scan while the transfer for the longer unrated cut appears to have ported over from the old release. Many of the bonus features have carried over from past releases, too: the audio commentary from Romero, producer Peter Grunwald, and editor Michael Doherty; a nearly 30-minute making-of piece (“Dream of the Dead”); a shorter EPK-style featurette; deleted footage; featurettes on Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s cameo in the movie as well as the makeup, the gore effects, the storyboards, and the casting; a photo gallery and the original trailer presented in high def.
Exclusive to this two-disc edition are some excellent newly-produced bonus features: a commentary from several of the featured performers who played zombies in the movie, new interviews with actors John Leguizamo, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark, Jennifer Baxter, Jasmin Geljo, Boyd Banks, and Miguel Arce, plus a few previously unseen deleted scenes. It’s a pretty jam-packed set.
While I’m happy we got Land of the Dead at all—even with the compromises Romero had to make — perhaps the greatest tragedy of the movie is that it wasn’t released in the 1990s. While that would have undoubtedly changed its thematic concerns, it would have meant that Romero made a zombie film for each of the last six decades. No other horror filmmaker can come close to touching that. Sadly, he’s gone now, but lives on in the greatness of his work — a greatness that is celebrated on Scream Factory’s disc. We miss you, George.
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5