It's been nearly a generation since the dead have risen, and Earth is now a planet overrun with legions of walking corpses. The last survivors have holed themselves up in gated cities, but, behind these city walls, remarkably little has changed. The wealthy live in luxury - in this case, the high-rise called Fiddler’s Green - sipping champagne and looking down at the poor folk who scrape by on the streets below. Kaufman (Hopper) is the resourceful de facto mayor of this particular city, held in power by his sway over the soldiers in his hire, including a band of looters who raid abandoned towns on the outskirts of the city for food, supplies, and special extravagances for the denizens of the Green. One such raider, Riley (Baker), has had enough of life behind barbed wire fences and has saved his earnings for a car and a chance to move on to a place devoid of humans- living or dead. Meanwhile, Riley’s hot tempered second-in-command, Cholo (Leguizamo), plans to take the money owed to him by Kaufman and move into the Green, but, when Kaufman tells Cholo that the green doesn’t have room for his kind, Cholo responds by stealing the city’s ultimate weapon; the heavily armored, rocket-bearing Winnebago from hell, the Dead Reckoning. Cholo plans to blow up Fiddler’s Green unless Kaufman delivers $5 million dollars (what Cholo feels he is owed “plus interest”), so Kaufman recruits Reilly, the Reckoning’s creator- along with his savant marksman pal Charlie (Joy) and the hooker/terrorist Slack (Argento) -to get back his vehicle in exchange for a free pass out of the city.
Meanwhile, the living dead seem to be evolving, and, under the leadership of a particularly nasty and overly-sensitive zombie (credited as Big Daddy) the undead horde move toward the city, discovering that its defenses aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Land of the Dead is great fun. I really enjoyed Romero’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world, and, while he’s never one to shy away from some sort of political sentiment, it’s never so intrusive that it gets in the way of a satisfying zombie movie. While not quite as polished as the more mainstream horror fare of late, this is a Romero flick, and to love Romero is to love and accept that his films always have been (and always will be) rough around the edges. Still, in spite of the low-ish budget ($18 million), this film looks pretty damned good, and the director has assembled his best cast since Creepshow. John Leguizamo makes for a great anti-hero, hopping around the screen with the manic intensity of a kangaroo with a beehive up his ass. He also gets some of the best lines, most of which seem improvised, adding to his hyped-up character’s self-imposed sense of urgency. Baker fills the “handsome lead” role fine, coming off as both tough and compassionate, while Argento delivers her best performance in an American film yet, giving Slack a sexy, tough exterior with a charmingly vulnerable side. Hopper's performance, oddly enough, is probably the weakest in the film. He’s best when he chews scenery, but here he only nibbles, and is given some of the scripts biggest clunkers. It seems as though he's just there for the paycheck, while the rest of the cast genuinely look like they’re having a one hell of a good time.
I've never seen the theatrical cut of this film, so I’ve no basis for comparison as to how much more violent this unrated version is, but I will say that what is here is an absolute bloodbath. Heads are torn off, hands split in two like wishbones, and bellyfuls of smoking entrails abound. This is old-school violence merged with some convincing CGI, here, and this is one of the few “unrated” releases I’ve seen that live up to the hype. There has to be at least ten minutes worth of stuff here that would never had made it past the MPAA!
So what’s wrong with Land of the Dead? Romero still wears his conscience on his blood-soaked sleeve, but Land of the Dead's social commentary (that of a class war between the rich, the poor, and the dead) pales in comparison to Night of the Living Dead's meditation on racism, or Dawn of the Dead's swipe at consumerism. I also found the film to be a bit on the short side, but that also left me wanting more. Sadly, the film tanked at the box-office, so while Land of the Dead ends with a great set-up for sequels, Romero obviously dashed any hopes of the continuing adventures of the crew of the Dead Reckoning with the back-to-basics follow-up, (and much less fun) "Diary of the Dead".
Universal brings the dead to vivid life on Blu-ray courtesy of a nice 1080p/VC-1 encode that sports terrific depth and detail, as well as accurate and vibrant color representation. Much of the film’s action takes place at night, and blacks are lush and consistent, with nary a hint of blocking or artifacts. There’s a small amount of cinematic grain throughout, but it’s certainly not a fault in the transfer. Overall, Romero’s dead have never looked so good!
The DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track isn’t quite as impressive as the video transfer, but it’s a sturdy, bass-fueled sonic assault that works great during the film’s more intense action sequences. Sadly it’s not as atmospheric or immersive during the film’s quieter, more suspenseful moments, as the surrounds are sorely underused in these scenes.
Land of the Dead sports a whole bloody mess of extra features, but, save for a feature-length commentary track, the majority of the bonus features are a bit on the flimsy side. We get two very short featurettes - "When Shaun Met George" (8 mins), which focuses on Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's cameo in the film, and "Zombie Effects" (5 mins), which is exactly what it sounds like. We also get some a scene-to-storyboard comparison feature, some deleted scenes, and a brief montage of gore shots called "Scenes of Carnage". All of these features were carry-overs from the DVD release of the film, while the U-Control feature, consisting of PiP featurettes that pop up during various scenes in the film, is the sets only "exclusive" (but, even then, culled from featurettes previously available on the HD-DVD release). There's not a lot of flesh to chew on here, but it all makes for a nice, post-movie snack.
While it’s a bit of a stretch to think that one semi-aware zombie can persuade thousands to attack a city by simply growling unintelligibly, but, then again, George W. Bush has done that for years. What's more believable, however, is that Universal's fantastic horror catalog is finally coming to Blu-ray, and the fun, exciting Land of the Dead is just the tip of the iceberg. Sporting a great picture and solid sound, as well as decent selection of extras, if Land of the Dead is any indication of what we have in store, BD-lovin' horror fans are in for a real treat!