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LAND OF THE DEAD
Unrated Director's Cut

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, John Leguizamo
Director:  George A. Romero
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  October 18, 2005

"Zombies, man...they creep me out."

Film **1/2

At long last, after a string of imitators, some pretty good, some not so good, the master is back doing what he does best.  For almost 20 years, George A. Romero had been planning his next great chapter in the lives of the dead.  And ironically, it was probably the success of the imitators that gave him his chance.

Land of the Dead is his first large-budgeted zombie tale, and it delivers most of what you'd expect from one of his films.  The carnage is gruesome, the mayhem frequent, the sense of apocalyptic doom certain.  But Romero's films also lent themselves to a certain social commentary that set them apart from the schlockmeisters, and unfortunately, that's where his vision gets a little questionable.  Puzzling even.

The dead are still feeding on live flesh, and humanity still seems to be losing the battle against them.  Now, what's left of society has organized itself into a rigid class structure.  The rich dwell in an upscale urban condominium called Fiddler's Green, led by Kaufman (Hopper).  The less rich and undesirable either fend for themselves outside the doors of the building, or serve those who dwell in it.

There is an army of sorts, led by Riley (Baker), the cool and collected one, and Cholo (Leguizamo), the angry hothead.  As the movie opens, they are on a raid for supplies using a monstrous, heavily armed truck dubbed Dead Reckoning.  But even with all the firepower on their side, the dead manage to inflict casualties.  Unlike before, the zombies seem to be beginning to think, communicate, and solve problems.  That could mean the city, even with all its defenses, is in jeopardy.

Cholo wants to live at Fiddler's Green.  The ungrateful Kaufman won't have it.  In desperation, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and threatens to lay siege to the city unless Kaufman gives in to his demands.  It becomes up to Riley to find Cholo and take back the truck before all hell breaks loose.  But Riley, accompanied by his slow but sure friend Charlie (Joy) and a hooker/warrior Slack (Argento), has some plans of his own.

Like in Dawn of the Dead, Romero sees a vision where man turns against man when they should be uniting, and it some senses, that notion is even more frightening than that of the dead feasting on the living.  Yet his premise seems a little flawed.  What purpose does money actually serve when there's not much to own and nowhere to go?  What really motivates Kaufman?  He may be making millions, but what does he intend to do with his cash?

Romeo is an avowed liberal, but if I didn't know that about him, I would have gotten a completely different impression of his statement than he intended.  I assume he meant Land of the Dead to be a reflection of capitalism run amuck, but what he's created is the ultimate socialist nightmare.  What we see is exactly what Fidel Castro's Cuba is like, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq WAS like.  It's a world where the masses are all equal in their misery and destitution, and only the ruling class flourishes.  Their subjects exist only to serve, live and die at their pleasure.

He also comments in the supplements that his idea was that of an "administration" who tried to pretend the world hadn't changed when it had.  Then he says it's basically the Bush administration.  Huh?  Regardless of what you think of Bush's handling of the current situation, he certainly isn't the one that's failed to recognize the change that's come over our world.  Again, before I realized Romero's intentions, I had them completely wrong.  I assumed Kaufman and his cohorts were a reflection of Clinton and company, who for eight years refused to acknowledge the threat to our nation and allowed it to grow unchecked.

Even the final shot, where Riley refuses to take out the hoard of zombies that just ravaged the city and left everyone for dead, was a striking parallel to the war on terror.  "They're just looking for a place to go," he comments sympathetically.  And we know the army of the dead will proceed into the next town, killing and devouring every person they see, until the living are no more.  That's scary enough for a horror movie, but to think there are those who would capitulate equally in the face of a similar unstoppable and uncompromising enemy is what keeps ME up at night.

Romero might have unintentionally made the ultimate statement in favor of the war on terror with his movie.  But he actually wanted to do the opposite.  Whether he meant to or not, he clearly demonstrated what taking the weak position would mean to our lives and our societies.  Yet he somehow still seems to be arguing in favor of that.  It's so perplexing, I completely forgot to enjoy the fact that I was seeing the Romero zombie movie I'd been clamoring for over the last twenty years.  That's a shame, because there's plenty of good old fashioned gore and gusto at play.  There are unforgettable scenes filled with action and fright that rank amongst the best work the director has ever done.

But his inability to make a coherent political statement is the movie's ultimate downfall.  What we see in the film is out of phase with reality, and worse, out of phase with what he was really trying to say.  What could have been a stark final chapter in one of the greatest franchises in horror history ended up a perplexing discourse in which Romero paints a picture of how he thinks the world should be and doesn't seem to realize he's created a monster.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Look for Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead as zombies, as well as the return of Tom Savini as the mustached zombie!

Video ***1/2

Nothing scary about this anamorphic transfer from Universal...Land of the Dead is the franchise's first scope ratio entry, so don't cheat yourself with a pan and scan disc.  The images are stark, clean and crisp, and the colors are natural looking and vibrant (particularly the red).  A few dark scenes are a tad murky, but these aren't many, and only a minor complaint at worst.

Audio ****

Whether you choose Dolby Digital or DTS, you'll find the 5.1 soundtrack is an explosive knockout.  This is a big, noisy movie, and every channel stays in on the action.  Dynamic range is superb, and the crossover signals are plentiful and smooth.  Your home theatre won't feel like a safe place while this disc plays.

Features ****

This is a great package, starting with a commentary track from Romero and his associates...he's always enjoyable to listen to.  There is a making-of featurette, a day-on-the-set special with John Leguizamo, deleted scenes, and a video of the Shaun of the Dead stars and their experience on the film!

There is also a look at make-up artist Greg Nicotero, a short video compilation of the really grisly scenes, a look at the green screen effects, storyboard comparisons, and a look at the zombies, both real and CGI.  A terrific package all around.

Summary:

There are thrills, chills, and spills galore in George Romero's Land of the Dead.  The horror is fine, but the social commentary is even sloppier than the gore. 

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