George Romero’s return to the LAND OF THE DEAD proves that the writer-director has lost none of the talent that made him one of the most important figures in the history of horror movies. His film is a witty, clever, action-packed piece of violent pop art that benefits from the backing of a major studio (slick production values and a bigger scope than any of his previous zombie films) without succumbing to many of the pitfalls. Which is to say, Romero retains his bite: not only does the excessive gore show little signs of compromise to get an R-rating; more importantly, he creates a radically subversive scenario that few contemporary filmmakers would dare to emulate.
By the standards of its era, the violence in LAND hardly seems as shocking or disgusting as that seen in the original DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, but it is still more than enough to overwhelm squeamish viewers (should any of them stumble into a screening by mistake). Twenty years after DAY, it’s hard for Romero to be as unique and unmatched in his ability to shock as he was when in the past. Nevertheless, the film does work on a visceral level as an as an exciting action-adventure movie; as a suspenseful horror film; as an over-the-top (even if R-rated) gore-fest. It is also a brilliantly biting (you should pardon the term) social satire.
It is nice to see a return to the slow-moving, shuffling ghouls who are dangerous because of their sheer numbers and unstoppability. The effect goes against the contemporary trend of “sprinter zombies,” but it works well because it resonates so deeply as an all-purpose metaphor for interpretations like fear of conformity. In the case of LAND, however, the zombies are regarded not only with fear; Romero also expects you to identify with them, to some small extent, because they are an oddly egalitarian group that stands in opposition to the obviously unjust classicism and racism of the human society, presided over by the corrupt greedy capitalist played by Dennis Hopper. In a nice, ironic touch, they are led by “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark), a dead gas station attendant who happens to be black — a subtle hint that he is the film’s true hero (all the previous Romero DEAD films cast African-American actors as their lead protagonists).
The most remarkable element of the film (which is filled with sharp characters and funny dialogue) is the way we identify with the Cholo character played by John Leguizamo, a man whose class resentment (he does Hopper’s dirty work but isn’t allowed to reap the rewards because of his ethnicity) drives him first to blackmail and then, in a sense, to “defect” to the other side. In a less intelligent, typical Hollywood film, this character would be an unsympathetic villain; instead, he emerges as an oddly endearing anti-hero.
He gets one of the film’s best lines. After his dreams of a “room at the top” are smashed, he opts for class mobility in the opposite direction; bitten by a zombie, he refuses a comrades offer of a bullet in the brain that will prevent him from coming back as a member of the living dead. His reason: “I always wanted to see how the other half lives.”
The rest of the cast performs well. Simon Baker seems a bit bland at first, but he grows on the viewer as the story progresses. Robert Joy is a great sidekick. And Asia Argento makes her tough chick seem like a real character, not the tired genre cliche it has become in the years since ALIEN and TERMINATOR.
The technical credits are all solid, including the extensive makeup effects. There are even some sparse but effective opticals that give the movie the feeling of being a larger production that it is (the effect is somewhat similar to John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK): for example, high angle shots of hordes of zombies stalking their way down a nighttime street empty of living inhabitants.
Of course, this polished sheen is at odd with the almost hand-made aesthetic of the original NIGHT, but Romero puts it to good use. Despite the perception of him (in some snooty critical circles) as nothing but a purveyor of graphic violence, he shows considerable skill at putting his studio-bought tools to good use, creating some memorably frightening images that have nothing to do with gore. Most memorable of these are the shots of the zombie army arising from beneath the black surface of a river at night. Horror films are often about crossing boundaries, and in this case the boundary is literal (the river has till now kept the undead out of the human city). The scene plays like a literal visualization of Freud’s dictum about the “Return of the Repressed” – horrible truths we would rather forget come back to us as nightmares. This kind of genuine shudder is almost completely lacking from contemporaneous zombie films like RESIDENT EVIL and the 2004 DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. (Only director Danny Boyle achieved a similar effect with 28 DAYS LATER.)
Unfortunately, LAND OF THE DEAD found itself released into a radically different climate from the one that faced DAY in 1985. The ensuing decades have seen a flood of zombie imitators and remakes (including Romero’s own 1990 rewrite of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, directed by Tom Savini), and mainstream movies have become increasingly violent (watch out for those bisected bodies in Paul Verhoven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS). In 1999, Steven Spielberg even managed to legitimize graphic violence (including severed heads and other atrocities) in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, a film that earned an R-rating (not to mention some Oscars), in spite of being every bit as loaded with blood as Romero’s 1979 breakthrough blood-letting opus DAWN OF THE DEAD (which had to go out unrated, in order to avoid the MPAA’s then X-rating, which allowed only people over 17 to see the film).
In short, there was no way that LAND OF THE DEAD could ever have aspired to be a landmark in the way that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD were. (A similar problem faced DAY OF THE DEAD, which was likewise seen as a disappointment because it broke little new ground, even though it was in fact of very high quality.) Fortunately, that does not stop LAND from being an excellent new chapter in the (hopefully) on-going DEAD franchise. Like the hapless heroes at the end of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, Romero’s characters are last seen loading into a vehicle and setting off for a new and (hopefully) greener pasture, even though there is little reason to believe they will be successful in their quest. With any luck, Romero will get a chance to show us what happens to them next.
Tom Savini, who supplied makeup for DAWN OF THE DEAD and played the role of Blade, a biker shot to death during the film’s climax, shows up in a cameo as a zombie – apparently playing the same character, now back from the dead, complete with the machete he had wielded in DAWN.
Also seen as cameo zombies (in the scene with the photo-booth that allows humans to snap their picture with one of the undead) are Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright from SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Not only did SHAUN’s title deliberately echo Romero’s original DAWN OF THE DEAD; the soundtrack for SHAUN also included a piece of music recorded by the rock group Goblin for the DAWN soundtrack.
Leading lady Asia Argento is the daughter of Italian horror director Dario Argento, who helped finance DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979), Romero�s second living dead opus.
On the director’s cut DVD audio commentary, George Romero explains that he used the old black-and-white Universal Pictures logo at the beginning of the film for two reasons. One was that the opening of the film is in black-and-white (suggesting a flashback as exposition about the history of the living dead phenomenon plays out in montage beneath the credits). The other reason Romero gives is that he has fond memories of seeing the Universal logo on classic Val Lewton horror films. Actually, Lewton�s low-budget B-movies were made at RKO Pictures, which also had a logo featuring a globe: the difference is that the RKO logo featured a giant antenna atop the North Pole; the Universal logo featured an airplane circling the globe in geo-stationary orbit. Also, this logo dates from the 1930s; Lewton’s films were made in the 1940s, so even if he had been at Universal, his work would have had a different Universal logo on them.
Because it was released by Universal Pictures, a major Hollywood distributor, LAND OF THE DEAD was the first Romero-directed zombie film to be cut down to receive an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. On DVD, the film is available in two versions: the R-rated theatrical cut and un unrated “director’s cut.” The R-rated version includes these bonus features:
- UNDEAD AGAIN: THE MAKING OF LAND OF THE DEAD (behind-the-scenes stuff)
- A DAY WITH THE LIVING DEAD (a personal tour with John Leguizamo)
- THE REMAINING BITS (deleted scenes)
- FEATURE COMMENTARY (by George A. Romero, Peter Grunwald, and Michael Daughtery)
- WHEN SHAUN MET GEORGE (Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, have some fun while filming their cameos)
The unrated version contains some additional exclusive features:
- BRINGING THE DEAD TO LIFE (a look at the makeup effects)
- BRINGING THE STORYBOARDS TO LIFE (a comparison of planning to the actual film)
- ZOMBIE EFFECTS: FROM GREEN SCREEN TO FINISHED SCENE (shows how computer generated imagery created some of the zombie effects)
- SCENES OF CARNAGE (a music video)
- SCREAM TEST: ZOMBIE CASTING CALL (real-life and CGI zombies on parade)
The director’s cut DVD features some extra gore, but its impact is minimal. Mostly, the additional bloodshed takes the form of slightly longer, lingering shots or footage in which the computer-generated grue has been enhanced or restored. Only a handful of new shots are included (such as a brief one in which make-up expert Greg Nicotero plays a victims whose eye seems to be bitten out by a zombie). Overall, this new footage is not obviously apparent unless you’ve memorized the theatrical cut. Perhaps watching the film at home undercuts the intensity, resulting in a kind of balancing act, with the more explicit footage seeming to have about the same effect on the small screen as the trimmed version had on the big screen.
The major difference between the two cuts is the addition of a missing scene near the beginning of the film, wherein Cholo (John Leguizamo) finds the body of a man who committed suicide inside a condominium in the city’s ultra-rich high rise complex, and must deal with the ugly situation despite the man’s wife and son, who do not want to believe that their loved one will come back as a zombie. Although not strictly necessary, the scene demonstrates that even inside the comfy interior of the protected city’s upper class, death still comes, and it does not require a zombie bit to make one return from the dead. In the DVD audio commentary, Romero explains that the scene was cut to speed up the pacing of the first act; editor Michael Daughtery adds that the scene was recut and improved before being restored to the director’s cut.
Besides writer-director Romero and editor Daughtery, the audio commentary also features producer Peter Grunwald. It’s mildly entertaining and informative, but one senses that Romero would rather let the film’s political subtext speak for itself rather than spelling it out; mostly, he and the others talk about how cold it was to shoot on location, which required some CGI work in post-production to remove zombie breath vapor from the shots (working on the theory that zombies, being dead, do not have warm breath that would condense in the night air).
In fact, CGI emerges as something of an unsung hero in the film. The film features 300 computer-generated shots, mostly used for minor enhancements: removing unwanted street lights from the background, inserting fog, enhancing the gore, or in some cases diminishing the gore by darkening the color of blood from red to black, in order to get an R-rating for the theatrical release.
Perhaps the most personal Romero ever gets is when one of his co-commentators mentions being disappointed that the implied attraction between the male and female leads (played by Simon Baker and Asia Argento) never pays off in an obvious way. “I resent that,” Romero responds, explaining that this kind of formula romance is a “pet peeve of mine. [...] In horror films, there’s always time…to go into the next room and mess around. I don’t think people behave that way in crises.”
As for the other supplemental features on the DVD…
“Undead Again: Making LAND OF THE DEAD” is a twelve-minute promotional puff piece mixing B-roll type footage from the set with some fairly interesting interviews. Romero briefly discusses the political subtext of the movie, followed by snippets with Argento, Baker, Leguizamo, and Nicotero, plus Dennis Hopper, Eugene Clarke (who plays zombie leader Big Daddy), and long-time Romero cohort Tom Savini (who has a brief cameo as a zombie). Overall, it�s an adequate glimpse behind the scenes, but by its very nature it cannot paint a complete picture of the making of the film.
“A Day With the Living Dead” features John Leguizamo giving a behind-the-scenes tour of the set. The actor gives the brief featurette a brash and sometimes tastelessly funny edge (at one point, he sticks his tongue into the mouth of a female zombie puppet). Intercut with a ton of gore footage, there are lots of laughs as he spews out profanity left and right.
“Bringing the Dead to Life” provides a look at the makeup work of Greg Nicotero. It�s not at all in-depth: it does provide some interesting glimpses at the more outrageous gore effects, but it never comes close to explaining or justifying the claim that these zombies are beyond anything seen in any previous zombie film. On the plus side, Romero tells the story of first meeting Nicotero (then young boy) while in Italy, working on the script for DAWN OF THE DEAD. On the negative side, there is much discussion of one of the film’s best (a zombie appears to be decapitated until he his body lunges forward and his head, which was actually dangling behind his back on a flap of neck skin, snaps into place) without acknowledging that Nicotero’s attempt to achieve this live on-set was replaced in post-production by a computer-generated version.
“The Remaining Bits” consists of brief deleted footage, mostly snippets and isolates shots rather than complete scenes. There is one nice moment when two guards are making out. While the man is distracted by the sounds of a zombie down the end of an alley, his girlfriend his grabbed by some other zombies and replaced by a living dead female, who bites him on the face when he turns to resume the embrace. It’s a good gag but perhaps a bit too overtly comical (maybe Romero will let Pegg and Wright use the scene if they ever make a sequel to SHAUN OF THE DEAD).
“When Shaun Met George” is a sort of video diary by Wright and Pegg, detailing their trip from England to meet Romero and make their cameo appearance as zombies. It�s worth seeing once, but the idea is more amusing than the execution; still, the pair display a delightfully fannish enthusiasm over their chance to meet and work with zombie-king Romero.
“Scenes of Carnage” is a short montage of lingering gore shots (much longer than scene even in the unrated cut) set to classical music. The audio-visual contrast is striking but a tad obvious; still, this music video is brief enough not to wear out its welcome.
“Zombie Effects: From Green Screen to Finished Scene” offers up before-and-after glimpses of many of the film�s optical effects, showing them with and without the computer-generated imagery used to fill in the green screen backgrounds used on the sets. The comparisons are truly impressive, giving a good idea of how well the computer effects were used to enhance the film, often in subtle and unobtrusive ways. (Despite the title of this brief featurette, many of the effects have nothing to do with zombies, instead being establishing shots that use matte paintings to enhance the location filming.)
“Bringing Storyboards to Life” shows comparisons of the storyboards with the finished scenes. A few are done before-and-after style, with the storyboards shown first, followed by footage from the film. More interesting are the simultaneous comparisons, with the storyboards shown in the upper left corner of the screen with the film runs in the lower right. Unfortunately, there is no commentary or narration to provide any context for these comparisons, so they do not truly give us any insight into the creative process.
“Zombie Casting Call,” the final bonus feature, is a bit feeble, being just a piece of crude test footage of a line of zombies (looking less detailed than videogame characters from twenty years ago) making repetitive motion in synch with each other. The addition of a little simple rhythmic music on the soundtrack is supposed to give the impression of a zombie chorus line, but the humor value is minimal.
LAND OF THE DEAD (Universal, 2005). Written and directed by George A. Romero. Cast: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark.