Trivia There were three titles before Land of the Dead was chosen: Dead City, Dead Reckoning and Night of the Living Dead: Dead Reckoning.
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George A. Romero's Land of the Dead (2005)
20th Oct 05
The dead are taking over the world and a small group of human survivors have holed up in a fortified 'city' called Fiddler's Green, run by Kaufman, a ruthless opportunist who has his hand in everything from real estate to illegal gambling dens. Meanwhile the dead are evolving and learning how to communicate. Slowly they organise themselves into an army, and begin walking towards the city...
Romero's back. The zombie-master has returned. The man who delivered us the shocking Night of the Living Dead way back in 1968, before moving on to complete his trilogy with Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and Day of the Dead in 1985...
Oh sod that, you’re not reading this review for more original ‘dead’ trilogy reappraisals and genre originator history yadda yadda. Romero rocks. You know that. All you really want to know now is whether Land of the Dead is any good. You want to know if it is still gory with a 15 certificate. You want to know if the zombies are still scary, whether it’s as good as last year's remake of Dawn of the Dead, and lastly, you want to know whether Land is a worthy fourth chapter to the zombie series to end all zombie series.
Well, the answers to those questions are yes, yes, some of them, not quite and most definitely. To those of you who are going in to Land of the Dead with nervous expectations, let me assure you that Romero (unlike a certain other director who returned to his ‘original trilogy’ with the Fandom Menace) has not dropped the ball with this revisit to the films that made his name.
Just as Dawn was a more polished update to Night (it's in colour for a start!), and Day showed a similar progression from Dawn, Land is a logical evolution to the series, both in script and it’s filming style, and goddamnit, it’s probably Romero’s finest commercial work to date, and that's a good thing. No custard pies in your face with this one...
After a snappy credits sequence (a scene-setting voiceover with fleeting silver-toned images of rotting flesh; think Se7en but with zombies) we are treated to our first view of KNB’s new zombies, including ‘lead’ zombie Big Daddy. Admittedly fears may arise at the sight of ‘brass band’ zombies, but thankfully our attention is diverted from the undead as we are introduced to Riley (Simon Baker), the head of a hardened group of mercenaries, and Cholo (John Leguizamo), his second-in-command. They are currently on their latest (and last, of course) retrieval mission to gather supplies in their truck, Dead Reckoning, a veritable fortress of a vehicle that would have Battle Truck pissing itself with oil in fright.
Accompanying Riley is Charlie (Robert Joy), a half-burned human survivor who owes Riley his life, and has a habit of licking his rifle sights. Nervously, but with military precision, the mercenaries gather supplies (including alcohol of course) in the heart of zombie-land until one person gets bitten. This new Land of the Dead is all too familiar to these characters and all the rules are known. If you get bitten, you die. Either by your own hands or your best friend. It’s the only choice you have left.
Supplies collected, the team head back home, blasting and running over endless zombies as they travel back to the small enclosed city run by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). As the recent supply run was the last job for both Riley and Cholo, both separate to follow their own plans to escape their current life; Riley off to buy a car to drive North to "a world without fences" whilst Cholo heads off to see boss Kaufman who has promised him a life of luxury after three years of ‘dirty’ work.
Bung in Asia Argento as a prostitute looking for redemption and a Samoan SWAT team member, and the scene is set for a final showdown as the zombies slowly begin to rediscover their intelligence. Zombie Big Daddy (who managed to steal a gun in the initial opening raid) is starting to put a dead 2 and 2 together to make a dead 4, and you just know things are going to go rotten-fruit-shaped as he slowly gathers a following of fellow zombie and begins leading an attack on the protected human city.
With (mostly) sharp characterisation, a subtle social commentary script and a whole horde of both make-up and CGI zombies, Land of the Dead may not quite be up there with the first three films after an initial first viewing, but it comes damn close. It has unfortunately got to be said, that one of the main problems of the film are the zombies themselves. With some of them looking quite plastic in appearance (cameras must linger on 'slow' zombies), the army of living dead in Land are not quite as good as the ones in either Day, or even the Italian Fulci films, and in today’s climate of quick zombies, well, they do seem a bit, er, slow. Having said that though, the variety of zombies in this film is enormous and for every two that look rubbish (I’m thinking Big Daddy, the meat cleaver zombie etc here) there’s usually one that looks jaw-droppingly (in some cases literally) amazing.
Zombie perfectionist moans (sorry) aside, Land of the Dead fires on most cylinders, first and foremost the main cast. John Leguizamo is as great as ever, and with his appearance here and in the recent Precinct 13 remake, he is carving out a name for himself on the very bedrock of Hollywood's pavements. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Australian-born Simon Baker in the lead role, calmly conveying both assurance and resignation, he convinces as the lone roguish, yet sympathetic ‘hero’ fighting for whatever good there may be left in a world.
The best lines though (and possibly performance) go to Robert Joy (The Dark Half) as Charlie, the half-burned, half-zombie-looking human who would happily lay down his life for Riley. Riley and Charlie’s friendship grounds the film in a world where often the biggest dangers come not from the zombies, but the double-crossing and greedy schemes of men.
Asia Argento looks as great as ever, whether it be trapped in a cage fighting two zombies in 'Sin City' (a kind of Thunderdome where sex, drinking and gambling are permitted – every post-apocalyptic movie requires one) or firing her machine guns on Dead Reckoning’s final mission, but she does feel underused and underdeveloped. As does Dennis Hopper, who uses his limited time to give a subdued performance that will work for some, but not all. He probably gets the best laugh of the film too, for his ‘mistake’ of an action at 12.01…
There are many great standout set pieces too. The scene of the zombies rising from the water is chilling (and far better than a similar scene in the awful Nazi zombie film Shock Waves), Charlie and Asia getting to know (and trust) each other with some near ear-shattering gunshot play is a delight and pretty much any scene involving Dead Reckoning as it shoots, blasts, squashes and mashes anything that gets in its path.
The gore in the film is good, including several ‘cheer’ moments such as the belly button piercing, severed heads, hands in mouths and a great grenade death. There are a few cameos to watch out for, from Tom Savini’s appearance (is that Blades from Dawn?) and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright who appear as the two ‘Take a Picture with..’ zombies at the beginning of the Sin City scene.
Romero handles the script well, fusing subtle social commentary layers with (mostly) believable character development and political undertones. This is his universe, his mythology, and he knows it well, and if he says that you can distract zombies with fireworks then who are we to argue. Adapting our current trends, Romero looks at our existing society in turmoil, the threat of terrorism and he raises the matter of the haves, the have-nots and the have-mores. It’s fairly obvious that Fiddler’s Green stands for the USA (laid out like a triangle, two of it's sides are bordered by water), and states quite clearly that internal issues are as much of a danger to the security of the city than any outside threat.
As a director, Romero is on fine form too. The action is well handled, although sometimes allowances have to be made as victims do sometimes have a habit of standing still whilst being attacked to accommodate for the ‘slower’ type of zombie munching. That aside, the visuals (shot by DP Miroslaw Baszak) are impressive, generally shot with a steely resolve that belies it's relative low-budget.
If the film feels a bit light at the end, it’s probably because it all hasn’t quite sunk in yet (although it is fair to say that the ending is somewhat anticlimactic – we’ll wait and see if it actually does lead to Romero’s recent wish to make a couple more films featuring some of the characters). It may not be quite as good as Night, Dawn or Day, although time and repeated viewing (and it does lend itself to repeated viewing) may well yet prove this to be a classic.
As a zombie film in itself though, you can now forget the brain-dead adventures of films such as Resident Evil and Return of the Living Dead 4 and 5. Romero’s rolled back into town, and he’s brought with him the thinking man’s zombie movie, man. An enjoyable cast, a cool script, much zombie-blasting and real (human?) food for thought that may take a few days to fully digest.
It may not be perfect, and it may lead to some amount of nitpicking from 'dead'icated zombie fans, but at the end of the Day, George is finally back doing what he does best; zombie movies, so let’s all moan our approval at that.
Versions The R1 Unrated disc, available now from Rogue Pictures, is the only way to go. It's 4 mins longer than the cinematic print (reviewed above) and, Ladies and Gentlemen, it's all gore. Plus, it's some of the most gruesome gore we've ever seen, which may raise the movie's rating for some of you out there.
The extras on the Unrated Disc are as follows:
Undead Again: The Making of Featurette
It's a bit Romero kiss-ass, but then again you knew that was going to be the case. Romero exudes his usual air of amazement at his own legendary status, Asia Argento admits that her upbringing means she's right at home around zombies, and John Leguizamo talks rubbish. Overall though, everyone just looks honoured to be involved, which is nice.
Bringing the Dead to Life - makeup effects hosted by artist Greg Nicotero
Greg is from Pittsburgh and met George when he was a kid, over 25 years ago. Now he's the world leader in zombie SFX, and this doc shows tonnes of footage from the KNB studio warehouse showing how it's all done.
Scenes of Carnage
Short piece of classical music played over a very gory munching scene. Weird
Zombie Effects: From Green Screen to Finished Scene
This is an amazing montage of before/after shots showing how conventional effects can be spiced up with a bit of CG, with the viewers being none the wiser.
Bringing Storyboards to Life
How do you make a good film? Stick to the storyboards, as this documentary shows.
A Day With The Living Dead - first call to wrap
John Leguizamo embarrases himself again by taking his latino homeboy routine around the set.
The Remaining Bits - deleted scenes
Although they're not very interesting except for the zombie snog sequence, which was perhaps a bit too tongue-in-cheek (get it?) to make it into the film.
George lets us in on all those behind the scene secrets.
When Shaun Met George - stars from Shaun of the Dead goof around with cast and crew from Land of the Dead.
And they look generally chuffed to be there, a bit like us on the Shaun of the Dead set. Ahhhh...