Dawn of the Dead/Land of the Dead: Collector’s Editions

Studio: Scream Factory

Oct 31, 2017 Web Exclusive
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It’s strange to think that in 2017, we’re still living through the zombie boom of the early aughts. Like the War on Terror or eighties nostalgia, zombies have been trending for the better part of two decades and show no signs of stopping. The spark that lit the fuse was Danny Boyle’s 2001 surprise hit 28 Days Later and by the middle of the decade, filmmakers began reaching back to the work of the man who started it all. It’s likely that no filmmaker is more singularly responsible for an entire sub-genre than George A. Romero is with regards to the zombie film. With his 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, Romero invented the very concept of the zombie as we know it today - shambling flesh-eaters who transform their victims via bites and can only be killed by destroying their brains - and married it to a searing parable of race relations and civic unrest. With two sequels - Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and Day of the Dead in 1985 - Romero broadened the scope of his gore and violence while continuing to comment on the consumer culture of the seventies and the rise in militarism during the eighties. In 2005, he would return to the genre he created for a fourth time with Land of the Dead. But not before his most popular film would undergo one of the most dreaded fates in all of cinema: the Hollywood remake.

Released in March of 2004, Dawn of the Dead is best remembered for three reasons: being the directorial debut of DCEU architect and walking internet argument Zack Snyder, its tour-de-force opening sequence, and receiving positive reviews from fans despite being a remake of one of the most beloved cult films of all time. Early buzz was negative when word spread that the film would utilize the fast berserker zombies popularized by 28 Days Later rather than the traditional shuffling corpses of Romero’s original films. Any such complaints would be obliterated by Dawn’s first ten minutes, which remain the most thrilling depiction of an initial zombie outbreak ever committed to film. Following Anna, a young nurse played by Sarah Polley, the film’s opening sequence packs the entire fall of civilization into one woman’s uniquely terrible morning. The carnage is both massive - the helicopter shot of Anna’s suburb falling into chaos - and intimate - the propulsive fall Polley (or more likely, her stunt double) takes through the shower curtain is one of the more visceral stunts in a film full of them - roping the audience in before smash-cutting to a credit sequence of news footage set to Johnny Cash’s haunting late-career hit, “When the Man Comes Around.”

Right from the start, Snyder would develop a habit of not being able to top his opening credits sequence; see Watchmen for the other major example. Several of the film’s biggest problems are baked into the script, written by a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy James Gunn. Beyond a third act plot mechanic that's both monstrously dumb and completely unnecessary, Gunn forgoes the tight four-person dynamic of the original in favor of a diluted ensemble of roughly a dozen characters. Polley and her male counterpart - played by Jake Weber - are naturalistic enough to bring some emotional heft to their stock roles, but most of the other characters struggle to overcome cliche. There are several standouts, including Ving Rhames as a taciturn cop and a pre-Modern Family Ty Burrell as an obnoxious yuppie, but the only character given an arc of any kind is Michael Kelly’s overbearing mall cop CJ, who grows from an authoritarian asshole to a grudgingly helpful asshole. Many of the other principles are just there to be zombie fodder or create problems.

Despite some larger issues, Gunn’s script still has some worthwhile character beats and he’s smart enough to leaven his bloody life-or-death scenarios with his trademark sense of humor. After nearly eight years of the hand-wringing, faux-intellectual slog that is The Walking Dead, a zombie film with gore, drama and laughs feels downright quaint. Snyder shoots the proceedings in sickly yellow and green hues, which feels appropriate, although even at this early stage, his love of unnecessary slow-motion begins to rear its ugly head. Nothing drops you out of a tightly paced action scene quicker than fifteen full seconds of a shotgun shell ejecting and hitting the ground.

Compared to Snyder’s grimy slickness and post-Michael Bay editing, Romero’s Land of the Dead has the classical vibe of an old 1950’s western, with some Mad Max-style scavengers vs. the shuffling undead standing in for the old cowboys vs. natives dynamic. The film even begins with the 1930’s Universal logo, harkening back to the days when the studio invented Hollywood horror. The continuity of Romero’s Living Dead films is loose at best - Night and Dawn take place days apart despite the obvious shift from sixties to seventies as far as clothes and hair go - but Land ditches the ‘immediate post-outbreak’ milieu of typical zombie films for a look at the world a full generation after the undead have risen. In a walled-off, feudal version of Pittsburgh, future Mentalist star Simon Baker plays Riley, the commander of an armored truck with the awesome name of Dead Reckoning. He and his crew are tasked with pillaging supplies from zombie infested suburban and rural areas in order to keep the city fed. However, most of the supplies end up in the hands of Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman, a ruthless businessman who - along with other wealthy elites - lords over the slums from a luxury high-rise called Fiddler’s Green. When Riley’s second-in-command steals Dead Reckoning and threatens to turn it against the city, Riley finds himself caught between the rich and the poor as well as the living and the dead.

It’s easy to guess that this was Romero’s first Living Dead film in two decades. Land of the Dead is stuffed with more characters and ideas than it’s ninety-seven minute runtime can comfortably contain. Although it’s set in a fully realized post-apocalyptic society reminiscent of 80’s classics like Escape From New York and The Road Warrior, Romero grounds the film in the ills of America during the first years of the new millennium. Although their are references to ‘jihads’ and ‘not negotiating with terrorists’ that feel stilted and dated, Land of the Dead’s thematic core eerily presages the financial collapse of 2008. There’s a clear ‘haves and have-nots’ storyline going on among the human characters, but Romero’s sympathy for his flesh-eating hordes - beginning with the pathetic mall zombies in Dawn and the nearly verbal Bub of Day - becomes full blow hero-worship in Land. Led by Big Daddy, an undead gas station attendant played by Eugene Clark, the zombie hordes rally and inexorably make their way toward the decadent, rotten heart of human excess that is Fiddler’s Green. By the time they overrun it in a sequence that would make Sergei Eisenstein proud, you can practically hear Romero shouting “the undead will seize the means of production!"

On a scene to scene basis, Land of the Dead alternates between satisfying old school zombie shenanigans and stilted character work. There’s an odd disconnect created by Romero working with recognizable actors for the first time in the Living Dead series. In addition to Baker and Hopper, the film stars Asia Argento - daughter of Romero’s friend and Italian counterpart Dario Argento - as the female lead and John Leguizamo as Cholo, Riley’s second-in-command. Despite his unfortunate character name, Leguizamo walks away with the movie, lending Cholo enough blue-collar frustration and anti-hero swagger to make you wish he was the lead rather than Baker. Although the writing and acting aren’t always top shelf, Romero has that old-school knack for creating fun characters with little more than a cool name and a sharp eye for casting. Asia Argento’s badass hooker (named Slack), a giant Samoan bodyguard (named Pillsbury) and a pair of female scavengers (Motown and Pretty Boy) are all more fun in practice than they are on paper.

Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray editions of Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead port over all the special features from previous DVD releases as well as a some new supplements. Dawn features new interviews with the now famous Ty Burrell and James Gunn and Land features new retrospectives with John Leguizamo as well as Eugene Clark and the other actors playing the principal zombies. The best special feature is an old one though; a video diary by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the director and star of Shaun of the Dead, the Romero comedy homage which became a classic in its own right the year Land of the Dead went into production. Asked by Romero himself to play featured zombie extras in his newest film, Wright and Pegg recorded their star-struck experience in a charmingly goofy short documentary that looks like something a pair of talented high school seniors would turn in as a final project. It’s a nice reminder that, for all the gore and social relevance, these movies are still a lot of fun, and a lovely tribute to Romero, who’s absence will be felt in the years and zombie films to come.




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