Is Scream Factory's Land Of the Dead Actually an Upgrade? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Land Of the Dead is the fourth film in George Romero's historic Dead films.  It came out in theaters in 2005 and was released on DVD later that year, later hitting blu-ray in 2008.  So Scream Factory's brand new blu-ray edition, due to be released on Halloween, will actually be the film's second blu-ray release in the United States.  In addition to all new special features, they announced that their release will be a new 2k scan of the interpositive.  Great, right?  Well, the scuttlebutt surrounding this release is that despite being shot on film, it was completed digitally... because, after all, it's full of digital special effects.  And the 2008 blu was struck from that digital intermediate.  But to play the film in theaters, the DI was struck back to film, creating an IP that was then used to make prints.  So if Scream made a new scan of the IP, they'd actually be using a generation further removed and therefore of inherently lesser quality than the 2008 blu, presumably just for the sake of being able to announce "new 2k scan!" to fans who don't know any better.

...But is all of that accurate?  The theory sounds right based on what we know, but it still relies on speculation and presumption.  Do we know for a fact, for example, that the Universal blu was taken from the DI and not the IP, or are we just assuming?  And one interesting detail is that while all of Scream's announcements (on Facebook, their store website, etc) have clearly said "interpositive," the case itself repeatedly says "internegative."  But really, the best way to know which blu-ray came out better is to look carefully at both of them and see for ourselves.  And, well, you know; I've been known to do things like that before...
If you've never even seen Land Of the Dead, well, I reckon you should if you're a horror fan.  Yeah, it's got a decidedly lesser reputation compared to the previous films in the series.  But then again, Day of the Dead enjoyed a pretty similar lesser reputation until being reappraised by fans and critics alike in more recent years.  And I think Land is due for a similar reevaluation; and Scream Factory including it in their collection may be the first sign of that happening.  I mean, for all the Walking Deads and Zombie Flesh Eaters we've had over the decades, this is the original, core zombie series that started it all, written and directed by the man himself.  Then, will we see the same thing happen for Romero's final two films, Diary and Survival, a few further years down the road?  Well, let's not go crazy.  But really, I think Land deserves more credit than it gets.
Not that I don't get the criticism.  First of all, some of the digital effects are a little wonky.  Romero's dead films are famous for having some of the greatest, cutting edge horror effects in the genre.  ...Up until this one.  There is still a ton of fantastic practical effects, but the digital blood and crazier CGI moments don't entirely blend in with the rest of the film.

And even more critical than the effects, the story is, well, awfully ambitious.  I mean, this is the only film set in the series that basically takes place in a sci-fi future.  Okay, technically you could say Day of the Dead has to be set a couple years ahead of the present in order to be able to say that half the world's already been overrun by zombies.  But it's basically contemporary people dealing with the situation the way contemporary people would.  But Land imagines a whole new, future society that's developed after the world as we know it has crumbled.  And that's taking a big risk with a series that got most of its strength by tackling a supernatural horror in the most credible, authentic way possible.  The original Night Of the Living Dead was the most powerful "what would it be like if this unnatural horror actually happened to us in the real world right now?" that had ever been made up to that point.
Meanwhile, Land sets a scene in an underground saloon where Asia Argento is dressed in black leather wrestling two zombies in a cage match scored with Spanish rap music, while our other heroes have a shootout with a midget pimp dressed in purple shouting "they ruined my suit!"  One of the soldiers rides a skateboard in every single scene.  At this stage, the tone of the series has veered dangerously close to Escape From LA; so I can see why fans shunned this entry.  But if you can get past the most egregious moments, this film is actually pretty effective, both as a compelling zombie story with good, if not so subtle, social commentary, and in delivering genuinely atmospheric horror that also never skimps on the goods.  For the most part, it plays far straighter than Escape From NY, let alone LA.
Land's got a pretty great cast including Dennis Hopper, Simon Baker The Mentalist, John Leguizamo who can be quite over the top but here gets it just right, and even Tom Savini, bringing back his character from Dawn Of the Dead for a cool cameo.  The score's effective, the film's shot really well, and George was finally able to bring his Dead Reckoning dream to life.  The story gives us a nice follow-through on the set-up of Bud from Day Of the Dead, and if you just want to see cool zombie kills, Greg Nicotero (who also has a cameo... in fact, this film is laden with cameos) and Howard Berger do their damnedest.  I guess this is one of those films like Halloween 3 or Hellraiser 3, where you have to let go of your expectations from the previous films in their series to appreciate; but if you can just do that, it's hard to imagine anyone not having a good time with this sequel.
A shot only in the theatrical cut.
Now, you may've noticed that Scream's new release is a 2-disc set.  That's not just because it's overflowing with extras (although it is), but because they've included two different cuts of the film: the R-rated theatrical version (92.54 minutes long) and the unrated director's cut (96.48 minutes long).  You might be wondering why anybody would bother with the shorter cut version.  Well, that's because the difference between the two versions amounts to more than just extra CGI blood squirts and extra frames of gut munching.  There are substantial changes made between the two edits, and not only does the unrated version also have extra lines of dialogue and a whole, long dramatic scene where Leguizamo fights a zombie in a high-rise, but the theatrical cut also has some alternative shots and tiny pieces not seen in the unrated version.  It can be rather confusing, and movie-censorship.com has even created two distinctly different comparisons of alternate Land Of the Dead cuts (here and here).  I carefully checked both, and can say that the latter is the one that accurately reflects the two different cuts on the Scream set, while the other changes seem to be unique to the old, R-rated DVD.  So anyway, certainly the unrated version is the one you want to watch, but there's good reason to preserve both, and good on Scream for doing so.
A scene only in the unrated cut.
And alright, now I'll finally stop beating around the bush and get into comparing the blu-ray releases.  I've also still got the original, widescreen unrated DVD, so I'll throw that one into the mix, too.  So we've got Universal's 2005 DVD, their 2008 blu (which also consists of the unrated director's cut), and both versions on Scream Factory's 2017 blu-ray set.  Both of Scream's transfers are taken from their new 2k scan of the internegative; but their unrated cut required HD inserts, because they weren't part of what played in theaters.  The shot above this paragraph, of Leguizamo and the butler, is one of those inserts, so you can see how it compares to the internegative shots below.
1) Universal DVD 2) Universal blu 3) SF theatrical blu 4) SF unrated blu.
So, the framing (2.35:1), color timing, etc is pretty much identical across the board.  Maybe the new transfer is a smidgen cooler.  Anyway, except for the inserts, addressed above, the two Scream Factory transfers are taken from the same source; but I threw them both in to be thorough.  Interestingly, even though the shot appears in both cuts, they seemed to use different sources for the second set of shots above.  Watching this on a large (65") TV, though, I didn't notice the "seams" between between the newly scanned footage and the inserts at all.  The biggest difference in quality is of course the DVD, which naturally has a blurrier look.  Detail was definitely smudged off by the standard definition compression, which the Universal blu did a fine job of restoring, without any noticeable flaws like DNR or artificial edge enhancement.  But what about detail between that and the Scream blus?  That's what we really care about.  And, well, especially looking at the second shot there, I have to say the Scream blu looks sharper, with maybe a little extra detail drawn out of the heavy shadows.  Let's zoom in for a close-up.
Universal blu left; unrated Scream Factory right.
Scream's transfer is definitely grainier.  That could be because it's a better scan, or just due to the fact that they used a more filmic source.  Or a combination of the two.  I'm not sure if we're actually getting any new detail (though the added grain makes it look that way), but we certainly haven't lost any, like we were worried about happening.  The grain may be somewhat deceptive, but to my eye, all the edges seem sharper and clearer on the new discs.  In fact, you could maybe argue Scream over-sharpened a tad.  Make your own call, but I (slightly) prefer it, and at any rate I'm super relieved it's not the downgrade I was fearing.

By the way, the audio options keep shifting with this flick.  The DVD gave us the choice subtle choice between DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks, with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.  Then the 2008 blu-ray dropped the Dolby, just giving us the DTS 5.1 in HD, along with the same subtitles and a Spanish dub.  And now Scream Factory gives us the DTS-HD 5.1 track plus a new DTS-HD 2.0 stereo mix, as well as English subs.  Is the stereo mix how it played theatrically and the 5.1 mixes were revisionist on home video maybe?  Curious.
Universal's releases were already pretty swagged out with goodies, including probably the most important extra, a George Romero audio commentary (also with producer Peter Grunwald and editor Michael Doherty).  There are a few momentary lapses of dead air, but for the most part, it's everything you want it to be.  There are also a whole bunch of featurettes (Undead Again: The Making Of Land Of the Dead, A Day With the Living Dead, Bringing the Dead To Life, When Shaun Met George - a fun behind-the-scenes look at a cameo by the stars of Shaun Of the Dead, which was still pretty new at the time - Scenes Of Carnage, which is just a skippable montage of gory scenes from the film, Zombie Effects: From Green Screen To Finished Scene, Bringing the Storyboards To Life and Scream Tests: Zombie Casting Call), that range from fifteen to as short as one minute.  There's also a few brief deleted scenes and bonus trailers, including one for a Land Of the Dead video game.  The blu-ray converted a couple of those features into picture-in-picture commentary with their funky U-Control gimmick, which is slightly annoying, but it's all the same stuff on either release.  The DVD also came in a nice slip cover.
Road To Fiddler's Green, the Land Of the Dead video game trailer.
Scream Factory has carried over all of that, even the stupid Scenes of Carnage montage (though not the video game trailer).  And they've also added plenty more.  There's now an additional audio commentary by four zombie extras (Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures, plus Matt Blazi, Gleena Chao and Rob Mayr... I haven't listened to this one yet; I'll get back to you guys.  It's okay.  Very self-indulgent.  It would've made a great featurette, but they don't have enough to say to fill 97 minutes) and the additional television documentary, Dream of the Dead, which Roy Frumkes, director of the original Document Of the Dead, shot for the Independent Film Channel to promote the film.  This is apparently a slightly altered "director's cut" of the doc as opposed to what originally aired on television, that runs about twenty-five minutes and also includes its own collection of deleted scenes and audio commentary by Frumkes.  It's a great addition that nicely ties Land to the previous Dead films.

Then you've got new on-camera interviews with actors John Leguizamo, Robert Joy who played Charlie, Pedro Miguel Arce and a featurette that edits together interviews additional cast members Eugene Clarke, Jennifer Baxter, Boyd Banks and Jasmin Geljo.  Disappointingly, Baker and Argento gave this blu a miss; but Leguizamo was a good get.  Anyway, there's also a new photo gallery, the original theatrical trailer (surprisingly absent from the Universal discs), and a cool slip cover.  Scream's release also features reversible artwork and includes a poster if you order it directly from their site (and it's rolled; they stopped folding them!).
So at the end of the day, I'd say yes, Scream Factory's Land Of the Dead is an upgrade.  The picture quality isn't exactly a huge leap forward, but I prefer it, and it's at worst a tie.  Then factor in all the new special features, especially Frumkes' stuff, plus the nod to purists by including theatrical cut, and it's definitely the best version to get.  And as I say, I hope it leads to some favorable reevaluations of Land itself.  But if you're not a super fan or on a bit of a budget, the Universal blu isn't much worse and can be found super cheap these days.  There's even a double-disc edition that pairs it up with the Dawn Of the Dead remake if you like that one.  You can get either one used online for next to nothing these days.  So you decide which version is best for you, but I have to say I've been enjoying this new set.

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