Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!

Horror trends come and go, but for the past decade, zombies have been where it’s at. We’ve had fast zombies (the 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead), slow zombies (Land Of The Dead), funny zombies (Zombieland), English zombies (Shaun Of The Dead), rabid zombies (28 Days Later, REC, Quarantine), even lovelorn zombies (Warm Bodies). With over 16 million viewers for last Sunday’s season premiere of The Walking Dead (with its new addition to the canon, the “fall-through-the-ceiling zombie”), it’s clear that we haven’t gotten our fill of the shambling undead and two new but very different Blu-Ray releases — one a $200-milion production that spans the globe, the other a nearly-thirty-year-old claustrophobic tale of survival done on the cheap — should satisfy the most ardent zombie fans out there.

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World War Z was this summer’s real box-office surprise, grossing nearly $550 million worldwide after battling years of bad buzz. Based — almost in name alone — on Max Brooks’ episodic 2006 novel, the film struggled with myriad production problems, behind-the-scenes clashes between director Marc Forster and star Brad Pitt, and a rapidly-rising budget— and that’s even before the decision to scrap a massive, already-shot third-act battle sequence had been made. The deviation from the source material had already alienated the book’s fans and the shifting of the climax (one of the few elements retained from the novel) from Russia to a World Health Organization laboratory in Wales by Lost writers Drew Goddard and Damon Lindenlof, both brought on at the last second, seemed to be the final nail in the movie’s coffin.

  

What a surprise it is then, that the movie is as good as it is. The big setpieces promised in the trailer — the destruction of Philadelphia, zombies-on-a-plane mayhem and, most strikingly, the use of the undead to form “human” chains and piles they use to climb walls — all deliver, but what works best is the giant scale of the piece, fulfilling the promises made in George Romero’s movies (and even The Walking Dead) of a truly global apocalypse on a vast scale that, thanks to budgetary issues, we’ve never seen before. The scope is amazing and the chaos — similar to what Danny Boyle showed us in 28 Days Later a decade ago — truly disturbing. The decision to focus on Pitt’s Gerry Lane, a former UN Investigator, grounds the movie; we believe in his stalwart character, even when the story basically sends him point-to-point around the globe to face one crisis after another (while his wife, played by Mirielle Enos in a thankless role, is stuck on a boat worrying about him). It’s more of a geopolitical action movie than a traditional horror piece, but it works much better than you might expect— and, most importantly, it feels real and (particularly for this genre) plausible.

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Paramount’s 3D Blu-Ray/DVD Combo pack of World War Z presents the movie in a flawless transfer of combination digital and traditional film elements with a robust DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack full of booming explosions and clear, directional sounds— the lab-set climax is full of zombie screeches coming out of all your speakers. The 3D has been post-converted, but looks good throughout and gives the piece added depth, particularly in the Philadelphia and Israel-set scenes. Note, however, that the 3D version (and included DVD copy) of the film is the only way to get the PG-13 theatrical release; the 2D Blu-Ray is an unrated extended cut that’s 7 minutes longer, consisting mostly of scene extensions that contain more violence, gore and intensity— either version works, but the unrated version feels more harrowing, even if the CG blood looks a bit phony at times (an incredibly detailed breakdown of the differences in the two cuts can be found here). The extras on the Blu-Ray are slight— a couple of featurettes devoted to the origin of the project and the science behind it and a 36-minute making of which, despite its length, brushes over the FX work and all of the controversy regarding the reshot ending; we not only don’t get to see the Russia sequences, but it’s not mentioned at all. Curiously enough, producer/star Brad Pitt and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Damon Lindenlof and Drew Goddard aren’t interviewed, though J. Michael Straczynski — fired off the piece in 2008 after turning a draft that apparently hewed closely to the book — is.

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On the other end of the spectrum, George A. Romero’s close of his original “Zombie Trilogy,” Day Of The Dead, appears in a fantastic new Blu-Ray package from Scream Factory. Day follows in the footsteps of Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), which ostensibly introduced the modern zombie (as opposed to Haitian zombies from classics like 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie) to the horror lexicon and 1979’s Dawn Of The Dead, trapping its characters inside an underground military installation where scientists and soldiers fight each other while the undead mill about above them. Romero’s original intent was a broader story that basically was what his later Land Of The Dead (2005) turned out to be; when the budget got slashed by financier Salah Hassanein after Romero refused to give up the option to release the film unrated (as Dawn was), Romero scaled down the story, setting it largely in one location (again, like Dawn) and amping up the sociopolitical overtones which rested under the surface in his earlier films.

 

Day Of The Dead is a bit of a mixed bag; it’s less scary than its predecessors and, unlike the “families” that developed by circumstance in the house in Night and the mall in Dawn, the characters — ranging from Joe Pilato’s crazed military commander Rhodes to sensible Dr. Bowman (Lori Cardille) to mad scientist Logan (Richard Liberty) — already have been thrown together in a subterranean Florida military base (actually a Pennsylvania coal mine) and the tensions between them don’t develop as much as fester.  But there is some great atmosphere throughout and Romero’s concept of “Bub” (Howard Sherman, in a remarkable silent performance), a zombie Logan has trained to regain some of his base humanity, is fantastic. Tom Savini’s creature and gore FX still hold up; it’s hard to imagine this material — which isn’t much more extreme than what we see on The Walking Dead week after week — being perceived as so extreme as to forefeit an R rating (a sixteen-year-old yours truly was denied entrance to this during its first-run release). Look for The Walking Dead’s executive producer and FX creator Greg Nicotero, who got his start on this film as part of Savini’s crew, appear as a particularly ill-fated soldier. Avoid at all cost the horrible 2008 remake.

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Scream Factory’s new Blu-Ray of Day Of The Dead is leaps and bounds beyond the 2007 Anchor Bay disc, with a strong new transfer — which, while not being that much different from the earlier version, is still an improvement — and a decent mono DTS-HD track (the earlier disc has a 5.1 remix). But the extras are astonishing. The audio commentaries (one with Romero, Savini, Cardille and production designer Cletus Anderson; the other with screenwriter/director Roger Avary) have been carried over, as has a half-hour of behind-the-scenes FX footage from Tom Savini. New is a look at the Wampum Mine facility where the film was shot and, most notably, “World’s End: The Legacy Of Day Of The Dead,” an 85-minute, feature-length documentary that details everything you could possibly imagine on the production and its role in Romero’s zombie saga. Trailers, TV spots and extensive still galleries fill out the rest of this disc. Even if you own the Anchor Bay version, this new release is essential for the “World’s End” documentary alone. Hopefully, Scream’s success with Day will open the doors for  special editions of Dawn Of The Dead and the public-domain Night Of The Living Dead as well. Because, as these two titles prove, you can never have enough hi-def zombies in your life.

You can purchase World War Z from Amazon (3D and 2D Blu-Ray).

You can purchase Day Of The Dead directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

 

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