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Blu-ray Review: Return of the Living Dead (Collector’s Edition)

THE FILM  4.5/5

“Send…more…paramedics.”

On his first day on the job at a medical supply warehouse, poor Freddy (Thom Mathews) unwittingly releases toxic gas from a secret U.S. military canister, unleashing an unbelievable terror. The gas reanimates an army of corpses, who arise from their graves with a ravenous hunger… for human brains! And luckily for those carnivorous cadavers, there is a group of partying teens nearby, just waiting to be eaten!

return-of-the-living-deadHappy Return of the Living Dead Day!

My love for the horror genre was written in the stars long before I ever fired out of my mother. But certain films along the way cropped up early on during my wee-one years just to make sure I stayed on the right path: Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm 2 was there to show me that not every battle between good and evil had a happy ending. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street proved that no place–not even your bedroom–was safe. And Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead proved that “horror” could be hilarious.

Rumors suggest that following the bungled release of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, in which the filmmakers lost copyright to the entire film following a last-minute title change, George A. Romero and his partners John A. Russo and Russell Streiner parted ways, each divvying up this potential new zombie franchise to take in different directions. Romero was awarded the partial phrase “of the Dead” for all future “official” sequels while Russo and Streiner walked away with “of the Living Dead” for less official spinoffs. Now, is this true? As Donald Drumpf says, all I know is what I read on the internet. But it sounds so silly and spiteful that I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. Having said that, Romero obviously went on to create two celebrated sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, along with…some others…while Russo, Streiner, and Night alum Rudy Ricci would wait to seize on their creative cinematic rights until 1985, which saw the release of The Return of the Living Dead.

return_living_dead_1Despite all the contributors (ultimately the Night veterans had very little influence on the final product), The Return of the Living Dead is fully a Dan O’Bannon film. Twenty years before Shaun of the Dead brought comedic zombies (or zombies at all, really) into the mainstream, O’Bannon rightly realized that rotting, wailing, running zombies chasing down a bunch of angry punk teenagers was actually kind of funny, and so he played up the humor of the situation to maximum effect. Imbuing his story of the resurrecting dead with a wry sense of humor containing sarcasm, slapstick, and Vaudevillian timing, what O’Bannon does that’s even more clever is give the horror aspects of his screenplay real bite (sorry), making scenes of marauding hordes of the dead sprinting–sprinting!–after their victims much more terrifying. Forget “removing the head or destroying the brain”–this time the living dead are wholly unkillable. (“I hit the fucking brain!” Burt [Clu Gulagher] says angrily after putting a pick-axe into a zombie’s skull without it doing a thing.) By comparison, Romero’s slow-moving, easily killable ghouls were barely a threat. O’Bannon ups the terror, but brings the humor with it. (He claims that naming his two leads Burt and Ernie was entirely coincidental, and he was completely unaware of the duo’s long-running residence on Sesame Street, but when two of the film’s hapless and doomed paramedics eaten by the living dead are also named Tom and Jerry, you really have to wonder.)

During one scene where they look to Night of the Living Dead to provide answers on how to kill the undead (destroy the brain!), Freddy (Thom Matthews) asks, “What do doctors use to crack skulls with?” Frank (James Karen) answers, “Surgical drills!” at the exact moment Burt re-enters the scene holding a pick-axe. Humor like this seems very broad, especially when compared to today’s standards in horror films where someone would stop to ironically muse on the meta of the conflict before continuing on, but it’s a sadly extinct, wry sense of comedy that, for anyone who has ever seen or read an interview with Dan O’Bannon, senses was a part of his genetic makeup.

O’Bannon, famously, opted to make his take on this somewhat new zombie universe more humorous in an effort to avoid treading directly on territory he felt strongly was owned entirely by Romero. But at the same time, in lieu of this respect, you get the sense that O’Bannon was also having a hell of a time sending up this genre that, maybe, people shouldn’t be taking so seriously after all. (Romero’s zombies were flesh-eaters; O’Bannon’s zombies seem only interested in braaaains, which they shout while chasing down a victim.)

return_living_dead_7Despite the slight misinformation in the above synopsis, it’s during a routine training session where Frank unleashes the zombie-resurrecting 2-4-5 trioxin from barrels stenciled with Property of the United States Army, which douches himself and his new hire, Freddy. This is part of the overall palpable sense of distrust O’Bannon shows toward the American military throughout, beginning with Frank refuting any inference that the barrels containing infected corpses might leak (even though they do), and ending with the very downbeat and cynical finale which sees the military dealing with their “missing Easter eggs” with the only way they know. And in between, brief scenes with Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry) present him as a dry, bitter, and disillusioned man who orders nuke strikes like other people order pizza.

But even out of this anger comes further opportunities for humor. When Freddy asks why those tanks of diseased bodies ended up in the basement of a medical supply warehouse, Frank smiles slyly and says, “Typical Army fuck-up.” It’s the word “typical” that gives his response its meaning, as if it were part and parcel among the many other Army fuck-ups worth mentioning. After shit hits the fan and one character logically suggests that they call the number stenciled on the side of the tank, Burt looks besides himself as he demands, “Do you think I want the goddamned Army all over the place?,” as that would be worse than the recently resurrected corpse screaming and pounding on the inside of the walk-in freezer.

return_living_dead_2The Return of the Living Dead‘s use of somewhat dated and primitive techniques for special effects is the thing–among many things–which make the film so lovable and enduring. Seeing the Tar Man or the female half-a-corpse strapped to the table opening their mouths once, but somehow emitting multiple syllables, of course doesn’t look all that convincing. It makes no sense that their very tongueless and lipless mouths can emit ‘S’ and ‘P’ sounds. But it somehow goes along with the spirit of the film, which leans heavily on, “Fuck it, let’s just have fun.”

After all, have you seen the poster?

They’re back from the grave and they’re ready to party!

THE PICTURE  4.5/5

return_living_dead_5The new 2K transfer as commissioned by Shout! Factory is a revelation when compared to its previous digital incarnations. Noticeably much brighter than its previous blu-ray release from MGM, this edition of The Return of the Living Dead is the best looking version on the domestic market. This is never more evident than during the introduction of the punk teens as they walk down the street while the camera pans along with them. The colors of their hair and garish clothing nearly leap off the screen, along with the textures of the graffitied wall behind them; the video presentation really maintains and offers a sharp and stable image, and stability is easy to ascertain. Up until now, the Region B release of Return by Second Sight had been the go-to version in terms of picture quality, but Shout!’s new release easily reigns supreme in that department.

 THE SOUND 4/5

return_living_dead_6A variety of audio options are available for the discerning listener, and all of them carry a small bit of controversy. One track–likely the go-to track for the purist–is billed as the “original theatrical soundtrack,” which at first sounds like a selection of music as used in the film, but instead actually corrects the previous audio track altered for the original MGM DVD and subsequent blu-ray releases. While not overly different from the theatrical audio, this version artificially deepens the voices of several speaking zombie characters, as well as clumsily mutes the use of Rory Erickson’s “Burn the Flames” during the permanent dismissal of a certain character. For obsessees of the film (I am one), these changes are very noticeable and very bothersome.

The “original theatrical soundtrack” corrects all of these issues, but with one caveat. Shout! Factory included the following statement with this release:

For our new transfer, we went back to the original audio tracks to create a new soundtrack. Unfortunately, one song – “Dead Beat Dance” by The Damned – could not be cleared for inclusion on our release. However, the rest of the soundtrack will contain the audio as heard during the film’s original theatrical run.

With all that said, both the original theatrical soundtrack, presented in mono, and the track no one will ever listen to–the previous MGM catastrophe–both sound fine. Dialogue sounds slightly muted in the MGM track, whereas the mono track plays without issues or concerns.

 THE SUPPLEMENTS 5/5

return_living_dead_4The inclusion alone of the audio commentaries and features from the previous video releases, as well as the superb and independently produced feature-length documentary More Brains (which is 45 minutes longer than the film it’s covering) would have easily secured the highest score for the supplements on this release. But Shout! Factory didn’t leave well enough alone, solidifying the last word on releases as it pertains to The Return of the Living Dead. This latest effort from the boutique distributor blows their previous high-water mark release, Army of Darkness, entirely out of the water.

Of especial note exclusive to this release would be the infamous workprint version, which contains 24 minutes of new or alternate footage. Corners of the internet, who it seems will never be happy, are grumbling about the state of the workprint version, calling the picture and sound woeful, completely forgetting that this is an extra and not the main feature. Had Shout! commissioned an independent release of this workprint version as the main feature, then I could understand the vitriol, but this workprint version could easily not have been included and no one would be complaining. Just a hair over ten years ago, The Return of the Living Dead wasn’t even on DVD. Here we are with a two-disc version, with a new 2K scan, an alternate version of the film, and it’s still not good enough. Yes, the workprint appears to be nothing more than a multi-generation VHS rip, in full screen format, without a finished audio presentation, but again–it’s just an extra, people. It’s not the main feature. (The workprint begins with a text disclaimer from Shout! Factory saying this was the best version they could find.)

The complete list of special features is as follows:

DISC 1:

NEW 2K Scan Of The Interpositive
NEW Audio Commentary With Gary Smart (Co-author Of The Complete History Of The Return Of The Living Dead) And Chris Griffiths
NEW Audio Commentary With Actors Thom Mathews, John Philbin And Make-up Effects Artist Tony Gardner
— Audio Commentary With Director Dan O’Bannon And Production Designer William Stout
— Audio Commentary With The Cast And Crew Featuring Production Designer William Stout And Actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, Allan Trautman
— The Decade Of Darkness – Featurette On ’80s Horror Films (23 minutes)
— Theatrical Trailers
— TV Spots
— Still Gallery – Posters, Lobby Cards, Movie Stills And Behind-The-Scenes Photos
— Still Gallery – Behind-The-Scenes Photos From Special Make-up Effects Artist Kenny Myers’ Personal Collection
— Zombie Subtitles For The Film
— In Their Own Words – The Zombies Speak

DISC 2:
— NEW The FX Of The Living Dead With Production Designer William Stout, FX Make-up Artists William Munns, Tony Gardner, Kenny Myers And Craig Caton-Largnet, Visual Effects Artists Bret Mixon And Gene Warren Jr. And Actor Brian Peck (Expanded Version) (30 minutes)
NEW Party Time: The Music Of The Return Of The Living Dead With Music Consultants Budd Carr And Steve Pross And Soundtrack Artists Dinah Cancer (45 Grave), Chris D (The Flesh Eaters), Roky Erickson, Karl Moet (SSQ), Joe Wood (T.S.O.L.), Mark Robertson (Tall Boys) Plus Musicians Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) And John Sox (The F.U.’s, Straw Dogs)(Expanded Version) (30 minutes)
NEW HORROR’S HALLOWED GROUNDS – Revisiting The Locations Of The Film
The Return Of The Living Dead Workprint – Includes 20 minutes Of Additional Footage (In Standard Definition)
More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead – The Definitive Documentary On The Return Of The Living Dead (120 minutes)
— A Conversation With Dan O’Bannon – His Final Interview (28 minutes)
— The Origins Of The Living Dead – An Interview With John A. Russo (16 minutes)
— The Return Of The Living Dead – The Dead Have Risen – Interviews With Cast Members Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Brian Peck, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley And More… (21 minutes)
— Designing The Dead – Interviews With Writer/Director Dan O’Bannon And Production Designer William Stout (15 minutes)

TECH SPECS

return_living_dead_3STUDIO: Orion Films
DISTRIBUTOR: Shout! Factory
GENRE: Horror/Comedy
RATING: R
THEATRICAL DATE: August 16, 1985
VIDEO STREET DATE: July 19, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p/2K; 1.85:1
AUDIO: English 2.0 Mono; English 5.1 DTS-HD
SUBTITLES: English
RUN TIME: 85 mins
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
REGION: A

 OVERALL 5/5

return_living_dead_blu-ray_covCalling The Return of the Living Dead the greatest zombie film of all times feels like an insult to George A. Romero, being that its existence directly stems from his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, but also because O’Bannon avoided doing a more serious-minded zombie film, as he felt it would tread too closely on Romero’s territory. However, where Romero was able to carry respectability through his zombie series up to and including Day of the Dead (which was pulverized at the box office the same year by O’Bannon’s film), multiple attempts to sequelize The Return of the Living Dead–either maintaining the humor or not–proved that it wasn’t so easy. Inspired by what came before, The Return of the Living Dead was still lightning in a bottle, made from a perfect combination of sensibilities, willing performers, and grisly special effects. The only future release of The Return of the Living Dead that could be more definitive than this would be a proper 4K scan, and, okay, a digitally remastered version of the workprint. Until then, this new edition from Shout! Factory will be the easiest decision of your movie collecting life.

(Screen grabs courtesy of DVD Exotica.)

THE DISTRIBUTOR

Shout!/Scream Factory, LLC is a diversified multi-platform media company devoted to producing, uncovering, preserving and revitalizing the very best of pop culture. Shout! Factory’s DVD and Blu-Ray™ offerings serve up feature films, classic and contemporary TV series, animation, live music and comedy specials in lavish packages crammed with extras. Shout! Factory also owns and operates Westchester Films, Inc., Timeless Media Group, Biograph Records, Majordomo Records, HighTone Records and Video Time Machine. These riches are the result of a creative acquisition mandate that has established the company as a hotbed of cultural preservation and commercial reinvention. 


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Written by

J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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