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The Return of the Living Dead(1985)
On his first day on the job at an army surplus store, poor Freddy unwittingly releases nerve gas from a secret U.S. military canister, unleashing an unbelievable terror. The gas re-animates a corps 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!
For more about The Return of the Living Dead and the The Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray release, see The Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on September 20, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Linnea Quigley
Director: Dan O'Bannon
» See full cast & crew
The Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, September 20, 2010
Zombie-holics and horror hounds need no introduction to Return of the Living Dead, the 1985 splatter film that grandfathered the current zom-com craze. Those of you less versed in the history of the walking dead, however, might need a brief recap. After George A. Romero sired the modern zombie film with 1968's Night of the Living Dead, he split ways with his writing/producing partner John Russo. In the subsequent legal wrangling, Russo obtained the rights to the Living Dead title—which is why Romero's 1978 sequel is simply called Dawn of the Dead— with eyes on creating a franchise of his own. He eventually wrote a novel called Return of the Living Dead, with plans to have Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper adapt it for the screen—in 3D no less. When Hooper bowed out, he was replaced by Alien co- writer Dan O'Bannon, who drastically rewrote the story to avoid any similarities to Romero's ongoing films. O'Bannon essentially turned Return into a zombie comedy—one of the first of its kind—but that's not to say he skimped on scares. Return of the Living Dead is both funny and spooky, a "splatstick" spoof of Reagan-era America and a ghoulish, EC Comics-inspired horrorshow.
The film opened in August 1985, stealing the critical thunder from Romero's ambitious but inarguably inferior Day of the Dead, which would be released two weeks later to lackluster reviews. Nevertheless, in Return, O'Bannon is quick to acknowledge Romero as the zombie maestro. Early in the film, Frank (James Karen), the manager of Uneeda Medical Supply—the sort of place that stocks science room skeletons, dog dissection kits, and, conveniently, preserved cadavers—asks bumbling new kid Freddy (Thom Matthews) if he's ever seen Night of the Living Dead. He goes on to explain that the events of the film actually happened—Romero just switched up a few of the details—and that due to some kind of military mix up, the zombies have been sitting in sealed barrels in Uneeda's basement for the past 15 years. Before you know it, Frank and Freddy have a reanimated corpse on their hands and have to call in Burt (Clu Gulager), Oneeda's owner, for backup. They hack the thing to bits, stuff the still-wriggling pieces into garbage bags, and convince Ernie (Don Calfa), the mortician at the next-door funeral parlor, to burn it all up in the crematorium. You know how everyone was freaked out about acid rain back in the 1980s? Well, that fear gets turned into a plot point here. As the zombie ashes rise into sky, they commingle with storm clouds overhead and the resulting rain falls down upon—yes—a nearby cemetery. Hmm. I wonder what might happen?
While it's true that Return of the Living Dead has a textbook zombie plot—1.) humans hole up in a supposedly safe place, barricading all entrances, 2.) trouble comes from within when main characters start turning into zombies, and 3.) just about everyone dies—the film is totally different in tone from anything that had come before. You know you're in for a wild ride when, instead of meeting the typical horror film fodder of the time—attractive scream queens, preppy jocks, virginal innocents, etc.—O'Bannon introduces us to a gang of seven punk rock misfits partying in the cemetery. They're stereotypes still, to be sure, but they're edgier, funnier, less bland. One chick with bright red hair, a sex and death-obsessed nympho named Trash (Linnea Quigley), gets all hot and bothered by the idea of being eaten alive by old men—a death-wish that, later, the film is all to happy to grant—and she promptly strips down to nothing but her leg warmers for an impromptu peep show atop a crypt. Her pierced and studded boyfriend Suicide (Mark Venturini) spurns her advances—she practically dry humps his leg—preferring to talk philosophically about how his leather outfit "isn't a costume. It's a lifestyle." This is fun, over-the-top stuff—so iconically '80s—and it gets even more ridiculous with the start of the zombie outbreak. When the rain arrives, the revelry becomes outright anarchy when moldy corpses begin crawling out of the ground, hungry for brains.
What's great here is how O'Bannon borrows a bit from Night of the Living Dead—giving credit where it's due—but completely ignores Romero's previously established zombie "rules" and mythology. He totally does his own thing, and the film is the better for it. Forget stopping a ghoul with a mere headshot; O'Bannon's zombies have to be completely obliterated. Like, with acid or, say, a tactical nuke. They can speak —although they don't say much beyond braaaiiiinnnsss, their favored food source—and they even retain some semblance of human logic. (When a horde of zombies devours a unit of policemen who show up at the scene, one ghoul gets on squad car CB radio and tells the dispatcher to "send more cops." This is a running gag.) They're also fast—a trait that's divisive among zombie film fans, who typically feel obligated to join either the "shambler" camp or the "sprinter" crew. The film's EC Comics-inspired look is more cartoonish and classically ghoulish than most zombie movies—it has a definite Halloween vibe—and this allows for some great special FX work that might seem out of place in a more "realistic" story. Particularly memorable is the Tarman, a googly-eyed zombie covered in viscous black ooze who lopes after his prey with a drunken, fluid stagger.
Return of the Living Dead may not have the substance of Romero's early movies—which metaphorically address issues like racism and consumerism—but it makes up for it with style, a punk-rock attitude, and sheer bloody entertainment.
The Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray, Video Quality
It's hard to believe that the last time I personally saw this film it was on a VHS copy from Blockbuster. What a difference we have here! MGM unleashes Return of the Living Dead with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that'll likely satisfy the film's fans, even if it has a few PQ problems. Return, now 25 years old, was a fairly low budget picture—you can't expect pristine clarity—but I hesitate to say that this is the best the film will ever look. Some darker scenes feature a murky mixture of chunky grain and compression noise; others, hoping to avoid a similar fate, look as though they've been lightly smoothed with DNR. The key word in that sentence, though, is lightly. There's nothing here that even comes close to the Predator travesty we saw in June, and most of the film looks appropriately filmic and natural, if a little soft. Sharpness is definitely not this transfer's strongest suite. There are a few tightly defined close-ups that really reveal the intricacies of the zombie makeup, but truly fine detail is absent from much of the film. Color fares better, with a muted palette that occasionally pops with bright police lights, vivid '80s clothing, and, of course, cherry red arterial blood sprays. Black levels are somewhat inconsistent, though, sometimes deep and elsewhere a soupy gray. I have a feeling the film could definitely look better, but I'm satisfied for now.
The Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Return of the Living Dead's original mono soundtrack is enhanced here by way of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. (A Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is also available.) Honestly, not much has been expanded—this is still a fairly front-heavy presentation. The one thing you will notice, though, is the addition of rain falling in the rears for most of the outdoor scenes—obviously, the ones where it's raining. It's nothing drastic, but I suppose it adds to the creepy vibe. Although it's rare, you'll also occasionally hear a random effect in the surround channels. These usually have a distinct "patched in" quality—along with the effect, you'll notice a slight spike in white noise from whichever speaker is being used. The film is known for it's deathrock/punk soundtrack—with songs from The Damned, The Cramps, 45 Grave, and SSQ—and the music sounds great, loud and driving with plenty of low end. Dialogue throughout is easy to understand, and the disc includes several subtitle options—including two sets of pointless zombie subs. More on that below.
The Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The disc includes two commentaries tracks for curious fans. First up is director John O'Bannon and production designer William Stout, who share a track that's understandably heavy on production details, the look of the film, its origins, and the day-to-day shooting process. The second track, featuring Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, Allan Trautman, and William Stout, is lighter and looser—more nostalgia-centric— although not always entirely energetic. Early in the track, Calfa asks, "I'm not in this scene. Do I have to talk?"
Return of the Living Dead - The Dead Have Risen (SD, 20:34)
A decent retrospective, featuring several members of the cast reminiscing about the film.
The Decade of Darkness (SD, 23:24)
This doesn't have much to do with Return of the Living Dead, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless. Here, horror insiders like Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, John Landis, Tony Timpone, editor of Fangoria, and Elvira—yes Elvira—discuss the state of the genre in the 1980s, using examples from numerous films, including ROTLD.
Designing the Dead Featurette (SD, 13:39)
Director Dan O'Bannon and production designer William Stout give a history of the project and discuss the specifically realistic look they envisioned for the film's zombies.
There are actually two zombie subtitle tracks, one that spells out the various grunts and occasional real words, and another that tells us what the zombies are thinking. Both are pretty silly and pointless, but hey, why not?
Theatrical Trailer: Bloody Version (1080p, 1:08)
Theatrical Trailer: Even Bloodier Version (1080p, 2:44)
The Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Too often derided as a rip-off of George Romero's zombie movies—this usually comes from people who haven't seen it yet—Return of the Living Dead is a cult classic in its own right. It's got punk kids partying, mohawks, a tar-monster, good gore gags, sly satire of Reagan-era military incompetence, a chilly Halloween vibe, and a nearly nude chick dancing on a grave. What more could you want? The film looks strong on Blu-ray—not perfect, but better than expected—and there are enough special features to keep fans occupied for at least an hour or two. Recommended!
The Return of the Living Dead: Other Editions
The Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Return of the Living Dead Blu-ray - July 25, 2010
Early retailer alerts indicate that MGM will add to the pre-Halloween glut of horror titles with two titles from its catalog: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978) and The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O'Bannon, 1985). Both have a street date of ...
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