MGM // 1985 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // September 24th, 2010
"Watch your tongue, boy, if you like this job!"
"Like this job?"
1985 was a banner year for zombies. Within the span of two weeks, two "Dead" flicks would duke it out for supremacy at the box office. First up was George Romero's epic finale (at the time) to his "Living Dead" trilogy, the nihilistic Day of the Dead. Two weeks later director Dan O'Bannon would unleash his own personal homage (or rip-off, depending on who you talk to), Return of the Living Dead. When the dust settled the clear victor was Return of the Living Dead with Day of the Dead left in its wake (although it would be rescued as a cult classic decades later on video and DVD). Return of the Living Dead finally makes its hi-def debut in a two-disc package packed with special features!
When Freddy (Thom Mathews, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives) and Frank (James Karen, Poltergeist) -- two workers at the local Uneeda Medical Supply Company -- unwittingly unleash a barrel of toxic chemicals that bring the dead back to life, all hell breaks loose! Frank and Freddy's boss, Burt (Clu Gulager, Feast), thinks they've solved their problem when he enlists the help of a neighborly embalmer (Don Calfa, Weekend at Bernie's) to burn up a recently reanimated medical corpse in his crematorium. When the gases from the burning body hit the air, a poison filled storm seeps into the grounds of a local cemetery (where local punk rockers are throwing a party), in turn bringing forth an army of the undead looking for the only thing that will satiate their appetite: human brains!
Confession time: Return of the Living Dead has deep roots in my childhood. One of my prevailing theories about film is that they often attach themselves to a viewer because of time and circumstance. I first encountered Return of the Living Dead at my friend Peter's house when I was around 12 years old. The movie's opening warning -- that the film and its characters were all based on actual events -- scared the snot out of me. My young impressionable mind assumed, for the briefest of moments, that this movie was based on true life happenings! That prospect was both terrifying and alluring. Needless to say, I was hooked.
Director Dan O'Bannon (who also worked as a writer on Ridley Scott's Alien, Tobe Hooper's underrated Lifeforce and the sci-fi hit Schwarzenegger Total Recall) took Romero's original idea and turned it on its ear with Return of the Living Dead. These were not your average, run-of-the-mill living dead. In O'Bannon's universe the shuffling corpses could not only run but sprint, band together and communicate (granted, it was mostly just one iconic word: "BRAINS"). Though still stuck in a rudimentary existence, these zombies were a far cry from Romero's slow moving monstrosities. Whereas Romero's ghouls could be destroyed by a bullet to the brain ("Beat 'em or burn 'em, they go up pretty easy," as one character from Romero's original film stated), Return of the Living Dead's zombies could only be killed by complete dismemberment and incineration.
O'Bannon did a lot of things different in this movie. For starters, instead of making the protagonists typical high school jocks or preppies we get punk rockers and middle aged shop owners. Because of the punk theme, Return of the Living Dead's soundtrack is littered with songs by indie music groups like The Cramps, SSQ, Tall Boys and Jet Black Berries. That gives the film a unique feeling missing from most horror movies of this ilk. Having his character actively discuss the original Night of the Living Dead also gave the movie a bit more gravitas (however flimsy). The special effects, while not spectacular -- often the zombies appear with what appears to be little more than papier-mâché on their faces and hands -- do the trick, especially when the fabled sticky "Tarman" shows up. If I have a major complaint it's that had the budget been larger the effects work may have produced a larger impact on the viewer.
The cast is made up of memorable genre players, including Miguel A. Nunez Jr, Thom Mathews, and Mark Venturini (all three featured in separate Friday the 13th sequels), the great Clu Gulager (who starred in his son's directorial debut, Feast) and scream queen Linnea Quigley (star of my favorite movie titles, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama). James Karen practically steals the show with his mugging and silliness, something a movie with this tone desperately needs.
I will readily admit that Return of the Living Dead has become such a staple for me that I can't really judge it objectively. Certainly this isn't a movie for people who don't like horror movies -- there's enough guts and gore to put off casual moviegoers. And if you're one of those souls who doesn't like their horror mixed with dark comedy, stay far away this movie. For the rest of us, however, Return of the Living Dead offers a rare treat that's tastier than a bucket full of brains. Highly recommended.
Return of the Living Dead is presented in 1.85:1 1080p widescreen. I can safely say this was a title I was dying to see on Blu-ray, and now that it's finally here...it's just okay. I should have guessed that because of its low budget origins Return of the Living Dead wasn't going to look pristine. Even so, I have to admit to being quite under whelmed with the picture quality of this transfer. Yes, it's certainly a step up from previous DVD releases, but not by much. Details are slightly better but there's still a fair amount of heavy grain in the image. It could be I had such high expectations that I was hoping they could work a miracle with this image. MGM hasn't been able to do that, but for around $10 bucks online I still think it's a worthwhile upgrade for fans of the film.
The soundtrack is presented a new lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. Although that sounds fancy, it really isn't -- because of its age, Return of the Living Dead still sports a fairly front heavy sound mix that only occasionally features any heavy activity from the side speakers (falling rain being the exception). Much like the video portions of this disc, fans won't notice an enormous difference here in comparison to previous releases. Also included are English and Spanish subtitles.
The features included on this disc are, for all intents and purposes, a rehash of previous DVD editions. While I am a huge fan of this film, I can safely say that everything needed to know is pretty well covered in the past supplements...
Two commentary tracks, the first by director Dan O'Bannon (who passed away in 2009) and production designer William Stout and a second with actors Don Calfa ("Ernie), Linnea Quigley ("Trash"), Brian Peck ("Scuz"), Beverley Randolph ("Tina"), Allan Trautman ("Tarman") and William Stout. The first track focuses more on the effects work and screenplay while the cast track leans towards a more jovial and character oriented tone (Peck especially seems to be not only a big fan of the film but also a bit of a historian).
Two 20-minute featurettes -- "The Dead Have Risen" and "Decade of Darkness" -- focus on horror movies and their impact in the 1980s. "The Dead Have Risen" is a retrospective of Return of the Living Dead (with a lot of talking head interviews with most of the cast and crew, save for director O'Bannon) and "Decade of Darkness" is a look back at the late, great '80s and its contribution to horror (and since this is MGM we're talking about, it's mostly MGM movie clips fans get to see).
"Designing the Dead" was featured on the original DVD release of Return of the Living Dead. This short 13-minute featurette includes interviews with director Dan O'Bannon and production designer William Stout talking about everything from the EC Comics influences to the special effects and story changes.
Finally there are some 'zombie subtitles' that are amusing for a short while but get old pretty fast and two theatrical trailers for the film.
Return of the Living Dead is a personal favorite and while I'm happy it's available in hi-def, I can't say this disc blew me away. I give credit to MGM/FOX for giving fans all of the original supplements from the previous two DVD releases. However, when will they learn that no one cares about getting a DVD with a hi-def release? It's like offering a microwave burrito with a surf and turf feast -- it will be wholly ignored.
Return of the Living Dead is a go-for-broke monster movie with a dark
sense of humor.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Zombie Subtitles