"Watch your tongue boy, if you like this job!"—Frank (James Karen)
By the 1980s, George Romero pretty much had the market cornered on the zombie theme with Night of the Living Dead and its splatter sequel Dawn Of The Dead. In 1985, Romero released the final (?) installment of his dead trilogy, Day Of The Dead. However, Romero's second sequel wasn't the only zombie movie to hit theaters—enter director/writer Dan O'Bannon's low budget comedy/horror flick The Return of the Living Dead. Loosely "borrowing" Romero's theme (and going under the assumption that Romero's films actually happened), The Return of the Living Dead was a hit with audiences looking for a few chuckles with their grotesque screams. Finally available on DVD, The Return of the Living Dead rises from the grave to wreck havoc care of MGM Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
They're back…and they're ready to party! In Dan O'Bannon's horrific zombie flick, the events of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead actually happened! While snooping around the basement at the Uneeda medical supply warehouse ("U need it…we got it!"), employees Frank (James Karen, Poltergiest) and Freddy (Thom Matthews, Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives) inadvertently release a putrid green vapor from a canister holding the bodies of the living dead. The gas, an experiment originally produced to control marijuana by the army but found to re-animate corpses, escapes onto Frank, Freddy and the rest of the warehouses occupants, including medical cadavers hanging in the upstairs freezer! After awakening from unconsciousness, Frank calls in help from the warehouse's owner Burt Wilson (Clu Gulugar, The Last Picture Show). Not surprisingly, Burt is appalled that the tanks were breached ("Haven't I always told you never to go near those goddamn tanks!" Burt scolds) and decides to cut up the zombie itching to get out of the freezer and burn him at the local mortuary run by the bug-eyed Ernie (Don Calfa, Weekend at Bernie's). This ends up being the worst idea in a series of very bad decisions; as the body burns the gas leaks into the night sky, causing a downpour in the local cemetery where some teenage punk rockers are having a party (along with Freddy's girlfriend-in-waiting). As the teens run for cover, the dead crawl for life and arise from their graves hungry for only one thing: fresh human brains! It's the living vs. the dead as we all learn the answer to that age old question what would it be like if a dog split in half came to life?
I'm going to flat out admit this up front: this review is going to be biased. I love this movie. It's easily one of my favorite horror films ever made. Love it, love it, love it. I watched it when I was a kid and it scared the crap out of me (it didn't help that the opening title reads, "The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations"). I can't say that watching it again was a nostalgic revisiting; I've seen The Return of the Living Dead at least once a year for the past 12 years. Every Halloween I have a small selection of movies that I enjoy watching with a large vat of popcorn and some buddies, and The Return of the Living Dead is at the top of that list.
For all the hype and cult status surrounding it, The Return of the Living Dead's history is a long and tortured one: the film was originally written by John Russo and Russell Striener as a sequel to Romero's Night of the Living Dead (both men had worked on the original film with Romero). Slated to direct was Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who ended up dropping out of the picture before filming began. O'Bannon was then brought in, but thought Striener and Russo's script was too close to Romero's original vision. Utilizing their idea but completely rebuffing the screenplay, O'Bannon sculpted a much more humorous zombie movie complete with the idea that zombies actually did exist in the context of Romero's universe. And so The Return of the Living Dead was born.
What makes The Return of the Living Dead such a special treat for horror fans is the way the movie deftly moves from comedy to horror and back again without losing a beat. The phrase "horror comedy" is often enough to get any self-respecting horror buff run out of the room in the blink of an eye. Filmmakers from the1980s tried to meld humor and horror to often lousy effect—anyone out there seen Return To Horror High, My Demon Lover, or Transylvania 6-5000? If so, then you know exactly where I'm coming from. The Return of the Living Dead was the exception to the rule; sporting some über-grisly effects and a boatloads of chuckles, O'Bannon was able to get some great performances out of his cast and some creepy atmosphere from his great location and sets. James Karen, one of the best character actors in Hollywood, and his likable partner Thom Matthews throw out wonderful performances as the inept Uneeda workers. Karen's gift for mugging and spastic delivery of his lines make him a stand out in the film. In fact, unlike many other horror movies from the '80s, The Return of the Living Dead features a memorable and likable cast of goons. Veteran actor Clu Gulager is hysterical as the level-headed Burt. Scream Queen Linnea Quigley prances around most of the movie buck naked in just stockings and flaming red hair (okay, so her performance, per se, is not amazing…but after seeing her knockers will you ever forget her?). Miguel Núnez, Jr., who has been featured in the hit Scooby-Doo and the basketball gender bending comedy Jawanna Mann, endears himself to the audience as a punk teenager who attempts to stab a corpse with an embalming tool, then breaks down into tears like a three-year old who's lost his puppy. Bravo!
While O'Bannon has publicly displayed some disappointment with the effects due to his meager budget, I really don't think the zombie effects, make-up, or sets were produced shoddily. Sure, some of the bodies look like actors in a dab of makeup and tattered clothing, but this just adds to the film's charm. Many of the zombies truly are scary (the blackened Tar Man is a sight to behold) while others are just there for comical effect (after a gang of zombies make a meal out of a couple of paramedics, one cadaver crawls into the ambulance and asks the dispatch to "Send more paramedics").
I know that I've lavished this film with more praise than most of you think it deserves. Certainly this flick is no monumental filmmaking feat or AFI classic. But who cares? It's endlessly entertaining with one of the bleakest, most surprising endings ever caught on film. The performances are grand, the zombies a hoot and the screenplay filled with some great black humor. Highly recommended for those of you with or without brains.
The Return of the Living Dead is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (although it appears to be 1.78:1), and all I can say is it's about time! For years, countless fans have been forced to watch this film in the muddy, grainy medium of VHS. For the first time the colors are sharp and well defined while the black levels (the worst victim of VHS) are dark and very well defined. While there are a few minor hindrances in the image (including some grain in a few shots), overall I was thrilled to have one of my favorite horror flicks in such great shape. Kudos to MGM for their great work on this title! Also included on side B is a chopped pan and scan version of the film. While it obviously looks better than the VHS version, I'd still stick with widescreen edition.
The soundtrack is not quite as exciting as the video portions of the disc. The mix is featured in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono, and as most of your audiophiles know that's the lowest rung on the Dolby Digital scale. While I heard rumblings about a Dolby 5.1 remix, apparently it never materialized. However, this 1.0 Mono track isn't half bad—the dialogue, music, and effects are all clear without much in the way of hiss or distortion marring the mix. And hey, no matter how you slice it, this soundtrack is miles above the VHS versions you're used to! Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles, as well as a Dolby 1.0 Mono soundtrack in Spanish.
MGM has done a better-than-average job at giving fans a couple of fun supplements to chew on. Starting off this disc is a commentary track by director Dan O'Bannon and production designer William Stout. Of course, seeing how much I love this movie I was thrilled to get a chance to hear some behind-the-scenes stories and tidbits. Unfortunately, this track isn't filled with as much juicy gossip as I was hoping for (rumored stories include clashing between the director and the cast plus the firing of the original zombie make-up creator). While there may not be a plethora of stories on the making of the film (or, at the very least the juicy stuff), O'Bannon and Stout are both funny, genial guys who have a good sense of humor and a good time watching their film.
"Designing the Dead" is an all-too-brief featurette on the production of the film featuring interviews with—surprise!—O'Bannon and Stout. Like the commentary track, this is a rather disappointing feature when it comes to fascinating behind-the-scenes stories or challenges with the cast and crew. Instead this interview-like short focuses on the design of the corpses and what it was like trying to get them too look good on the screen (the story of how the Tar Man came to be is quite unique). While I savored every minute of this featurette, I was still hungry for more when it was over.
Rounding out the extra features is a conceptual art gallery by William Stout which features some cool drawings and storyboards, no less than 10 TV spots, and both G-rated and R-rated versions of the original theatrical trailer.
One of the best horror films from the past 20 years is now on DVD in the condition it was meant to be seen in. It's not for everyone's tastes, but those who enjoy strange, gory, and zany horror will delight in this treat of the senses. Deftly played and voraciously executed, The Return of the Living Dead is well worth any true horror buff's time. MGM's work on this disc is excellent—while a few more extra features would have been welcome (how cool would it have been to have had a retrospective with the cast and crew?), overall I'm just happy to see this movie finally on DVD!
The jury doesn't even need to ponder this case. Everyone is acquitted!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Dan O'Bannon and Visual Effects Supervisor William Stout
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