The Return Of The Living Dead: Collector's Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - MGM / Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (16th November 2010).
The Film

When discussion breaks out amongst horror fans regarding the zombie subgenre, there are always a couple of notable titles that remain the de facto cream of the crop. Obviously, no discussion can begin without mentioning George A. Romero’s seminal “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), as well as its arguably superior sequel “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), and, one of my personal favorites, “Day of the Dead” (1985). But once that lauded trilogy is out of the way, one film tends to hit the tongue quicker than most: “The Return of the Living Dead” (1985). Rather than focusing solely on the horrors of a zombie apocalypse, as Romero’s films did, “The Return of the Living Dead” sought to play up the gallows humor as well. This wasn’t always intended to be the case, though. The script, written by John A. Russo (based on a novel of the same name he wrote), was originally much darker in tone. But, once it reached the hands of director Dan O’Bannon, he agreed to helm the picture only after he was allowed to make some significant rewrites to the material, most notably by punching up the comedy in an effort to prevent it from aping what Romero had been successfully doing for the last couple decades. This doubtlessly played a large part in cementing the film’s legacy as a venerable cult classic that is still fervently watched by horror fans over 25 years after its release.

But, what is it about the film that has led allowed it to endure, and even flourish, amongst an infinite sea of imitators, rip-offs, needless sequels and far more polished pictures? For one thing, it can be viewed as the progenitor of the zombie comedy subgenre. Contemporary films such as “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “Zombieland” (2009), to name but a couple, owe a great debt to the film. It helped usher in a new wave of zombie films which continually prove the popularity of the conflation of horror and comedy. The film also serves as a snapshot of the mid 80's, imbuing it with some retro qualities that are all the rage right now. The cast alone features an array of 80's archetypes that are each a unique vision of the fashion, music and attitude present back in that era. The humor hits all the right notes, the gore is ever-present (and hideously grotesque), the soundtrack is rife with hardcore punk songs not typically heard in film… all of these various attributes add up to what is not only considered one of the finest zombie films, but also one of the greatest horror films of all-time.

Freddy (Thom Mathews) is about to begin his first day on the job at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse. His trainer, Frank (James Karen), is excited about showing him around the premises, especially when they get to an old toxic waste drum in the basement that was accidentally shipped to them from the government. Unfortunately, Frank messes with it a bit too much and unleashes a cloud of noxious gases, as well as the newly re-animated corpse contained within. The gases escape the factory and mix with rain clouds on the horizon, leading to a toxic acid rain that starts to plague Freddy’s friends who are hanging out at the nearby cemetery. The group rushes over to the factory just as the rain begins to seep into the ground at the cemetery, re-animating all of the corpses buried deep below. Burt (Clu Gulager), the factory’s manager, is trying to do all he can to stop the outbreak of zombies without destroying his business, but with hordes of the undead shuffling around, they all soon begin to realize that they’re going to need a miracle to get out alive.

The film is ostensibly horror, but the comedy runs so deep that it’s impossible to overlook. Director Dan O’Bannon keeps all of it very subtle, never allowing the film to feel like it’s lampooning horror or conventions. The majority of the comedy comes from the blocking of certain shots and the reliance on his actors to make some of the absurd dialogue unintentionally humorous. In fact, most of the actors thought that the film was a straight horror picture, so they all read their lines with the utmost sincerity. The only one who was in on the joke, and you can plainly tell he was, is actor James Karen. The rest have to rely on their comedic timing and the quick-paced dialogue that O’Bannon provided. Much of it almost has the feel of a Paddy Chayefsky screenplay with the constant crosstalk and interrupting of other actors’ lines to interject a shot of acerbic wit or a quick jab.

I think one of the leading factors that make this film work so well is easily the cast. Most horror films made around this period were stocked with plenty of the standard Dead Teenager, a character whose survival was typically built around the amount of sex and/or drugs they were (or weren’t) engaging in during the film. Usually only, maybe two, of the cast would stand out as worthy of being the final survivor. Not so here, as the entire cast feels like they’re all on the same level. No one is more important than another, and they’re all uniquely individual. Leading the pack is Freddy, played by Thom Mathews, an actor familiar to horror fans for his role in 1986’s “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives”. Despite his character’s fate in this film, Mathews would return for the inferior sequel, “Return of the Living Dead Part II” (1988). Veteran acting legend Clu Gulager stars as the factory’s owner, Burt. I love the energy he brings to the screen in every film he’s featured in. 80's Scream Queen Linnea Quigley plays Trash, and bares her fabulous breasts in one of the film’s more memorable sequences. Brian Peck, who typically played nerdy roles in 80's comedies, goes against type to play the hardcore punk rocker, Scuz. Miguel A. Núñez Jr., he of "Juwanna Mann" (2002) fame, pops up as a fellow punker in the group. The point I’m making here is that the film is populated with familiar faces, all of whom are playing varied roles, and all of which are so distinctive that the film never loses your focus because you feel invested in these characters. Their dialogue is authentic and quick-witted. They aren’t just faceless teens that you’re waiting to see have the brains eaten out of their skulls; you genuinely want to see them make it through the night alive. But, of course, we all know that isn’t going to happen.

Second in point, but not in importance, is the plethora of special effects that are used throughout the film. Chief effects duties were handled by Allan A. Apone, a man with a resume far too extensive to list but suffice it to say, he knows his stuff on the set of a horror film. His greatest creation for this film is easily the Tarman zombie, played by Allan Trautman. This gooey, viscous black bodied brain eater has become the avatar for the film, being featured on much of the licensed merchandise found in stores. Plus, he’s also the one responsible for uttering the classic line, “Braaaaaiiiinnnnsssss!” FX master Tony Gardner also provided some of his handiwork for the film – he was responsible for creating the half-corpse puppet that Ernie (Don Calfa) interrogates in the gurney in his morgue. The film is liberally littered with numerous gags about reanimation; the half-split dog, the headless green body, dozens of the dead rising from their graves… the film is full of astounding practical effects that never come off as cheesy or poorly-constructed. Now that we live in an age where CGI is used to excess is almost every film, especially low-budgeted horror movies, it makes you appreciate the work that went into making these creatures that much more.

Video

Much like the dead who have returned from the grave, the 1.85:1 AVC MPEG-4 encoded 1080p 24/fps transfer is ugly and muddy. Forget about looking for fine detail because it isn’t there. The image is more often than not soft and flat. There isn’t a great deal that screams “high definition!” here, as I would say this is one of the most minor upgrades over a DVD that I’ve encountered. That isn’t to say it’s not worth purchasing if you’re a serious fan of the film. We do get minor upticks in detail, color reproduction and sharpness; it’s just that they’re so minor you’d need to be familiar with previous home video versions to really appreciate. Black levels rarely descend below a dark gray, and there is a great deal of crushing in the background. The film benefits most from just having greater room to breathe thanks to the space available on Blu-ray, so there is less of an issue with compression artifacts. I thought it looked as though some shots had some DNR applied, but it’s nothing to get worried about. This film would be a waxy nightmare if they tried to smooth out everything. Hardcore fans will be likely be satisfied, but I think MGM could have done more to get this in fighting shape for its high definition debut.

Audio

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track mixed at 48kHz/24-bit sounds dated. I hate to say things like “this is the best the film has ever sounded”, but that’s an accurate statement. Things are front-loaded, as it’s always been, so don’t expect much action from the rear speakers. Aside from the ambient sounds of rain falling, and the occasional sound effect that sounds like it doesn’t quite belong, all of the action occurs in the center and front channels of the track. Even the LFE has little to do here, though it does get a little love towards the end of the film. What matters here is dialogue reproduction, since the film relies heavily on the comedy of the actors, and it all sounds crisp and clear. I had no issues discerning anything, even Tarman’s constant single-minded mantra, “Brains!”. It’s nice to have a lossless track to allow the film’s soundtrack to breathe, and it also gives an extra dimension to the many punk and hardcore tracks sprinkled throughout the film, but don’t expect it to amaze you on any level.
There is also an English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track included. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired, Spanish and (ugh) zombie.

Extras

As with many of the catalogue titles being released currently, MGM has included both this new Blu-ray and the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD that was released last year in this 2-disc combo pack. Thankfully, the Blu-ray retains all of the features found on that DVD, as well as adding a few new ones to the mix. Included are audio commentaries, several featurettes, theatrical trailers and a few extra goodies for fans of the film. Unlike many of the recent MGM combo releases, this one includes the bonus features on both the Blu-ray and DVD, whereas many have left the bonus features on the DVD and the Blu-ray is often featureless. It should be standard practice to always carry over the bonus features to the Blu-ray.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

Leading things off is an audio commentary track with production designer William Stout and actors Don Calfa, Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Allan Trautman and Beverly Randolph. The track is lively enough, and all the participants have lots of memories about shooting the film and the various difficulties and minor production notes from the set. They cover the usual bases of how they were cast, wardrobe choices, complaints about the lack of budget and what kinds of crazy antics they would get up to during the shoot. Stout acts as the rudder here since he knows the most about everything that was being done on set, and his recollections are among the best on the track. Unfortunately, at one point a “zombie” comes into the recording booth and starts sinking the track… fast. Luckily, it doesn’t go on for too long, but it was a dumb enough idea that every review you read about this disc will likely mention how moronic of a decision it was. But fans of the film will eat this track up because it’s got a steady stream of information that most might not have been aware of.

The second of the audio commentary tracks is with director Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout. Stout takes more of a back seat approach to this track, allowing O’Bannon to rattle off his distant memories of the shoot; and he’s got plenty to share. I usually love director tracks because they remember so many bits of minutia that most people wouldn’t recollect. Luckily, the bits O’Bannon is a little fuzzy on Stout seems to remember quite well. There’s a great deal of discussion about the lasting endurance of the film, lenses that were used to convey specific emotions he wanted the audience to feel, the use of matte paintings and real shooting locations, alternate ideas for shots that went unused – the track can be slightly dry at times, and O’Bannon is a bit of a curmudgeon, but it’s a great track to cue up after you’ve heard the first one with the cast & crew.

“Return of the Living Dead - The Dead Have Risen” (480p) is a featurette which runs for 20 minutes and 34 seconds. We get interviews with every cast member possible here, including a few who were notably absent from the commentary track (I’m looking at you, Clu Gulager, James Karen and Thom Mathews). The cast culls forth all their memories about the film, and we learn a lot more about the casting and production of the film that may not have been entirely covered in either commentary track. I won’t bother listing the highlights here, but know that the piece moves quickly and covers a lot of ground in the limited time they’re given.

“The Decade of Darkness” (480p) is a featurette which runs for 23 minutes and 24 seconds. This is more of a general discussion about horrors of the 80's rather than the actual film itself. Horror luminaries like Stuart Gordon, former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, John Landis and other contemporaries talk about the influx of horror during that time period and what it meant for filmmakers. Filming on horror films was up 33% during that era, and magazines like Fangoria were doing a great service by covering all the happenings in the genre for fans. Indeed, as a horror fan, I can undoubtedly point to the ‘80s as a period where my favorite genre flourished.

“Designing the Dead” (480p) is a featurette which runs for 13 minutes and 39 seconds. Director Dan O’Bannon talks for a bit about his career in the film industry and how he came to be a director. The talk then starts to focus on the gestation of the film, where he became involved and the script. Production designer William Stout then enters the discussion to talk about the look the two men sought to achieve with the zombies in their film.

A “Bloody Version” of the film’s theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 1 minute and 8 seconds.

An “Even Bloodier Version” of the film’s theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 2 minutes and 44 seconds.

“In Their Own Words – The Zombies Speak” is a subtitle feature which includes text that the zombies are (supposedly?) thinking. It’s stupid, and it also uses that cheesy Hot Topic-esque “Chiller” font found on every household computer.

DISC TWO: DVD

The DVD edition of the film contains all of the bonus materials listed above, as well as a few bonus trailers not found on the Blu-ray for the following:

- “Jeepers Creepers” (2001) runs for 55 seconds.
- “Jeepers Creepers 2” (2003) runs for 1 minute and 6 seconds.
- “MGM Horror Film Trailers” promo runs for 57 seconds.

Packaging

The 2-disc set comes housed in an eco amaray keepcase with either disc housed on a hub opposite the other. I just want to note that I think the cover art is atrocious, and they should have used the far superior theatrical poster art.

Overall

This is one of the best horror films of all-time, and if you don’t already own a copy then you need to go pick this up right now. That’s it. Fans will only care about the Blu-ray review to know whether or not it’s a worthwhile upgrade over the last DVD, and I can only say that it is if you’re a serious fan of the film. There are no new extras to entice you to rebuy, and the transfer isn’t so pristine that it’ll sway you either. If, however, you don’t won the film at all, or only own the first DVD that came out, then I suggest you buy this for the added bonus materials and picture improvements. Either way, this should be on the shelf of every self-respecting horror fan.

The Film: A Video: C+ Audio: B- Extras: B Overall: B

 


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