Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the cemetery - those brain-eating zombies are back and hungry for more tasty mortals. A fiendish mix of outrageous humor and heart-stopping terror, The Return Of The Living Dead is a "veritable smorgasbord of fun" (LA Herald-Examiner) filled with skin-crawling jolts, eye-popping visuals and relentless surprise!
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!
Twenty years before 'Shaun of the Dead' made audiences scream and laugh at the sight of reanimated corpses, 'Return of the Living Dead' paid tribute to the horror craze surrounding George Romero's 'Dead' films. That same year would also see Romero direct his most gruesome feature in the series, 'Day of the Dead.' The title alone is a loving salute to the original drive-in feature, as is the fact that the production initially began as an adaptation of John A. Russo's book. Early on in the movie, filmmakers even take a quick minute to acknowledge the movie's inspiration, both as a "tip of the hat" to the seminal 1968 zombie classic and to cleverly get the obvious reference out of the way.
In that same scene, it's Freddy's (Thom Matthews) first day on the job at the Uneeda medical supply warehouse where he works with cadavers, and his supervisor, Frank (James Karen), wants to scare the living poop out of him. He tells the gullible kid that 'Night of the Living Dead' was based on a true story about the gas 245-Trioxin leaking in a hospital in Pittsburgh. Having Freddy within his grasp, Frank then tells him one of the corpses is in the basement below and shows it to him when they are suddenly exposed to the gas. It doesn't take long before they realize what happened and the Trioxin leaks into the cemetery next door, where Freddy's punk-rock friends are waiting for him. Soon, they barricade themselves inside a mortuary and are surrounded by hundreds of reanimated corpses.
In the hands of Dan O'Bannon, the mind behind 'Alien' and 'Total Recall,' and with permission to rewrite the script, the movie does more than simply swoon over Romero's films. Making his directorial debut, O'Bannon changes the whole of the story and takes a huge leap forward. He pummels audiences with copious amounts of hilarity and slapstick, as well as buckets of gore and bloody carnage. He also gives genre fans sentient zombies that can talk, hunt as a pack, and run at you at full speed. The only way to really get rid of these corpses is to chop them up into little pieces, put them into separate garbage bags, and cremate those suckers. That is, if you have an embalmer for a friend with an available crematorium. That, or just napalm the city and call it a day. Either way works, really.
But rather than merely chalking up 'Return of the Living Dead' as a horror comedy, this very awesome 80s gem of my youth is really all horror, full of some great freaky moments. Simply think of it as a bloodcurdling zombie feature with a twisted and ghoulish sense of humor — pathological even as the graphic violence seems endlessly hilarious. If you're not laughing at a naked, frozen cadaver sprinting towards a screeching Burt (Clu Gulager) or Freddy discovering that movies lie about how to kill zombies, then surely you'll chuckle at reanimated corpses chanting "brains" or roll your eyes when Suicide (Mark Venturini) gives his short soliloquy about his look being a lifestyle.
As a first-time helmer, O'Bannon doesn't do anything that stands out visually, but he's efficient and effective, and his talents really lay in the storytelling. His best moments behind the camera — as fans are sure to agree — are with Tarman (Allan Trautman) using a winch to break Tina (Beverly Randolph) out of a locker. Personally, I can't get enough of the cemetery scene. No, not the one with Trash (Linnea Quigley) dancing on top of a crypt. The one with the corpses rising from their graves as 45 Grave's "Partytime" suddenly blasts through the speakers. And the midget zombie is a great, bellyaching highlight. In the end, this is one of the best send-ups to Romero's 'Dead' films ever devised, and it continues to generate laughs today.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
MGM Home Entertainment and 20th Century Fox bring 'The Return of the Living Dead' to Blu-ray as a Two-Disc Collector's Edition. The BD25, Region A locked disc is housed in a typical eco-case, but accompanied by a DVD-9 copy of the movie on the opposing panel. At startup, the disc goes straight to the standard main menu where we zoom in through the gates of Resurrection Cemetery and find zombies at a graveyard with full motion clips playing on various headstones. Sadly, The Cramps song, "Surfin' Dead," no longer plays over the main menu.
One minor — no, scratch that - one major gripe is directed at the cover on the blue keepcase. Similar to the 2007 DVD release, the cover art shows the movie's title in bold, red and cracking fonts with a bright green glow all around and surrounded by dead trees from a cemetery. It's always been a decent-looking design, but now the studio has made it really unattractive with zombie Freddy at the bottom of the frame. I'll never understand why studios feel the need to change covers when the original artwork of the movie is a preferred favorite amongst fans. What's wrong with a few zombie punks hanging out at the cemetery?
For the 2002 DVD release of 'Return of the Living Dead,' MGM and director Dan O'Bannon worked on a remaster of the movie, which included changes to the audio. That print was later cleaned up a bit for a 2007 Collector's Edition with a glow-in-the-dark package. For this Blu-ray edition, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) appears to be the same version used for the latter release. This is not altogether a bad thing since this transfer definitely looks like the upgrade, retaining a pleasant 80s film look. Also, cinematographer Jules Brenner has in the past approved of these prints as the film he shot.
This is not much of an upgrade from the Collector's Edition — at least not to the extent to wow viewers — but the video presentation has some good moments spread throughout. And despite showing its age, fine object detailing is strong, and we get some decent textural definition in facial close-ups. Contrast is comfortably bright with great visibility of the many random items all over the warehouse and the silly pictures hanging on the mortuary walls. The picture has been cleaned up somewhat, with some scenes showing it more than others, but it's nothing too intrusive and a thin layer of grain washes over the image. There are a few shots that look much softer than the rest, with weaker resolution levels, but it appears inherent to the photography and not an issue with the digital transfer. Blacks are not always consistent, but fairly deep for the majority of the movie, while shadow delineation is only about average. Colors are in great shape and cleanly rendered, especially greens and reds, though the palette is a bit restrained. All things considered, this is good quality video, but it would have been nice to see the studio create a new HD master for this Blu-ray release.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is also enjoyable and better than what fans have heard on previous editions. Just don't expect too much from a sound design that was initially recorded in mono. The track remains a very front-heavy presentation with terrific and intelligible dialogue. Dynamics are well-balanced and sharply rendered while the low end is surprisingly pleasant for a 25-year-old movie. Although there's not much imaging to speak of, discrete ambient effects are clear and precise to fill in the silence from time to time. The musical numbers are really what open up the soundstage somewhat and give the lossless mix a good sense of presence. The horror movie may not come with the sort of sound quality to make anyone jump out of their seat, but for a mono design, this is a good track that fans can appreciate.
As a side note, this is the same soundtrack heard on the previous DVD edition that has been considerably altered from its original design at the request of Dan O'Bannon. Most notable are the song selections, with the "Burning the Flames" number coming in at a lower volume and The Damned song mysteriously replaced. Also, Tarman's voice is deeper than before and the zombie picking up the police radio is different voice. It's nothing wholly distracting, but something hardcore fans will surely notice.
'Return of the Living Dead' comes to Blu-ray with the same set of bonus features found on previous editions, and it's a good collection.
'Return of the Living Dead' is one of the best zombie features balancing a perfect mix of comedy and horror. With Dan O'Bannon's rewrites and direction, the movie pays tribute to Romero's 'Dead' films for starting the genre craze, but suddenly leaps forward to do its own thing as a wild and crazy gorefest. While the audio is attractive for a mono design, the video presentation is not a significant improvement from the Collector's Edition DVD, but it looks good for a 25-year-old catalogue film. The Blu-ray edition of 'Return' also carries over the same assortment of bonus features and even includes a DVD copy of the movie. Fans may want to give it a rent first before deciding on a final purchase, but hardcore fanatics and completists will want it for their collection nonetheless.