The Return of the Living Dead [Blu-Ray]
Director : Dan O’Bannon
Screenplay : Dan O’Bannon (story by Rudy Ricci & John Russo & Russell Streiner)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1985
Stars : Clu Gulager (Burt), James Karen (Frank), Don Calfa (Ernie), Thom Mathews (Freddy), Beverly Randolph (Tina), John Philbin (Chuck), Jewel Shepard (Casey), Miguel Nunez (Spider), Brian Peck (Scuz), Linnea Quigley (Trash), Mark Venturini (Suicide), Jonathan Terry (Colonel Glover), Cathleen Cordell (Colonel’s Wife), Drew Deighan (Paramedic #1), James Dalesandro (Paramedic #2)
Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead is a gleefully irreverent, semi-successful faux sequel to George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968), which single-handedly invented the modern zombie film and helped reinvigorate the horror genre as a whole by mixing primal chills with socioculturally relevant despair. Romero went on to create his own sequels in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), both of which were serious evocations of a zombie apocalypse mixed with dark gallows humor. Thus, when O’Bannon took over as writer and director of Return of the Living Dead (which was released the same summer as Day of the Dead), he immediately recognized that he needed to take the material in a radically different direction, if only to avoid comparisons to Romero’s films.
O’Bannon, who at the time was best known for collaborating with John Carpenter on the low-budget sci-fi spoof Dark Star (1974) and for co-writing Alien (1979), decided to steer the material more directly into mordant comedy, a smart, albeit defensive move that is never entirely successful because, for every scene that works, there are moments that reek of desperation. O’Bannon’s script is based on story material concocted by Rudy Ricci, John Russo, and Russell Streiner, all of whom were involved in the production of Night of the Living Dead (Ricci played a zombie, Russo co-wrote the screenplay, and Streiner both co-produced the film and played the role of Johnny, the first zombie victim). The title is actually drawn from a 1978 novel Russo wrote from a never-produced screenplay he had developed as a sequel to Night, but virtually everything from the novel was jettisoned when O’Bannon reworked the material as his own.
The story takes place primarily inside and around a medical warehouse on the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky, where Frank (James Karen), a veteran employee, is training an eager newbie named Freddy (Thom Mathews). O’Bannon establishes his film’s self-consciously postmodern bent within the first few minutes when Freddy asks Frank what is the weirdest thing he ever saw in the warehouse, to which Frank replies, “Did you ever see that movie Night of the Living Dead?” He then proceeds to explain that Night was based loosely on actual events and that the military mistakenly sent a shipment of reanimated corpses encased in steel drums to the warehouse a decade and a half ago and they’re still in the basement. Naturally they have to take a look, which results in one of the canisters rupturing and releasing a mysterious yellow gas that gives life to the medical cadavers, split dogs, and even a board of pinned butterflies in the warehouse (one of the film’s better creepy touches).
This causes no end of problems for Frank, Freddy, and Burt (Clu Gulager), the warehouse owner who is called in to help solve the problem. His solution is to take the reanimated bodies over to the mortuary next door and ask Ernie (Don Calfa), the silver-haired, bug-eyed attendant on duty, to incinerate them in the crematorium. That would seem to be a good idea, except for the fact that the contaminated ash coming out of the chimney is sent back down to earth in a torrential rainstorm, thus reanimating the corpses in the conveniently located cemetery nearby. Said corpses are soon clawing their way out of the ground and finding plenty to devour due to the presence of a group of garish punk rockers, including Freddy’s otherwise clean-cut-looking girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph), who have chosen the cemetery as a hang out-spot while they wait for Freddy to get off work.
With all the parts in place, O’Bannon starts piling on a mixture of absurdity and suspense, with the surviving characters attempting to find safety by boarding themselves up inside the mortuary, a variation on Romero’s claustrophobic farm house scenario in Night. Comparisons between the two movies largely end there, as O’Bannon reworks and at times satirizes some of Romero’s most well-known zombie conventions, including the idea that the undead can be stopped by inflicting trauma to their brains (“Well, it worked in the movie!” Burt screams after burying a pickaxe in the skull of a zombie medical cadaver that keeps on moving anyway). O’Bannon similarly does away with the slow-moving, shuffling zombie concept, favoring instead zombies that run at often frightening speeds. The zombies also speak, albeit not very well, with the best known of the bunch, an icky skeletal freakshow nicknamed the Tarman (Allan Trautman), excitedly bellowing “Brainsssss!” and “More brainsssss!” any time he spots a human victim. This also allows for one of the movie’s best scenes, in which several characters manage to strap down a female zombie (who is little more than a torso with a spinal cord that wags like an angry tail) and essentially interrogate her, from which we learn that being dead hurts and the only way to alleviate the pain is to eat human brains (an idea that filmmaker David Koepp, who cited the film as his top guilty pleasure in Film Comment, described as “one of the most profoundly scary notions I’ve ever heard”).
At its best, Return of the Living Dead plies is mixture of postmodern comedy and gross-out thrills with real aplomb, and there are scenes that are funny-scary in all the best ways. The film’s tone is aided greatly by both first-rate make-up special effects and a wonderfully brash production design that clearly evokes the exaggerations of old EC Comics (especially the trashed out cemetery, with headstones so close together that you can’t tell where one ends and the next begins). When the hoards of zombies descend on the oblivious characters who show up to help (including paramedics and police officers), you really sense the horrors of being suddenly overwhelmed by an unrelenting force, although O’Bannon quickly lightens to mood by having one of the zombies get on the CB radio and request more medics. At other times, though, O’Bannon goes for too much, overlaying sequences with obnoxious heavy metal that sounds even cheesier two decades later. The punk characters are a disappointment, as well, not only because they make no sense as friends of Freddy and Tina, but also because they are played by amateurish actors who can do little more than glower, yell, and, in the case of Linnea Quigley, take off their clothes and parade around naked for no reason other than to provide gratuitous nudity. They don’t make for sympathetic victims, which is not the case of Frank, Burt, and Ernie, who are all odd in their own ways (there are small hints that Ernie may be a former Nazi in hiding), but also funny and endearing. Seeing them put in danger gives the film its thrill while the veteran actors playing them know how to push the limit without going over it, a skill that too many of the other principals are sorely lacking.
|The Return of the Living Dead Blu-Ray + DVD|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, Zombie|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 14, 2010|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Seeing Return of the Living Dead on Blu-Ray reminded me that it wasn’t that terribly long ago (the early 2000s, in fact) when fans of the film, tired of their worn-out VHS copies, were gathering massive petitions to convince MGM to released it on DVD. Now we get to see Return in a new 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer in its intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which has it looking better than ever. Although a low-budget effort, the film looks bigger than it actually is, and the sharp new transfer gives it some added life. Colors look good, whether they be the sickly green of the reanimated medical cadaver or the various spurts of bright red blood. Since much of the film takes place at night, black levels are crucial, and they hold up pretty well, with only slight muddiness in some scenes. The image has a definite presence of grain, but it looks right for the era and budget. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack is certainly an improvement over the original monaural track, although it is never terribly impressive. The surround channels are used with varying levels of effectiveness (the immersive sound of rain being a particularly good example), but dialogue is always clear. The biggest benefactor of the multi-channel mix is the various punk and acid metal songs that dominate the soundscape at various points.|
|With a few exceptions, the supplements on this Blu-Ray replicate everything that was included on the 2002 DVD and/or the subsequent 2007 “Collector’s Edition” DVD (a real plus is that all the supplements are actually included on the Blu-Ray as well as the repackaged 2007 DVD). Included are two audio commentaries, one with director Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout that was recorded back in 2002 and one with Stout and actors Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, Don Calfa, Brian Peck, and Allan Trautman that was recorded in 2007. Both commentaries are enjoyable listens, especially for fans of the film, and be sure to watch out for the zombie “interruption” during the 2007 commentary, which is fitfully amusing. “Designing the Dead” is a 13-minute featurette from the 2002 disc that includes interviews with O’Bannon and Stout about their approach to the look of the zombies in the film. The other two featurettes are drawn from the 2007 disc: “Return of the Living Dead: The Dead Have Risen” (20 min.) is a solid retrospective that rounds up interview with actors Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Brian Peck, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, and Allan Trautman, while “The Decade of Darkness” (23 min.) is a fantastic overview of horror movies from the 1980s. Since this is an MGM disc, it is not surprising that all the clips are from MGM-produced horror movies and all the interviews are from filmmakers and actors associated with said films (including directors Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, John Landis, and Tom Holland and actors Catherine Hicks, Bill Moseley, and Dee Wallace). Other interviewees include author John Kenneth Muir (Horror Films of the 1980s), Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (who has nothing to offer but semi-witty quips), and Fangoria editor Tony Timpone. There are also two theatrical trailers (both presented in 1080p) and two zombie subtitle options, one of which offers variations on moans and groans and the other of which actually translates in comic fashion what they might be saying (or thinking). Unfortunately, this Blu-Ray, like the 2007 DVD, jettisons the 10 TV spots and the gallery of Stout’s production drawings that was included on the 2002 DVD.|
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