Release Date(s)1985 (September 14, 2010)
Studio(s)Hemdale (MGM/20th Century Fox)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: C-
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: B-
It may be hard to believe today but when Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead was first released back in 1985, nobody expected much of anything from it. It had been less than twenty years since Night of the Living Dead changed the horror genre forever. Back then, if your name wasn’t George A. Romero (or possibly Lucio Fulci), you had no business making a zombie picture, especially one with the words “living dead” in the title. Even after friends told you it was actually really good, it was one of those movies you still settled in to watch with very low expectations.
O’Bannon was a respected genre screenwriter, having worked on the scripts for John Carpenter’s Dark Star, Alien, and Blue Thunder, but he’d never directed a feature until now. But you’d never know that from the movie. O’Bannon deftly mixes comedy and horror seamlessly, creating a one-of-a-kind zombie classic. I’d argue that it belongs on the short list of Best Horror-Comedies of All-Time, alongside An American Werewolf in London and Evil Dead II. Yeah, it’s that good.
The old pros in the cast are Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa. They set the tone, grounding the film and giving it a measure of authority. Karen in particular gives one of his finest performances, going so far over the top you expect him to get a nosebleed from the altitude. His performance gives the newcomers the freedom to follow suit and they’re all up to the challenge. Thom Mathews is a standout but everyone, including Linnea Quigley in a memorable, mostly naked performance and Miguel Nunez as Spider, rises to the occasion. William Stout’s production design gives the movie a distinct EC Comics look with the Tarman emerging as one of the most impressive creatures from 80s horror. The movie is funny, smart, creepy, and about as much fun as movies can get.
MGM and Fox bring Return of the Living Dead to HD as one of those two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo packs that studios insist are what people want. They don’t do much for me but then again, I’m not somebody who watches movies in dozens of places other than on my television. Picture quality on the Blu-ray is... meh. On the one hand, they haven’t taken a digital squeegee to the image and made it look like a glowing plastic nightmare, so that’s a plus. But it doesn’t look like a whole lot of effort went into the transfer. Detail isn’t that crisp and colors are a lot muddier than they should be. It looks ever-so-slightly better than the DVD if you’re really paying attention. The 5.1 DTS-HD mix is front-loaded without much play in the surround speakers. The movie has a great soundtrack by the likes of The Cramps and SSQ and the music sounds great. The rest is just OK.
As for extras, the good news is that all the features from the 2007 special edition DVD are here, both on the Blu-ray and on the DVD. O’Bannon sadly passed away in 2009, so rumors of a director’s cut with some of the footage cut from the movie’s workprint are likely to remain unrealized. But you do get two audio commentaries, one with O’Bannon and William Stout, the other with Stout along with actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph and Allan Trautman. Both are worth checking out, although the latter would have been better if they hadn’t decided to get clever and include a member of the “undead”. Sigh.
The featurettes are interesting and well-produced, although all are SD on the Blu-ray and stretched to fill the wide screen. The Dead Have Risen includes interviews with all of the actors from the commentary, along with Clu Gulager, James Karen and Thom Mathews. Designing the Dead is pretty self-explanatory with O’Bannon and Stout. The Decade of Darkness looks at horror in the 80s with such luminaries as Joe Dante, John Landis, Stuart Gordon and... Elvira. It’s OK even if it comes across occasionally as a promo reel for other MGM horror titles. I suppose it’s on the disc because Return is such a quintessentially 80s movie but it could just as easily appear on The Howling, Motel Hell, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or any of the other titles featured. There are two theatrical trailers and two zombie subtitle options. The first option simply subtitles the zombies’ dialogue, while the other (called In Their Own Words – The Zombies Speak) gives their inner monologue. It’s pretty stupid and most will get weary of the joke after about two minutes.
The Return of the Living Dead is one of the most entertaining and enduring horror movies of the 80s but its arrival on Blu-ray lands with a bit of a thud. With no newly produced extras and only a marginal difference in the presentation, there isn’t a great deal of impetus for fans to upgrade. On the other hand, as I write this it’s available on Amazon for just around ten bucks, so if you haven’t got a copy yet, snatch it up.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke