Release Date(s)1985 (July 19, 2016)
Studio(s)Orion Pictures/MGM/20th Century Fox (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
The Return of the Living Dead is one of those ultimate Halloween party movies. It’s competently made with terrific make-up and prosthetic effects, has some wonderful dramatic and comedic performances, and contains both an excellent score and a memorable punk rock soundtrack. There’s also an intelligence and a logic behind the movie that has hardly been rivaled in latter zombie movies, even to this day. It pushed concepts like zombies wanting to eat brains into pop culture, not to mention that it’s one of, if not the only, horror movie to take place in Louisville, Kentucky. And being that I’m from Kentucky, that always made it that much cooler... although I’ve never seen places or people like the ones portrayed in this movie anywhere near Kentucky. Oh well, that’s the movies for you.
The story of The Return of the Living Dead involves two warehouse employees working late on a 4th of July weekend. When they go down to the basement and inspect a bunch of sealed canisters containing human corpses that were accidentally shipped to the warehouse (a “typical army fuck-up”, if you will), one of the canisters is unintentionally breached. It lets out a vapor that brings everything dead within its reach to life, including people, animals, and even butterflies. When they attempt to burn up one of the attacking cadavers, the resulting smoke infiltrates the atmosphere, causing an acid rain that brings a local cemetery full of corpses to life, as well as setting a local band of punks who were out simply looking for a good time on the run.
It’s actually a bit of a miracle that this movie was even finished at all, let alone winding up being a good movie. From rights conflicts between writer John Russo and George Romero to director Dan O’Bannon’s overbearing direction to various behind the scenes hiccups and clashes, the movie’s existence is a happy accident of sorts. It was also made in an era when zombie movies were still a niche thing, and nowhere near mainstream, as they are today (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video is probably the closest zombies had gotten to mainstream audiences at the time). It was also fun just seeing somebody turning the genre on its head for a change.
When Dan O’Bannon was originally brought on to direct The Return of the Living Dead, he wanted to make sure that the movie was going to be different than what Romero had done previously after having read the original script. Because of O’Bannon’s insistence that the movie be less of a sequel to Night of the Living Dead and more of a black comedy, the movie morphed into something else entirely. It became a popcorn type of horror movie, with seemingly endless amounts of scenes and quotes that you can pull from it. There’s the yellow man, the tar man, a nude dancing Linnea Quigley, an undead half-dog sculpture, “Rabid weasels”, “More brains!”, “Send more cops”, and so on and so forth. All of it good stuff.
As if you can’t tell, I’m a fan of The Return of the Living Dead. It’s very much a comfort food kind of movie to me more than anything, despite its horror-oriented content. It’s not at all challenging or heavy-handed, and it doesn’t require me to put much thought into it while watching it. Sometimes movies like that can be a bit of a relief, especially for horror films. It’s not a dumb movie by any means, but it doesn’t take an enormous amount of brain power to enjoy it either. It’s simply a well-made horror romp with some intelligence behind it.
Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition of the movie comes loaded with content, starting with a new 2K transfer sourced from the original interpositive element. Comparing it to MGM’s previous Blu-ray, Scream Factory’s release is clearly the winner for several reasons. It contains thick but very natural grain levels with a wonderful amount of detail on display, and appears much sharper and more precise. It’s so clear that I had actually never noticed how sweaty Linnea Quigley is prior to her nude gravestone dance scene. It also features more accurate colors and skin tones, as well as deeper blacks, mostly due to more natural contrast and brightness levels. Having seen it before mostly with high contrast levels, this may take a bit to get acclimated to on an initial viewing. There are also some very minor film artifacts leftover, but no signs of unnecessary digital tweaking. For the audio, you get three options: English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD, and probably most important, the original theatrical mono via an English 2.0 DTS-HD track. It should be noted that for years some of the songs featured in the movie were a little difficult to clear for U.S. VHS and DVD releases. Scream Factory has managed to get all of them for this release, except for one: The Damned’s “Dead Beat Dance”. It’s a shame that something couldn’t have been worked out to include it, but in all honesty, it isn’t missed much at all, not with this package. Truthfully, having the original mono soundtrack at all is a relief. The 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are fine, but they don’t do much to bolster the movie in my ears. I think it’s because I’m so accustomed to hearing the movie a certain way that it works best that way for me, but you be the judge. Dialogue is always clear, sound effects are strong, and all of the music comes through beautifully. It may be a tad bit on the flat side, but it’s a clean track and more than enough for this movie. There are also subtitles in English SDH for those who might need them, and as a bonus, there are also some fun additional subtitle tracks, including Zombie Subtitles and In Their Words: The Zombies Speak.
As for the extras, this release is absolutely stacked, but shockingly, not complete (I’ll get into that later). Starting on disc one, you get two new audio commentaries, one with co-author of “The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead” Gary Smart and Chris Griffiths, and the other with actors Thom Mathews, John Philbin, and make-up effects artist Tony Gardner; two vintage audio commentaries, one with director Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout, and the other with various cast and crew: production designer William Stout and actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, and Allan Trautman; The Decade of Darkness featurette; four theatrical trailers; 10 TV spots; a still gallery (posters, lobby cards, movie stills, and behind-the-scenes photos) and a second still gallery (behind-the-scenes photos from special make-up effects artist Kenny Myers’ personal collection). On disc two, you get the fantastic More Brains!: A Return to the Living Dead documentary; a new, expanded version of The FX of The Living Dead featurette; another new, expanded version of the Party Time: The Music of The Return of the Living Dead featurette; a new Horror’s Halloween Grounds, which revisits the film’s shooting locations with Sean Clark; A Conversation with Dan O’Bannon: His Final Interview; The Origins of The Return of the Living Dead, an interview with producer John A. Russo; The Dead Have Risen featurette; Designing The Dead, which is interviews with writer/director Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout; and finally, the workprint of the movie, which includes 20 plus minutes of additional footage. Even though it’s in standard definition and in very poor quality, it’s just nice to have it represented at all.
Besides the missing Damned song that couldn’t be cleared for the film (and yes, I’m noting that it is included on the U.K. Blu-ray release), the original More Brains!: A Return to the Living Dead documentary DVD release came with lots of additional extras that are not included with this release. They include They Won’t Stay Dead: A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part II and Love Beyond the Grave: A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part 3 additional documentary segments; a set of 14 deleted scenes; the Stacey Q live music video for “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)”; Resurrected Settings: The Filming Locations Today (which was replaced by Horror’s Hallowed Grounds); the Return of the Living Dead in 3 Minutes segment; a trailer for the documentary; and a trailer for the Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy documentary. That last one is, obviously, non-essential, but I can’t help but wonder if this couldn’t have been a three disc set with the More Brains! documentary and all of its extras included on a separate disc. It probably wasn’t possible for rights and budgetary reasons, but regardless, you may want to hold onto that DVD release if you want absolutely everything.
Scream Factory’s The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition is a home run in my book. It may not come with absolutely everything there is out there extras-wise, but damn if they didn’t put a hell of a lot of effort into getting this release as definitive as possible. This one absolutely belongs on your shelf. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons