The Return of the Living Dead has become a staple in the horror genre for punkers and zombie fans alike, and its influence has spread in countless ways. It helped to define a new breed of zombie – the brain eater – rather than the shambling mindless dead of George A. Romero’s Living Dead franchise. It fueled many adolescents’ wet dreams thanks to a fully nude Linnea Quigley, albeit with a mold upon her pubis. It ushered a new horror icon into fans’ hearts with Tarman, the melting origin zombie. It also recapitulated the allure of EC Comics-era imagery, from its gothic locales to the humorous signs and decorations found throughout the film. But probably The Return of the Living Dead‘s most important contribution to horror was its interplay of terror, gore, and dark humor – a difficult combination to pull off, but director Dan O’Bannon manages to perfectly encapsulate how those elements go together like zombies and flesh.
The Return of the Living Dead is clearly influenced by the likes of Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s more military-tinged political commentary in both Dawn and Day, but O’Bannon’s film goes further than that. He’s stepping outside the norms of the zombie genre, because besides the rising from the grave and the eating people part, these zombies are completely different. Return‘s zombies seem to retain some semblance of their former human selves, recognizing their identities while fueled by an undying lust for human brains. In an iconic scene, our protagonists interview a woman’s torso, who explains the mechanism behind these walking dead: they feel they’re dead, they feel themselves rot, and only brains can stop the pain.
[pullquote]While on the surface The Return of the Living Dead seems like a brainless horror comedy, it is certainly steeped in the anarchy of its punk roots.[/pullquote]
It’s a gruesome reveal that, despite the comedy, still manages to stick with the viewer. The zombies in O’Bannon’s film are constantly suffering, something that Night of the Living Dead never really mentioned. There’s a morbid science behind Return‘s zombies, especially when the film highlights Freddy (Thom Mathews) and Frank (James Karen) turning into the undead after exposing themselves to the 2-4-5 Trioxin; their change doesn’t happen immediately, nor is it painless, and ultimately the only thing that can end the pain is either a brain buffet or a suicidal conflagration.
Enough about zombie biology, though, because there’s a lot more to praise about Return of the Living Dead. O’Bannon keeps a keen eye on pacing, alternating early on between Freddy and Frank as they accidentally release the zombie virus after messing with an illicit government experiment and Freddy’s punk friends waiting for him to get out of work in the nearby cemetery. This allows Return to make the best of both scenarios. Freddy and Frank are a knock-out team, the Abbott and Costello of the 1980s – Karen in general is at the top of his game, eating up every scene with a shit-eating grin that wins the viewer over immediately.
The same is true for our punks, who fill up every scene they’re in with post-adolescent rebellion. I talked about Quigley’s Trash a little while ago, prancing around naked in just about every scene, but the rest of the group is full of memorable characters like Suicide (Mark Venturini), the hardcore guy who still respects the dead, or Tina (Beverly Randolph), who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd despite dating Freddy. The way Return is structured allows O’Bannon to jump back and forth between the two groups, with Freddy, Frank, and later Burt (Clu Gulager) attempting to sort through the mess they’ve made after meddling with government property and the punks partying it up to popular punk rock of the time. They all come together, too, a meeting of two unlikely cliques that amplifies the humor significantly.
The thing about Return is that it manages to maintain its Grand Guignol style while it jokes about the subject matter and, metacritically, the horror genre itself. The special effects really are solid for the budget, and O’Bannon’s film gets a lot of mileage out of its detailed settings. Combining that with the memorable characters makes for a hilarious time, with Gulager playing it straight and mortician Ernie (Don Calfa) adding odd quirks to the dynamic.
While on the surface The Return of the Living Dead seems like a brainless horror comedy, it is certainly steeped in the anarchy of its punk roots. The film is a clever indictment of government and military ineptitude; its sole military character, Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry), is a miserable mess of a man whose sole purpose is to wait for a call about 2-4-5 Trioxin’s release and then send out a nuke to cover up the whole mess. The film pokes fun at this, obviously, but it’s hard not to read this as a lack of faith in agencies meant to protect the country – who would rather kill everyone involved than deal with the situation before it becomes a national catastrophe.
The Return of the Living Dead isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination; its budget limitations are evident in some scenes, the aforementioned Colonel Glover is strangely absent except for a quick introduction at the beginning of the film, and the inanity of its plot won’t appeal to a certain kind of viewer. But those issues are easy to overlook because O’Bannon’s film is just so damn fun, and it’s important to appreciate how vital the film has been for the horror genre. Its energy and entertainment value never fail to revitalize the audience, and The Return of the Living Dead simply leaves one craving for even more brains. [/cbtab]
[cbtab title=”Video/Audio/Special Features Review”]
I’ll start off by saying that any self-respecting horror fan will want to own Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray of The Return of the Living Dead. This thing is a double-disc release jam-packed with features. Its most prominent offering is a new 2K scan of the interpositive of the film, which looks quite good and is a nice step up from the previous special edition release of this film by MGM. Colors look vibrant, there’s very little noticeable grain besides some outdoor shots, and overall the transfer captures the brilliant look and atmosphere of the film. I felt that some darker scenes lacked some texture, but overall this is a very good-looking Blu-Ray.
Audio is also well-done, featuring three different tracks. The original 2.0 mono audio is included here, which sounds quite good; however, I did prefer the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which capitalizes on the soundtrack and the moans and groans of the zombies. Also included is a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which I think is kind of unnecessary since the original mono is featured.
Subtitles are included, with three different options – there are regular English subtitles, a zombie subtitle option that basically just subtitles the zombies’ groans, and a “zombie translation” option that adds semi-humorous quips whenever zombies moan. These two were on the special edition MGM release, and they’re not really worth it to be quite honest.
The first disc that houses the film itself also includes four audio commentaries; yes, four! Two of those were already included on the MGM package, with one commentary from “Cast And Crew Featuring Production Designer William Stout And Actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, Allan Trautman” and one featuring Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout. However, the other two are new to this package, and they’re both a real treat. The first is from Gary Smart and Chris Griffiths, two filmmakers who are both huge fans of The Return of the Living Dead; Smart himself has basically dedicated his career to studying the film in various formats, so you can bet there’s a ton of information included about lesser-known tidbits on the film. The other track comes from actors Thom Mathews, John Philbin, and make-up effects artist Tony Gardner; this is a lot different from Smart and Griffiths, adding more behind-the-scenes talk between the actors and commenting on their acting within the film.
Also on this first disc is an older featurette about ’80s horror movies, an informative if somewhat dated watch, as well as trailers, stills, and TV spots.
The second disc gets the brunt of the new features for this release, including two new featurettes – one called “The FX of the Living Dead,” which is obviously about the special effects work that went into the film and the controversies with William Munns (30 minutes) and “Party Hard,” about the music on the soundtrack (30 minutes). Both were done by Severin Films but get expanded versions on this collection.
Like many of Scream Factory’s releases now, there’s also a Horror’s Hallowed Grounds episode that takes a look at the locales used to film The Return of the Living Dead. It’s a short ten minute watch but includes some interesting information about the film and a look at the train that often interrupted filming.
Also included is the two-hour long making-of feature More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead, involving nearly all of the cast and crew on the film. This is a must-watch for everyone, and it’s an excellent doc for sure – the sets alone are worth the viewing.
Of lesser interest, included on the previous MGM release of the film, are featurette interviews with Dan O’Bannon (his final interview), John A. Russo (who wrote the original script), and a 20 minute interview with multiple cast members. A workprint including 20 minutes of extra film footage can be viewed, although the quality is quite poor.
Finally, reversible cover artwork, as always, can be found.
There’s no reason not to pick up this collector’s edition, even if you already own the special edition released previously. This is a great package for a fair price, and everyone should own this great The Return of the Living Dead collector’s edition from Scream Factory.[/cbtab][/cbtabs]