Starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Thom Mathews, Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley
Directed by Dan O’Bannon
Distributed by Second Sight
There isn’t much in particular to say about Dan O’Bannon’s punk-laden horror-comedy classic The Return of the Living Dead that hasn’t been iterated many times throughout the years since its 1985 release, but for any whippersnappers out there unfamiliar with the flick, here’s a quick rundown:
When bungling surplus warehouse employees Frank (Karen) and Freddy (Mathews) accidentally crack open a mysterious army-owned barrel holding a rotting corpse, they inadvertently release a toxic gas that promptly knocks them out cold, and brings to life any nearby deceased creatures. Seeking the help of their boss, Burt (Gulager), they’re quickly forced into confrontation with a highly animated (and highly aggressive) corpse whom they are duly forced to dismember as means of physical placation. Heading over to the nearby mortuary, the body parts are cremated in an effort to destroy the creature – something which proves to be a very, very bad idea as the resulting smoke rises to the clouds before falling amongst a massive downpour; a downpour which saturates the grounds of the surrounding cemetery, giving birth to a small army of brain-craving zombies. At the same time, a small gang of young punks in search of a good time have decided to use the same burial grounds as their evening hangout, much to their peril as they’re forced to team up with the beleaguered quartet in the mortuary in a desperate fight to keep their lives… and brains!
A rollicking good time from start to finish, The Return of the Living Dead wears its sensibilities right on its sleeve in its quest for thrills, opting for the most reckless abandon that it can muster. Breaking the zombie mold at the time, the flick features flesh-eaters that literally sprint after victims, survive complete bodily dismemberment and piercing of the brain, and even talk coherently – all of which leads to some wacky, unforgettable moments that to this day have rarely been referenced with anywhere near the same kind of success. Even the most ardent zombie purist would find it difficult to argue that O’Bannon’s treatment of the undead is anything but exempt from zombie-fanatic disdain the moment one of the bloody-mouthed horde picks up an ambulance radio and demands “Send more paramedics…”
Backing up the chaotic pace of the film, O’Bannon’s script is similarly energetic and eminently quotable. Experiencing the comedic delivery of actors Gulager, Karen and Mathews as they have their way with the material in the early stages, in scenes that threaten to explode at any moment in panicked melodrama, is simply wonderful – demonstrating a cohesion both in front and behind the camera that refuses to give up even as the reins threaten to break at any given moment. All of the comedy is one hundred percent organic, and for the most part black as night (something that the ill-conceived sequel appeared to have no concept of whatsoever) which only adds to the beautifully offbeat nature of the entire affair. While the aforementioned trio are obviously top of the game here, the rest of the cast raise nary a complaint as the punks do what they have to, and die as the film demands. Plus, Linnea Quigley in her prime spends most of the film running around entirely buck naked. Score.
With a soundtrack layered with punk heavyweights of yesterday such as 45 Grave, The Cramps and The Damned, The Return of the Living Dead remains as rebellious as its subjects and music and is a refreshing watch even today. A strangely abrupt ending and poorly explored military subplot/characters feel somewhat disappointing, yet simultaneously completely fitting in nature and subtext, and the visual effects are distinctly lacking on occasion, but when all is said and done, The Return of the Living Dead makes its own rules and plays by them… and dammit, so will you. Do you wanna party? Hell yeah!
Now, the reason you’re reading this review is likely because you’re already a fan of the flick and have been wondering whether this brand new Steelbook edition is worth purchasing for your hi-def collection. The short answer is “yes”. The longer answer is “hell fucking yes”, and the longest answer, well…
First, the high definition transfer isn’t exactly mind-blowing – but it’s a noticeable improvement over previous DVD releases and the fuzzy VHS images that are burned into most memories. The image can be rather murky on occasion, with rare downward fluctuations in overall quality, but for the most part it’s solid, well defined and boasting a clear colour reproduction and satisfying skin tones. The various audio mixes are also pleasingly clean, handling the frequent screaming and frantic line delivery of many scenes very well.
Besides the movie, this thing comes with such an absurd amount of special features that it would be incongruously time consuming to go into each in minor detail but to start off the main feast we have the entire two-hour retrospective documentary More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead. Packed to the rafters with interviews, juicy behind the scenes info, on-set footage, storyboards, various conceptual stuff, the history of the film’s entire trip to the screen and much, much more, this is an absolute treasure trove. A constant stream of information, differing cast and crew, juicy gossip from the past and so much more come at a consistent pace meaning More Brains never bores, and never tires. For any fan of the film, it’s a must-see.
Not only do we have the main documentary, but we also have the special features of the documentary itself which delve into the next two sequels complete with interviews with filmmakers involved in those, deleted interviews that didn’t make it into the final cut of the doc (but are no less entertaining), a contemporary revisit to some of the shooting locations, and a montage of the principal actors reciting their lines in Return of the Living Dead in Three Minutes. A candid interview with director Dan O’Bannon, taken shortly before he passed away, is also included – framing a heart warming dedication to a fantastic filmmaker.
Other extras on the disc include a discussion of the soundtrack with music consultant Steve Pross and 45 Grave’s Dinah Cancer. John Russo expands a little more on the origins of the title and story of the film, meanwhile production designer William Stout and the special effects guys involved go into further detail on the zombie designs and practical effects creation. There’s easily around 5 hours of extras here, making it an essential package if you don’t already have the More Brains documentary on your shelf.
Physically, the Steelbook edition also includes “Ernie’s Notepad”, a replica notebook of mortuary embalmer Ernie Kalten (Calfa). This was not included with the review copy but regardless… if The Return of the Living Dead is as much of a classic to you as it is to most other 80s horror-dwellers, picking up this set is the very epitome of a no-brainer.
A quick note to US residents, though: If you’re wanting to import this, you’ll need to ensure that you have a multi-region player as it appears to be locked to Region B.
• MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD
The definitive two-hour documentary featuring interviews with cast, writers, producers and many more, as well as previously unseen behind the scenes footage, storyboards, conceptual art, publicity materials and archival documents
• MORE BRAINS! TWO HOURS OF KILLER BONUS FEATURES
A conversation with Dan O’Bannon: The Final Interview
They Won’t Stay Dead: A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part 2
A Love Beyond The Grave: A Look at Return of the Living Dead 3
Stacey Q Live: Exclusive ‘Tonight’ music video
Even More Brains: Deleted documentary interview
Return of the Living Dead in three minutes
Resurrected Settings: The Filming Locations Today
• THE ORIGINS OF RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD – with John A. Russo
• THE FX OF THE LIVING DEAD – with production designer William Stout and FX make-up artists William Munns and Tony Gardner
• PARTY TIME – with music consultant Steve Pross and 45 Grave singer Dinah Cancer
• EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY STEELBOOK – ‘ERNIE’S NOTEPAD’
20-page replica notebook by embalmer Ernie Kaltenbrunner, featuring production notes, carting information and exclusive artwork.
4 1/2 out of 5
5 out of 5