Return of the Living Dead, The (Blu-ray)
Reviewed by MattFini
Starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Brian Peck
Directed by Dan O'Bannon
The Return of the Living Dead has been reviewed so many times, covered in so many top ten lists and recommended time and time again since its release in 1985 that it’s redundant to recount the plot for the two people who might not know it. It’s not just THE punk rock party flick but happens to also be one of the best horror films of the 80s … no small feat, right?
It’s amazing how well this one works. Director/Screenwriter Dan O’ Bannon wisely discarded the ridiculous events of John Russo’s source novel (in which a bus accident is catalyst for another plague of zombies) to make a then-contemporary story about a group of punks who barricade themselves in a local graveyard once the living dead rise from their graves. Part of it’s success is mixing three amazing veteran actors (Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa) in among the teens, resulting in some very unique chemistry and dialogue.
Many filmmakers have tried to replicate Return of the Living Dead’s seamless mixture of comedy and horror without much success (see this film’s sequel, for starters) but this is a case where the elements gelled. The humor works because dialogue is snappy and delivery is pitch perfect (especially Gulager, whose every line is golden) without any over-the-top mugging (even if it comes close a time or two). It helps that the music absolutely rocks (.45 Grave!) and the special effects are incredibly awesome (is there a better zombie than Tar Man? The answer is no.). Saying that The Return of the Living Dead is a bit of a cinematic miracle may sound ridiculous but, for me, it’s proof that a movie’s greatness can’t always be spelled out or reproduced. There’s a kind of magic here that keeps us coming back do it, asking if we wanna party. The answer, of course, being a resounding YES!
At first glance, it looks like MGM has been doing horror fans all kinds of favors by releasing many of their classic genre catalogue titles to Blu-ray. Unfortunately one look at The Return of the Living Dead’s AVC encode told me that this was a seasonal cash grab and nothing more. Not to infer that this isn’t a step up from any of the previous DVD incarnations but this release was culled from what is obviously an outdated high definition master. True to its source, ROTLD on Blu-ray is very grainy. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if it weren’t mixed in with loud compression noise that borders on the distracting at times. Details and textures are disappointingly lacking, too. Lots of 80’s catalogue films have a bit of soft focus look to them and this is probably no different but some scenes fall flatter than they should. It’s not all bad, though. Colors are strong, from Trash’s bright red hairdo to the interiors of Ernie’s chapel; this disc offers a much stronger color palette than we’ve ever seen. Black levels are rich and deep, again providing us with a transfer that’s decent even if it should’ve been much stronger. Prepare yourself for the inevitable double HD dip in a few years.
For me, the audio is a far greater deal breaker where this disc is concerned. ROTLD has been released to DVD twice and each time the 2.0 stereo track has been incredibly flat - especially where the music is concerned. The Blu-ray resurrects the 2.0 stereo track (labeled as mono, now) for your purists out there but features a far superior DTS HD 5.1 track as well. It doesn’t create much of an immersive experience and much of the action is confined to the front channels but, believe me, it’s worth the upgrade if you’ve got the home theater set up. Music plays a huge part in this film and for the first time on home video you can really feel the music. Dialogue is also crystal clear. Older tracks were a bit garbled as this can be a very hectic film (people shouting over one another while under music), but the new audio holds up very, very well.
This is the same set of extras the graced the “Collector’s Edition” DVD from a few years back. Two commentaries (one with O’Bannon and production designer William Stout, the other with cast members Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph and Allan Trautman) and three featurettes along with two theatrical trailers. Nothing new on this set, but MGM has also included a DVD copy of this release in the same package. I can do without this since the majority of us have owned this film for years. If you haven’t, are you ever going to watch the DVD over the Blu-ray?
So The Return of the Living Dead doesn’t quite hit a homerun with its Blu-ray debut. While I was critical of the decent PQ I want to reiterate that it does offer something of an upgrade over its standard definition cousins. But the rockin’ audio is where it’s at. We’ve glimpsed these extras before but you can currently snag a copy of this disc for dirt cheap. It won’t bowl you over but I’m still glad I added it to my collection.
5 out of 5
4 out of 5
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