Directed by Dan O’Bannon
Distributed by Scream Factory
Sometime back around the turn of the century, when zombies began to regain a foothold in cinemas thanks to films like 28 Days Later… (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004), there were numerous comments and articles about how “real zombies don’t run,” as though this concept was new and somehow ruining zombie lore. None of those protestors must have seen Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead (1985), a film that turned a decaying nose up to George A. Romero’s zombie “rules” and upended them in hilariously gruesome fashion.
In O’Bannon’s universe zombies not only run, they speak and think and problem solve and eat brains – and they are nearly impossible to kill. Instead of adapting longtime Romero producer John A. Russo’s novel Return of the Living Dead directly, the results of which would have been closer to one of ol’ George’s pictures, O’Bannon scuttled virtually all but the title and started fresh once he was given the greenlight to proceed carte blanche. Aping Romero’s style was (and still is) a fool’s errand; the only logical choice was to do everything different while still retaining some basic fundamentals, since this film takes place within the same universe. By all accounts O’Bannon was a monster in his own right while on set, but it was due to his singular, driven vision that horror fans were bequeathed one of the greatest films not only in the zombie subgenre, or even horror, but of the ‘80s overall.
It is Freddy’s (Thom Mathews) first day on the job at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse and the day is already starting to drag. Frank (James Karen) has shown Freddy all the ropes, so he decides to spice things up by showing off a shipment of military barrels that were accidentally delivered some years ago. As Frank explains, the film Night of the Living Dead (1968) wasn’t fiction; it was based on an actual army experiment gone wrong. The two head down to the basement where Frank eagerly shows off the stash. Brimming with an odd sense of pride, Frank smacks a barrel to prove its military-grade construction is rock solid… at which point it promptly springs a leak and sends deadly Trioxin gas directly into both of their lungs and all throughout the warehouse.
Meanwhile, Suicide (Mark Venturini) pulls up in his beater car to Uneeda with Freddy’s girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and a handful of his punk rock buddies – Trash (Linnea Quigley), Spider (Miguel Nunez), Casey (Jewel Shepard), and Scuz (Brian Peck) – in tow. Freddy, however, doesn’t get off work for a couple more hours, so the group decides to kill some time hanging out in the cemetery across the way. Naturally. While the punkers party, Freddy and Frank come to and find that the gas has reanimated every dead thing in the warehouse, including a sawed-in-half dog and a cadaver hanging in the freezer. Frank decides to call in Burt (Clu Gulager), Uneeda’s owner, for assistance. Burt’s advice: bring every zombified scrap of flesh over to Ernie’s (Don Calfa) mortuary across the way and have him burn it up in the crematorium.
Burt’s idea is a success… for about ten seconds. The incinerator does destroy the wriggling remains, but it also releases plumes of Trioxin-infused smoke into the atmosphere, unleashing a torrent of burning acid rain. Suddenly, everything previously dead is given life anew, which means every corpse in Resurrection Cemetery is now ambling around, on the hunt for fresh brains to soothe the pain of death. The action cuts between groups trapped at both Uneeda and Ernie’s, each desperately trying to stay safe from the zombie horde that has only one thing on its collective mind: “BBRRAAAIIINNNSSSSSS!!!!!!!!”
O’Bannon’s film was groundbreaking, combining elements of horror, punk rock, and dark humor while also essentially re-writing the rule book for how zombies behave on screen. Flesh was always a preferred snack but these zombies specifically crave brains. Why? Because, according to one rotten half-corpse, brains take away the pain of being dead. Eschewing that zombie dogma was the best decision O’Bannon could have made; these zombies do whatever works best in service of the story. A hungry zombie finishes munching on the brains of a paramedic and, rather than shuffle off and look for another victim, he grabs the handheld radio out of the ambulance cab and makes a simple order: “Send more paramedics”. Later, the same gag is reapplied after two cops have been consumed.
Another smart decision by O’Bannon was to give virtually all zombies their own distinct look, with a few even getting a personality. These flesheaters aren’t a singular, slowly-moving wave of avoidable terror; each zombie moves and acts in accordance with its current state of preservation. Zombies with the most meat on their bones can run and talk and some, such as Tarman, can even perform simple tasks. Speaking of Tarman, next to Bub he has got to be the most iconic zombie ever put to film. Alan Trautman did an amazing job bringing Tarman to life with his drunken gait and dripping figure.
I could write endlessly about what makes this film a splatter classic but chances are you, the reader, already know this. The Return of the Living Dead is unquestionably one of the greats. If only I’d been older than four in 1985, to have seen this and Re-Animator and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning and Day of the Dead and at least a half-dozen other cult classics in cinemas. What a year! Chances are what fans really want to know is what version of the film Scream Factory has provided here. Those who watched this numerous times in theaters or on VHS have clamored for years to get the original audio, with all of the soundtrack cuts, and that has almost entirely been delivered. Aside from one song omission – The Damned’s “Dead Beat Dance” – the film is presented just as it was over thirty years ago. While I think that’s great and all, I will admit to preferring Tarman’s re-recorded dialogue, which is a bit throatier than his original high pitched tone. Whatever your preference, fans can buy easy knowing this is the best the film has ever looked and sounded. Not only that, this two-disc set is absolutely overflowing with bonus features.
Have you grown tired of re-purchasing this film on home video? Don’t worry; this will be the last time. I swear. The 1.85:1 1080p image is brains & shoulders above every other release out there, including the Second Sight’s U.K. Blu-ray. Featuring a new 2K scan from the interpositive (I still don’t know why Scream doesn’t go back to the negatives), I can honestly say the movie has never looked more polished and detailed, and it has been done without resorting to DNR’ing the picture to death. Contrast appears a little dark at the onset, but it evens out soon after. Colors are superbly saturated and vibrant. Film grain has been lessened to such a degree that it looks organic to the image, far from the “noisier” grain that has accompanied previous releases. Black levels are particularly strong, appearing stable and rich. Definition also shines, with far more minute details and textures present here than on any other hi-def edition. From start to finish I was consistently impressed by how great Scream Factory has made the film look. Even the company’s usual a/v detractors will have few complaints.
The usual suspects are offered up as options here – English DTS-HD MA in both 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo – but what fans want to hear is the original 2.0 mono track. Truthfully, it sounds the best of all the options; the multi-channel track is thin and lacks punch. The original mono is clean, with excellent fidelity and a “fuller” sound than you might expect. Some of the films more bombastic moments register nicely with real oomph.
Subtitles are available in English SDH, Zombie, and In Their Own Words – Zombies Speak. The Zombie track is amusing for a minute or two; In Their Own Words is a terrible attempt at humor. Both were carryovers from the MGM releases.
There are four audio commentary tracks available (the first two of which are new), featuring the following participants:
– Gary Smart (Co-Author of The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead) and Chris Griffiths
– Thom Mathews, John Philbin, and Make-Up Effects Artist Tony Gardner
– Director Dan O’Bannon and Production Designer William Stout
– Cast & Crew
“The Decade of Darkness” – Having little to do with the film, this piece covers ‘80s horror films with all of the clips coming from MGM’s library. There are some great participants, though, making this a good watch – although seasoned horror nerds will likely already know everything that is covered.
Five theatrical trailers can be found here, as well as eleven TV spots, all in HD. There are also two still galleries, one containing poster, lobby cards, movie stills, and behind-the-scenes photos while the other features 25 behind-the-scenes photos from special make-up effects artist Kenny Myers’ personal collection.
“More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead” – This is it, folks. Every single thing you could ever want to know about the production of this film, from genesis right up through its legacy. It is so exhaustive I was convinced they were going to cover the catering menu options at one point. A longer cut of this doc that includes coverage of the two subsequent sequels appears on the U.K. Second Sight disc. This release cuts that down to only focus on this film.
“The FX of The Return of the Living Dead” – Production Designer William Stout and a handful of the FX artists who worked on this film discuss their approach to the film’s practical effects, covering every major prop and gag.
“Party Time – The Music of The Return of the Living Dead” – Many of the artists featured on the soundtrack pop in to discuss their contributions to the movie. Fun fact: my brother used to date Dinah Cancer. She’s an interesting lady.
“Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” – As usual, revisit the filming locations and see how they appear today.
“A Conversation with Dan O’Bannon” – Passionate as ever, O’Bannon has a candid, frank discussion about the film’s production history.
“The Origins of The Return of the Living Dead” – Producer John A. Russo chats about his involvement with O’Bannon’s film, which was very loosely based on his novel.
“Designing the Dead” – O’Bannon and Stout are present in this archival interview, covering their design ideas and style concepts for the film’s undead.
“The Return of the Living Dead – Workprint” (Standard Definition) runs for 1 hour, 48 minutes and 5 seconds. Fans have been clamoring to see this for years and it’s finally been included here as a bonus feature, albeit sourced from a very rough VHS and looking pretty dreadful. This will only appeal to the most hardcore of fans.
The two-disc set comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The cover art is reversible, allowing for display of either the new artwork or the classic graveyard key art. A slipcover featuring the new art is included on first pressings.
- NEW 2K scan of the inter-positive
- NEW Audio Commentary with Gary Smart (co-author of The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead) and Chris Griffiths
- Audio Commentary with director Dan O’Bannon and Production Designer William Stout
- Audio Commentary with the cast and crew featuring Production Designer William Stout and actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, Allan Trautman
- The Decade of Darkness – featurette on ‘80s horror films (23 minutes)
- Theatrical Trailers
- TV Spots
- Still Gallery – Posters, Lobby Cards, Movie Stills and Behind-the-Scenes photos
- Still Gallery – Behind-the-Scenes photos from special make-up effects artist Kenny Myers’ personal collection
- Zombie Subtitles for the Film
- In Their Own Words – The Zombies Speak
- NEW The FX of the Living Dead with Production Designer William Stout, FX make-up artists William Munns, Tony Gardner, Kenny Myers and Craig Caton-Largnet, Visual Effects artists Bret Mixon and Gene Warren Jr. and actor Brian Peck (Expanded Version) (30 minutes)
- NEW Party Time: The Music of The Return of the Living Dead with music consultants Budd Carr and Steve Pross and soundtrack artists Dinah Cancer (45 Grave), Chris D (The Flesh Eaters), Roky Erickson, Karl Moet (SSQ), Joe Wood (T.S.O.L.), Mark Robertson (Tall Boys) plus musicians Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) and John Sox (The F.U.’s, Straw Dogs), (Expanded Version) (30 minutes)
- NEW HORROR’S HALLOWED GROUNDS – revisiting the locations of the film
- Return of the Living Dead Workprint – includes 20 minutes of additional footage (in Standard Definition)
- More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead – The definitive documentary on The Return of the Living Dead (120 minutes)
- A Conversation with Dan O’Bannon – His final interview (28 minutes)
- The Origins of the Living Dead – an interview with John A. Russo (16 minutes)
- The Return of the Living Dead – The Dead Have Risen – interviews with cast members Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Brian Peck, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley and more… (21 minutes)
- Designing the Dead – interviews with writer/director Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout (15 minutes)