Return Of The Living Dead, The (Collector’s Edition)
Released by: Shout! Factory
Released on: July 19th, 2016.
Director: Dan O’Bannon
Cast: Thom Mathews, Clu Gulager, John Philbin, Linnea Quigley
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In 1984, Dan O’Bannon, who had previously written film such as Dark Star and Alien, made his directorial debut with ‘The Return of the Living Dead,’ a horror comedy hybrid with a classic 80s punk rock soundtrack, that over the years, has built up a rabid fan base and spawned two sequels.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Essentially, two guys (Frank and Freddie played by James Karen and Thom Matthews respectively) who work at a medical supply storage facility inadvertently release a toxic gas developed by the military into the air which contaminates the cemeteries and graveyards of Kentucky and cause the dead to return to life and to feast upon the brains of the living. Luckily for the freshly reanimated zombies, there is a group of partying punk rock teens hanging out in the cemetery, just waiting to be eaten. The rest of the story basically sticks to the zombie movie formula and consists of the teens and the medical supply workers trying to stay alive and find a way to defeat the legions of zombies that are now roaming the area.
Heavily influenced by the infamous EC Comics of the 50’s like ‘Tales From the Crypt’ and ‘Vault of Horror’, the film never loses its sense of humor and has some truly memorable moments that have boosted what could have been just another cheap and quick zombie movie into a cult favorite. The film successfully pokes fun at its influences while paying respect to them at the same time, a difficult task to be sure. That said, it doesn’t really ease up on the gore and it allows the make-up effects team employed to bring the undead to life to really go a bit nuts with their work. The zombies in the film have more to do here than in a lot of the zombie films that came before it. While they’re still shuffling masses, the script allows them to just generally do more than wander aimlessly looking for the next set of brains to chow down on (though there’s a fair bit of that here too).
O’Bannon’s direction is spot on, and he successfully creates a few creepy moments in between the comedic episodes, and of course then there’s Linea Quigley’s infamous strip scene in the cemetery that’s hard to forget. A strong supporting performance from the one and only Clu Gulager also adds to the fun and his back and forth with James Karen is the source of much of the film’s very effective humor. But I think what really makes the movie work is what O’Bannon does best: the script. ‘The Return of the Living Dead’ is a very well written film that ties together it’s influences and wraps them up in one package that is distinctly 80s feeling but timeless at the same time.
Return Of The Living Dead hit Blu-ray a few years ago from MGM but this new collector’s edition from Shout! Factory presents the film in a new 2k scan that offers a very noticeable upgrade over that previous release. The AVC encoded 1080p high definition image is properly framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. There’s noticeably more detail here than what we saw in the older MGM release (we don’t have the Second Sight release from the UK to compare) and the colors look a bit stronger here too, but not drastically changed or boosted. Black levels are strong, skin tones look good and there’s better depth and texture evident throughout the film. The disc is free of any obvious noise reduction, so the expected amount of natural looking film grain is there (as it should be), but there isn’t much in the way of actual print damage to note. As such, we are left with a clean, nicely rendered transfer that feels very film like and true to source. In short, the movie looks great.
The film gets the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio treatment here as well as DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Mono tracks. Optional subtitles are included in English only for the feature but there’s also a ‘zombie subtitle track included. Note that the mono track his reissue from Shout! Factory appears to fix the audio problems that were on the previous release, with one exception – The Damned’s contribution to the soundtrack is still missing (it was a rights issue and Shout! Factory has been up front about this). The rest of the soundtrack is intact and the sound effects issue resolved. The 5.1 and stereo tracks don’t sound much different than those included on the past Blu-ray release but having the original mono here is a definite plus. This track sounds like it has better balance and a bit more punch in spots, it also features nice, crisp dialogue and is free of any hiss or distortion issues.
This new release is a two disc set with the extras spread across the discs as follows.
Let’s start with the first audio commentary from Gary Smart (co-author of The Complete History of The Return Of The Living Dead) and Chris Griffiths. This track is a new one and it starts off with some discussion of their initial experiences watching the film before then going on to offer up a nice mix of trivia and information about the picture. They talk about O’Bannon’s directing style, how this movie plays alongside Romero’s films, how James Karen essentially steals every scene that he’s in, the quality of the effects work and quite a bit more. This is a good natured track, it’s like sitting down with two friendly super fans and just chatting – it’s very casual and laid back and quite an easy, enjoyable listen.
A second newly recorded commentary gets actors Thom Mathews and John Philbin together with makeup artist Tony Gardner. It’s also worth checking out as it lends some insight into their collective experiences working on the picture. They talk about some of the other cast members that they worked with, how one of the punks, Scuz played by Brian Peck, was actually super preppy in real life – and so he got some fake teeth done to make himself look better for the part. This lead to some tests for different teeth ideas on O’Bannon’s behest and how this led to Gardner doing more work on the film. There’s some discussion of the film’s legacy, the use of flares in Linnea Quigley’s dance scene and how certain parties were unaware she was going to strip when she did, the context in which humor is used in the movie, and plenty of other topics. Again, this is well paced and these guys are having a great time strolling down memory lane together here.
Carried over from the older release is the commentary with Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout. The two have a lot to say about the film, and it’s genuinely interesting to listen to the two of them reminisce about the film and it’s cast and crew. Fans of the film will definitely find a lot of great information on this track and it’s definitely worth your time to listen to it all the way through. Shout! Factory have also carried over the older cast and crew commentary in which O’Bannon is joined by Stout again as well as Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Allan Trautman, and Beverly Randolph along with a bunch of zombies who do an amusing enough job of staying in character throughout. It’s not as informative as the first track but it’s amusing enough and it does give the cast a chance to tell their side of the story.
Also carried over from the older Blu-ray is The Decade Of Darkness which is really just a look back at the horror boom of the eighties than a look at the movie itself. It’s interesting enough if you don’t know your 80s horror but if you’re as fanatical about it as many of us are, you’re not going to learn anything new here. It does do an interesting job of exploring how the politics of the twenty years prior had an effect on the populace and the horror movies that came later and it features some interesting interviews with those who helped make this material as well as critical types like Tony Timpone from Fangoria.
Rounding out the extras on the first disc are eight minutes of theatrical trailers, five minutes of TV spots, a still gallery of promotional materials and behind the scenes photos, a second still gallery comprised of makeup artist Kenny Myers’ shots taken during the production, menus and chapter selection.
The main extra on the second disc is More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead, which is an absolutely massive two hour documentary that was directed by Bill Philputt. This was released on its own a few years ago but it makes a great addition to this release. Philputt and company have rounded up pretty much everyone they could for this retrospective look back at the film, so here we’re treated to surprisingly blunt and candid interviews with cast members like the mighty Clu Gulager, Don Kalfa, Brian Peck (who also serves as narrator), Miguel Nunez, Jewel Shepard, Linnea Quigley, Beverly Randolph, James Karen, Thom Matthews, Allan ‘Tarman’ Trautman and John Philbin but also with producers, effects technicians, assistant editors, casting directors, production designer (and legendary comic book artist) William Stout, and John Russo and a few others. Pretty much everyone who is still alive (meaning that director Dan O’Bannon, actor Mark Venturini and producer Tom Fox aren’t interviewed, obviously) shows up here at one point and seemingly everyone has an anecdote to share.
The documentary does a great job of setting up how the movie came to be by beginning with a look at John Russo’s attempts to bring a sequel to Night Of The Living Dead to fruition before moving along and covering what happened with the script, some revisions that took place, how they found a producer, and how Dan O’Bannon came on board to write and then, after Tobe Hooper left the project, direct the film. All involved have got a pretty obvious respect for the late O’Bannon though some have kinder words than others when discussing his directorial style. What’s made very clear, however, is that this film was successful primarily because he had a vision for it and he worked everyone very hard to ensure that the movie stayed true to that vision. We also learn about the various relationships and friendships that developed during the making of the movie, with James Karen and Thom Matthews obviously becoming fast friends and Jewel Shepard, who is still beautiful, more or less alienating herself from the rest of the cast with some odd behavior (she does go on record here stating in no uncertain terms that she didn’t ‘fuck’ O’Bannon, who discovered her while visiting a strip club she was performing at, in order to get her role). The film’s effects work are also covered in a lot of detail and the movie dishes some dirt as to who did what and why a certain party was removed from the film during production. We learn how the Tarman suit was made, how the half corpse was brought to life and about how prosthetics were used for Quigley’s character not just to cover up her fun bits during the cemetery scene but also for her resurrection in zombie form. If the documentary has one weak spot it’s that it doesn’t go into very much detail in regards to the soundtrack. Outside of mentioning that The Damned and The Cramps are used in it, there’s not too much here – though Stacey Q. does pop up and sing a little bit of her famous number, ‘Tonight (We’ll Make Love Till We Die,’ which was more or less immortalized when it was used as the background music for Linnea’s strip scene.
The FX Of The Return Of The Living Dead is a thirty-three minute piece that interviews William Stout, Bill Munns, Kenny Myers, Craig Caton, Tony Gardner, Gene Warren Jr., Bret Mixon and Brian Peck about the effects work that plays such an important role in the film. Stout talks about how the zombies move quickly in this movie to make them scarier and harder to get away from and how his design work tries to make the zombies in the film look more unique, especially compared to the Romero movies. From there we learn about how tar man was made using sheets of tinfoil wrapped around the actors body with various substances poured over him. They talk about the resurrection scenes of the bodies coming out of the graves and how animatronics were used there, how the different masks for certain zombie characters were used alongside more traditional makeup work, the difficulties of chopping various body parts off of a zombie, budgetary issues that crept up during the movie and how that affected the end result, and how a lot of different extras and actors were used to play different zombies over and over again. It’s a pretty thorough look at the effects portion of the movie – interesting stuff!
Party Time: The Music Of The Return Of The Living Dead is a half hour long look, as you’d guess, at the music used in the film. Dinah Cancer from 45 Grave talks about how her band came to be and how they wound up being used in the movie. We also hear from music consultant Bud Carr and how he went about working with O’Bannon and various other players to put all of this together. Greg Hetson from the Circle Jerks shows up here, while Steve Pross, who was a musical consultant on the film, discusses how he started working for Enigma Records and how so many of the acts on that label wound up in the picture. The Cramps are discussed (but unfortunately none of the surviving members are interviewed – Ivy wants her privacy and you can’t fault her for that), The Damned really are not (again there’s legal issues here). Also appearing on camera are Joe Wood from T.S.O.L. (who plays a quick acoustic version of their contribution to the soundtrack), Karl Moet from SSQ, and even Roky Erickson and Chris D. from The Flesheaters, John Sox from Straw Dogs and The F.U.’s, Mark Robertson from Tall Boys and The Meteors – great stuff, lots of fantastic archival pictures are here along with some clips and watch it all the way through the end credits where Pross shows off the picture disc LP!
Horror’s Hallowed Grounds spends ten minutes with Sean Clark who shows off what some of the locations used in the film in 1985 look like today – the Uneeda Medical Supply building, some of the streets, the general’s house, the crematorium, and the graveyard set. There are always interesting to see and this installment is no exception.
Dan O'Bannon's Final Interview is also included here, a half hour segment in which the director discusses his work on this film and a few other projects he was involved with during his time in the industry. This was originally included on the More Brains! solo release but again, it’s absolutely worth having included here.
The Origins Of The Return Of The Living Dead interviews John Russo for fifteen minutes about his involvement in Night Of The Living Dead and how his desire to make a follow up film turned into Return Of The Living Dead. He talks about growing up watching horror films and how before Night, zombies weren’t really scary. He then talks about writing Return, Romero’s follow ups to Night and the importance of calling Dawn Of The Dead a sequel while not calling Return a sequel even though it was written first.
Carried over from the older release is Designing The Dead which features interviews with Dan O’Bannon and Stout as well that details how the movie came together. It’s not an epic piece by any means, clocking in at 14 minutes, but it’s informative and interesting to watch, if not a bit light. The Return Of The Living Dead – The Dead Have Risen, also an archival featurette, is a more substantial 21 minute piece that brings together as many of the cast members you could hope for to reminisce about making the movie and the involvement of Gulager and Karen helps make this more than just a rehash of what’s covered on the commentary. There are some really fun stories in here which makes it well worth watching.
Last but not least, the disc also includes the work print version of the feature, which runs an hour and forty-eight minutes (versus the hour and thirty one minute long theatrical cut). This is in pretty rough shape and the compression isn’t so hot – the quality of this isn’t really any better than the bootleg versions that have made the rounds over the years BUT it’s pretty cool to see it included on an official release of the film. It’s presented in standard definition from what is clearly a lackluster tape source but it is what it is. Some of the additional scenes in this cut include more with Frank and Freddy in the warehouse with the cadavers, more footage of Frank telling Freddy about what happened in the sixties, a few more scenes with the punk characters and some other bits and pieces.
The Final Word:
The Return Of The Living Dead remains an eighties horror classic and Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray is a great way to see it. The transfer is a nice improvement over the old MGM disc, it includes the original Mono track and it’s got loads of extras, some new and some recycled from previous releases. There’s a lot to love here – great stuff.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!