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When Frank and his nephew Freddy unwittingly unleash a barrel of toxic chemicals that bring the dead back to life in the local Uneeda Medical Supply Company, that's bad. When Frank and Freddy's boss Burt decides to burn a recently reanimated medical corpse at his buddy Ernie's crematorium, the problem's solved, right? Well, that is until the gases from the burning body hit the air and cause a rainstorm that ends up seeping the chemical into the grounds of a local cemetery (where conveniently a group of local punk rockers are throwing a party). When the cemetery residents become reanimated and hunger for brains, that's very bad.
Hitting the same year as George Romero's underrated DAY OF THE DEAD, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was the clear winner in the battle between zombie films. Dan O'Bannon's tweaking of Romero's original idea and starting his own franchise was a stroke of genius for many fans. I mean, the writer for ALIEN doing a bleak yet ultimately fun zombie flick? Who knew? When I first saw the film years ago, I sure didn't. Then the disclaimer appeared saying that the film and its characters were all based on actual events, and I took notice.
Right away, I have to say that I loved the teaming of James Karen (of POLTERGEIST fame) and Thom Mathews (of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES fame). The two played off of each other so well, and the chemistry was nothing short of brilliance. Once you add in the great Clu Gulager as their boss, things really started to roll. The banter between the three of them when the first corpse comes to life is pure gold. Then of course, there's Don Calfa with his pipe and pistol. How can you not say this film isn't fun? Everyone is spot on, including Linnea Quigley being smoking hot in various forms of dress, and Mark Venturini spouting about his punk-rock lifestyle while Linnea dry-dumps his leg. If that's not awesome, I don't know what is.
Of course, you can't talk about RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD without the dead themselves. A precursor to what we'd see in films like the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and 28 DAYS LATER, the zombies in ROTLD are memorable for the fact that they broke the norm for zombies. These guys weren't the slow lumbering corpses, these were characters who were agile, crafty and just plain cool. Not just the Tar Man zombie (who still looks great after all these years), I'm talking about the civil war zombie ("send more cops..."), the limbless zombie, the zombie that Ernie interrogates as to why the zombies eat people ("not people...BRAINS!!"). All of these characters made the film so much fun to watch, and at times you ended up rooting for the zombies themselves!
Then there's the soundtrack. Oh, man. How can you not have a party involving zombies without a soundtrack that includes bands like The Flesheaters, The Damned and The Cramps? With songs like 'Surfin' Dead', 'Partytime' and 'Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)', the soundtrack truly fits the film. The other thing that fits the film? The gore. Sure, it's not as gory as it could've been, but these zombies just kept coming, even after getting their heads sawn/knocked off and stuck with pickaxes, shot, splashed with acid and more. The zombie bites to the head were gushers, as well. Man, it really is a party!
So yeah, how much more can I say about a film that truly deserves recognition from zombie and horror fans? Not much more, but do you really need that much more of an excuse to see it? Hopefully not, since if the great characters and interaction between these great characters doesn't get you going, then what will? Go see it already if you haven't, and if you have, get ready to party again.
Video: Way back in 2002, I snagged the first DVD release of the film, which featured a pretty good transfer. Looking at that transfer, the 2007 release and this new Blu-Ray, I can say that there have been improvements, but it's not quite what I expected. This 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen transfer has a bit more blue to it than the 2002 release and the colours look great, but where's the detail? The finer details for the most part are lost in the soft picture, and shadows are kind of weak. The film just doesn't look as clean as it should. That said, this is still a step up from the DVD releases and should warrant a purchase. Just don't expect a clean shot of Linnea's boobs without the grain.
Audio: The film's original mono soundtrack is enhanced here by way of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix, with a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track for you people without the system. Honestly though, it's merely okay. The surround channels aren't used a heck of a lot, save for rainfall and reinforcing the music. And really, it just lacks the punch you'd expect from a lossless mix. Dialogue is clear without any need to fiddle with the volume, so that's a plus.
Thankfully, pretty much all of the extras from both the 2002 and 2007 DVDs have been migrated here, save for a few TV spots that were on the 2002 release and the full gallery of William Stout concept art (what?!).
First up are two commentary tracks: the 2002 original and the 2007 track. The 2007 track features commentary by production designer William Stout and actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Allan Trautman, Beverly Randolph and a zombie. Yes, a zombie. Yes, it's as painful as you'd expect, but thankfully this is still a pretty fun track. Stout is the moderator for this one, going over stuff from the film's budget, when and where things were shot, the shooting schedule and more. The cast chime in with stuff from makeup headaches, necrophilia talk and other goofy stuff that makes this one a keeper...if it weren't for the lame-ass zombie jumping in and trying to be funny with awful one-liners and interrupting other speakers. Thankfully, it's not too obtrusive.
The 2002 track features commentary by William Stout and writer/director Dan O'Bannon. Honestly, I wasn't thrilled with this one back then, and I'm still not thrilled now. The duo have a lot of dead space between the both of them, and it's definitely slower than the newer track. There's still some great information to glean from this track, but I think Dan needed more poking from Stout to get more out of him.
The Dead Have Risen is a carry-over from the 2007 disc, and features input from folks like Clu Gulager, James Karen, Linnea Quigley, Thom Matthews and more. It's personable, really fun to watch and informative. This is probably as close as you'll get to a 'documentary' for the making-of as you can get, really.
Designing the Dead is taken from the 2002 release, and has Stout and O'Bannon talking about the design of the zombies, as well as featuring concept art by Stout. O'Bannon also talks about how he landed the job directing the film, his inspiration for the zombies (read: EC Comics) and just how he came up with ideas. Stout chimes in with his inspirations (EC Comics, again), his thoughts on O'Bannon's approach to creating the zombies, as well as the idea to cast the Tar Man with an actor in mind rather than a stuntperson. Still very informative after all this time, even at just under 15 minutes.
The Decade of Darkness doesn't necessarily focus on ROTLD, but on horror movies in general during the 1980s. It's actually pretty neat, featuring interviews with Joe Dante (and his hair), Stuart Gordon (his lack of hair), Elvira and her boobs, John Landis, Tom Holland, Bill Moseley, Fango's Tony Timpone, Catherine Hicks, and Dee Wallace. Obviously, the movie clips shown during the doc are from MGM's library (or were), such as CHILD'S PLAY, PUMPKINHEAD, THE FOG, THE HOWLING, THE BROOD, MOTEL HELL, POLTERGEIST II, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II and even LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. The discussion focuses on the attraction of 80s horror, as well as the rise of credible makeup effects (Rick Baker, anyone?), ghost movies, werewolves and slashers. Really, this would probably benefit from being a feature-length documentary, rather than a 23 minute piece that has Elvira cracking jokes and showing off her boobs. It's still entertaining, but leaves you wanting more.
Zombie Subtitles is unfortunately a gag that MGM decided to throw in on the 2007 disc that unfortunately was carried over here onto Blu-Ray. There are two zombified subtitle streams: The regular zombie subtitles just caption stuff like "Brains!", and In Their Own Words: The Zombies Speak, which consists of lame puns and bad one-liners, all are about as funny as Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia combined.
Finally, the only high definition extras as the two trailers for the film, one labeled the "Bloody" version (the greenband trailer) and the "Even Bloodier" version (the redband trailer).
While hopes of a more fleshed out doc kind of died with Dan O'Bannon, what's here is probably good enough for most people. Still, I would've liked to have had all of the extras in high definition, but what can you do when Fox rapes and pillages your film catalog? Also included is the SD version of the film, which mirrors all of the extras found on the Blu-Ray, save for the trailers.
A great zombie film, and one of the better 80s horror films, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is still a favorite of mine. While the Blu-Ray could've used a bit more polish to it in the audio and video departments, the extras from previous editions are mostly carried over for our enjoyment, and are still very worthwhile. The movies didn't lie this time!