The Return Of The Living Dead Review
George A. Romero set them free, and now the ‘undead’ refuse to lay silent in the grave. Like his walking-corpse creations, this sub-genre in horror cinema keeps birthing new young and they just keep coming. It could certainly be argued that no other genre produced such a high volume of utter rubbish, and even many fan favourites fit into the ‘so bad, it’s kinda good’ category. The shoestring budgets forgot to price-manage what decent scripts, actors or direction cost, happily throwing dollars, pounds, or lire at wet-decaying dead bodies, animatronic beasties, and old ladies whose heads would explode on ‘action’. Yet while critics continued to spit in the direction of any ‘Zombie’ film that came their way, there were a few shining lights in the otherwise excrement-filled coffin.
The Return Of The Living Dead is one such gem, that emerged in 1985, with director Dan O’Bannon at the helm. Having acquired John Russo’s script (Russo penned Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead) from producer Tom Fox, O’Bannon decided to turn his debut directorial project into a comedy, rather than make a serious sequel to Romero’s first ‘Dead’ film, which Russo’s script was. Using the concept, O’Bannon (most famous for writing one of the best films ever made: Alien) was able to infuse some much needed humour into his ‘dead arising from the grave’ story, creating a film in keeping with the demands of the target 1980’s audience.
The plot couldn’t be simpler, but the set-up inferring that what happened in Night Of The Living Dead was based on a true story, is a great inclusion and begins the film wonderfully. New-boy on the job, Freddy (Thom Matthews) is shown the ropes of working in a warehouse which specialises is shipping out fresh cadavers for medical research, by old-hand Frank (James Karen). ‘Have you ever seen that film ‘Night Of The Living Dead’, he asks Freddy, before spinning a tale of how corpses came alive in a hospital and started moving around all by themselves. He goes on to say that during a military mistake, the corpses were sealed and shipped to the wrong place. ‘….their in the basement..’ he tells the now quivering man, before taking him down to see them. Freddy wonders if the steal containers that hold the corpses are secure, so Frank bangs the container with his hand, believing that they are. Unfortunately for them, the container begins to leak allowing the gas that brings the lifeless to life, to spread into the air. Cue…the start-proper of The Return Of The Living Dead.
Of course, it just so happens that this place of work is right next door to a cemetery and a morgue, and has a dead body hanging by its ears in the freezer. The words: ‘wrong place, wrong time’ couldn’t be anymore fitting. While the ‘undead’ body count rises, the human fodder decreases and there’s plenty of hapless targets for the brain munches to feast on, namely a bunch of teens who decide to have a little midnight ‘nookie’ in the cemetery, and the cops and paramedics who unfortunately come to help them.
The great thing about O’Bannon’s film is that it never takes itself too seriously with its straight-faced, mocking of the conventions inherited from the ‘Zombie’ films before it. The director is having fun with his material, and this is clearly expressed in the actors. It’s the three older members of the cast that shine, with Clu Gulager as Burt, desperately trying to deduce the best options of dealing with the situation. It’s great to see a well-schooled, knowledgeable manager-type trying to figure out how to stop a dead body from eating his brain. Don Kalfa as Ernie, is also excellent, but it’s James Karen who steals the show. When talking about the human cadaver in the freezer he says, ‘like the rest of the business, you don’t want your inventory to lose its freshness.’ He has a little wry quirk with the sound of his voice that ends his sentences, which makes them unbearably funny, and his over-the-top antics, when things begin to go wrong, are hilarious.
O’Bannon pretty much assembles almost everything in the right place. The special make-up and animatronic effects are true low-budget old school fare, which gives the film a nostalgic touch, and while the gore and violence remains fairly timid and comic book, it never loses a gratuitous edge. Working off the idea of T + A – a staple of the blossoming ‘slasher’ genre at the time, the director has death obsessed, punk teen Trash (Linnea Quigley), run around naked almost the entire film. The laughs are very funny, and the scares have enough tension to balance it out, but where the film does fall down is in its conclusion. Sadistically, it’s quite funny, but it doesn’t really work, suggesting O’Bannon wasn’t too sure how he should end the film. Nevertheless, this movie is great fun and thoroughly recommended.
The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and anamorphic enhanced. Undoubtedly, this is the best the film has ever looked, and MGM have done a great job in transferring it to DVD. Colours are excellent, which is important seen as director of photography Jules Brenner, utilised the bright, garish colours of the clothes to counter the dank exterior of the cemetery. Detail is solid throughout, and darker scenes look fine. The print is in very good condition, given its age, and while there is a little grain noticeable in some scenes, there is very little dirt or print damage. *The reverse of the disc has an open-matte 4:3 presentation of the film.
The original English mono track is present on the DVD, and does its job pretty well. Dialogue is clear, and the music track sounds excellent. A surround track would have been a good inclusion but it probably wouldn’t have improved the film’s impact, apart from giving it a little more power from the bass channel.
Audio Commentary by writer/director Dan O’Bannon, and production designer William Stout - This is a good commentary track which will certainly interest fans. O’Bannon and Stout are good speakers who clearly enjoyed working on the project and they have plenty of anecdotes to tell, including their influences in creating the film. O’Bannon has a lot to say about directing the film, as he was new to being behind the camera at the time, and his information about how he decided on shots and how he would change things now, is very interesting.
‘Designing The Dead’ Featurette - A 14 minute featurette that has a lot of information crammed into it, and most of it is of interest, especially for fans. Featuring interviews with O’Bannon and Stout, O’Bannon provides some background into the making of the film, and Stout concentrates on the special-effects. It doesn’t shed light on other aspects of the film, including the actors, which would suggest a fully-fledged hour-long documentary would have been of great use.
Stills Gallery, Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots - The stills gallery features 50 conceptual drawings showing the zombie’s in various stages of production. There are also two theatrical trailers and ten TV Spots.
The Return Of The Living Dead is great fun, and it’s received a solid DVD presentation. Picture and sound are fine, and the commentary is well-worth a listen.