-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Too bad Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews) didn't get copied on that memo. No, Frank sets out to impress the new kid, and a blast of Trioxin gas later, they wind up passed out on the dingy basement floor. They're sopping with sweat, all the color has drained out of their faces, and...hmmm, that oversized tuna can that used to have a rotting corpse inside is now completely empty. No harm done, though, right? Spritz a little Lysol, let the place air out over the weekend, and no one'll be the wiser once Monday rolls around. Well, maybe if the Trioxin hadn't already made its way through the air ducts... The dogs on the shelf may be split down the middle but are starting to yap anyway. Corkboard-pinned butterflies flap their wings once again. And that naked, shaved, yellow cadaver in the freezer...? Moaning and pounding to get out. Oops. Braining the guy doesn't do the trick. Total body dismemberment just means you have oodles of little yellow parts wriggling after you. The Army has an emergency number printed on the side of the busted container, but...y'know, Frank and Freddy figure they'll get in trouble if they ring up the military. Burt (Clu Gulager), the boss man who's rocking that Members Only jacket, thinks the best move is to torch all the evidence. They shove the reanimated dogs and the jaundiced parts-is-parts in a bunch of garbage bags, convince Ernie (Don Calfa) from that mortuary home across the way to let 'em shove it all in the crematorium, and what's left of the undead is spouting out the chimney...nothing's left of 'em but ash and smoke.
Whew! Sigh of relief. Fade to black. Roll credits.
Oh, wait! ...and then it starts raining. Burns kinda like acid rain, even. A bunch of Freddy's pals who were
All I do in my off-hours is devour movies with corpses munching on the living, and of that long, long, long list of zombie flicks, The Return of the Living Dead ranks dizzyingly high near the top. C'mon, what's not to like? A zombie's screams start getting all gargled as his head is sawed off. A half-dog's tail wags when he's reanimated from the dead, and he whimpers when what's left of him is whacked repeatedly with a spare crutch. Linnea Quigley strips down completely naked for no reason whatsoever and stays that way for the rest of the flick, even when she joins the ranks of the brain-slurping undead.
So many of the zombie flicks from the tailend of the '70s and early '80s were shamelessly apeing George Romero, but The Return of the Living Dead veers off in a completely different direction. For one, you really can't kill these suckers. Dismembering 'em slows them down but doesn't stop the onslaught. Headshots just mean you're out one more bullet. You could charbroil every last trace of a zombie, but the resulting smoke will just wind up reanimating more of them. These aren't the slow, lumbering undead either. As long as all of their tendons and stuff haven't rotted off, they can dart around really quickly. Even the Tar Man, who's held together with buckets of black, decomposed goop, still manages to get around pretty well. Talking is kind of a pain, but if their decomposing tummies aren't full yet, they can grab a radio and order some take-out: more cops, more paramedics...whatever else 911 has on their delivery menu. These zombies are pretty damned clever too. They lie in wait before swarming in for the kill. They'll find a way to bust clean through your barricade, even if it means cranking a winch. A lot of The Return of the Living Dead is played for laughs, but the very unconventional approach it takes with its zombies works. Romero's zombies are more about inescapable dread...a looming, apocalyptic menace that slowly consumes everything around it. These zombies clawed their way out of the slasher era. They scheme. They move quickly. They taunt. They prefer to attack one or two victims at a time. They're pretty much unstoppable individually, let alone when hunting in packs. They scarf down brains rather than human flesh. Even twenty-five years and however many thousands of other zombie flicks later, the undead here feel more unique and distinctive than just about everything else to come down the pike.
The Return of the Living Dead piles together a pretty
So, yeah: it's funny, frenetic, and sloshes around plenty of splatter. With the torrential downpours of rain and a number of claustrophobic setpieces, The Return of the Living Dead manages to set a really effective sense of atmosphere as well, and the jolts connect when they count. There's a pretty subversive undercurrent to it all and even a little ::sniffles!:: pathos. I've probably watched The Return of the Living Dead fifteen times over the past couple of decades, and even now, it still feels fresh and inventive to me. It's not just one of my all-time favorite zombie flicks; this is one of my favorite movies of the '80s, period. Um, too bad it really doesn't look that great on Blu-ray. I'd eagerly heap on a much higher score if this release looked more polished, but still...? Recommended.
Oh, and this is probably worth a mention too: this Blu-ray disc marks The Return of the Living Dead's third home video release on these shores over the past decade, and still nothing from the quasi-legendary workprint managed to find its way on here. Even with more than twenty minutes of additional material floating around, there aren't any deleted scenes at all on this disc. Reportedly a director's cut was underway at one point. I'm not sure how far along that whole thing got, but nothing like that's on here either.
I've seen a few write-ups of The Return of the Living Dead on some of the usual Blu-ray message boards, and the comments are generally somewhere in the neighborhood of "eh, it's a low-budget horror flick from the '80s...this is about as good as it's ever gonna look" I can practically picture these guys shrugging as they mash the 'Post Reply' button. Why's that? Have you given The New York Ripper a spin? C'mon, the original A Nightmare on Elm St. was shot right around the same time and for just about the same amount of money, and this is how it turned out on Blu-ray:
I'll start with the good stuff, though. This high-def presentation of The Return of the Living Dead is a definite step up over MGM's previous two DVD releases. I snapped a few comparison shots if you're interested.
You'll notice straight off the bat that this BD shares the same blueish tint and framing as the 2007 DVD release. Take a look at Trash's stockings in the first set of shots. The lines are a bit more clearly defined in the Blu-ray disc compared to the 2002 DVD, and they're much, much clearer than they are in the 2007 disc. (Strange that a DVD from 2002 would trump a re-release from 2007 in that sense, but whatever.) The same holds true for the inscription on the tombstone. On the other hand, the shot where Burt's being threatened with a switchblade...? The Blu-ray disc is a bit clearer, but it's kind of a marginal step-up over both of the earlier DVDs.
This Blu-ray disc is soft, muddy, and pretty much entirely devoid of any fine detail. Definition tends to be pretty anemic; if you pop open those screengrabs again, you'll notice that you can't even make out the "Members Only" label on Burt's jacket. Blu-ray oughtta be able to swing that without any problem. Shadows are weak and noisy. Film grain really only rears its head under low light, and when you can see it, the texture tends to be dull, chunky, clumped together, and indistinct. I couldn't spot any improvement in color saturation whatsoever over the 2007 DVD, at least not with the scenes I compared. There are definitely some shots that look pretty decent to me, but even at its best, The Return of the Living Dead comes across more like DVD-and-a-half than a shiny, new high definition release.
The image doesn't look like it's been filtered or overprocessed, though. The bitrate's high enough to stave off any hiccups in the compression, and there aren't any hard, thick edge haloes ringing around here either. There is a bit of speckling, but much of that appears to date back to some of the optical effects work. The authoring of the disc itself seems to be sound, but it just looks like The Return of the Living Dead has either been transferred from lower quality elements or it just wasn't done all that well in the first place.
The short version...! Does this Blu-ray disc look better than the DVDs you probably already have on the shelf? Yes. Is it a massive, dramatic step up? No. The Return of the Living Dead being one of my favorite zombie flicks and all, a slight upgrade is worth it to me, but if you're not a frothing-at-the-mouth fan and already have one of these DVDs, I'd suggest holding out for a price drop. It's not another twenty bucks worth of 'better'.
A couple of additional quick technical notes: BD-25. AVC. 1.85:1.
The 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track sounds okay, although the design of this remix is really timid. (Too bad there's only a lossy version of Return...'s monaural soundtrack rather than going the lossless or uncompressed route there.) The surround channels are used very sparingly, reserved mostly for rainfall and reinforcing the music. There are a handful of effects that creep into the rears -- the discrete whimper of a split dog, the pan of a helicopter's whirring blades from the front to the surrounds, and a blast wave -- but they really aren't used to heighten the intensity of swarming legions of zombies everywhere. On the upside, the film's dialogue comes through pretty well: expectedly a bit dated but cleaner and clearer than I waltzed in expecting. Effects like punches and zombies being whacked generally feel flat. The subwoofer growls a little bit thanks to the score, but it still sounds kind of thin and mid-range-y. No hiss, pops, or crackling ever manage to intrude.
Admittedly, I hate gimmicky remixes, so part of me's thankful that the revised sound design here isn't just awkwardly chucking in split-surrounds and pans for the sake of showing off what it can do. At the same time, this is basically stereo with marginally more atmosphere in the back, and the track doesn't really attack when it matters the most. I mean, this is a flick where a few straggling survivors have barricaded themselves against hordes of the ravenous undead; shouldn't I feel surrounded? Trapped? Claustrophobic? Guess not. Anyway, this lossless soundtrack is perfectly listenable, but I wouldn't rank it any higher than okay.
Also piled on here are Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks in English and French. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), Spanish, French, and...errr, zombie. I'll get into that last one in a bit.
All of the extras from the 2002 and 2007 DVDs are included with this Blu-ray set. Actually, the 2007 DVD itself is packaged in here too, so there's that. It's appreciated that we don't have to swap discs or anything to get the full slate of extras...the same stuff is on both the Blu-ray disc and the accompanying DVD.
The Final Word
I've never really worked out a ranking system for the sixty-or-seventysomething zombie flicks I've devoured over the past couple of decades, but I really want to say that The Return of the Living Dead might be my second favorite of all-time. No matter how many times I plow through it, Return... never feels stale or clunky. It screams ahead at a breakneck pace, is lugging around a cacklingly demented sense of humor, piles together one of the greatest us-versus-them zombie holocaust ensembles, slops around plenty of splatter, and...yeah, Linnea Quigley is bare-assed naked pretty much the entire time. Boobs, brain-munching, and buckets of the red stuff...what's not to like?
Okay, so there are a decent number of extras, and I won't shut up about just how much I love the flick. Why am I not giving The Return of the Living Dead a more enthused recommendation...? The high-def presentation is aggressively mediocre. It's unquestionably an improvement over either of the DVDs that MGM has floating around right now, but this Blu-ray disc can't be bothered to deliver anything close to the level of detail and clarity I've come to expect out of the format, regardless of age, genre, or budget. If you haven't caught The Return of the Living Dead before, it's absolutely worth picking up on Blu-ray. Hell, most retailers online are charging as much for the standalone DVD from '07 as they are for this Blu-ray set, so you're not out-of-pocket anything extra anyway. If you already have one of these DVDs on your shelf, though, it's hard to say this is worth shelling out another sixteen to twenty bucks. It's a step-up for sure, but unless you're a particularly rabid fan, I really don't think you'll find it worth whipping out your credit card again. I'd hold out for the price tag to ease back another few bucks before buying, and even then it's probably a better idea to rent this BD disc first.
I'm definitely not saying that The Return of the Living Dead is some kind of disaster on Blu-ray. It just doesn't feel like any real effort went into it...that this was pieced together from leftovers back when high definition barely qualified as an afterthought. That combination of an indescribably awesome flick with a borderline-okay release in high-def is still enough to score a Recommended rating, but The Return of the Living Dead really doesn't deserve to have a shovelful of dirt tossed in its face like this. Try harder next time, MGM.