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Dan O'Bannon's unique take on the zombie genre returns once again thanks to this extra features-packed Blu-ray from Second Sight Films (UK). The emergence of the Blu-ray format obviously represents a great commercial opportunity for reviving the film but, in fairness, The Return of the Living Dead is one of those flicks that has never really fully faded from the general public's collective consciousness. The film enjoyed a healthy run in cinemas at the time of its release and went on to become a popular VHS and DVD title too (see Glenn's classic Savant review of the original Region 1 DVD release here).
I have to admit that I wasn't that sold on The Return of the Living Dead when I first saw it back in the 1980s. I didn't really appreciate the horror-comedy approach that its producers had employed. And the marked differences that served to distinguish O'Bannon's zombies from those of George A. Romero's imagination were a bit of a stumbling block for me too back then. But, after subsequently sitting through numerous zombie flicks that were slavishly cast in the mould of Romero's movies, I've come to realize that it's O'Bannon's (then novel) take on zombie aesthetics that has enabled The Return of the Living Dead to continue to stand out from the crowd.
I've revisited the film a couple of times over the years and can now recognize the narrative and visual value of zombies that can run and zombies that are semi-sentient enough to hold conversations and lay traps for unsuspecting humans. Furthermore, the animatronic effects that are used to bring some of the zombies to life project a kind of quaint -- if morbid and grisly -- charm in the current era of CGI and digital effects. Some of the show's dark humour does actually work well (Burt trying to pass bin bags full of writhing body parts off as captured rabid weasels, etc) but bits and pieces of the film's comedic play still fall a bit flat for me. Thankfully, these comedic blips tend to be offset by some very effective and quite chilling horror set pieces (see the sequence where two unwary ambulance men are caught out by zombies and the scenes where the zombies put their running skills to good use).
One thing that has always acted in the film's favour is its stomping soundtrack of contemporaneous punk, rock and metal-tinged tunes. The selection of songs found here is perhaps not as eclectic or as pleasing as that found in other eighties films that employed a similar approach (e.g. Repo Man) but it works well enough for the most part. Matt Clifford's original score elements are based around a doomy rock riff that is pumped out by typically eighties sounding synths and heavy guitars. In keeping with the found elements of the soundtrack, the bulk of the show's zombie-rattled protagonists are punk rocker-cum-new waver-cum-alternative types of the mid eighties-US variety. When things get hairy, these snotty kids are forced to team up with representatives of the older generation in the form of Frank, Burt and Ernie. This in turn leads to two generic but pretty effective zombie-siege situations (one at Ernie's morgue and another at the Uneeda warehouse).
There's not really much that differentiates the gaggle of kids in this movie from the generic gaggle of kids that seemed to appear in most US flicks from the eighties: we've got an aggressive tough guy (Mark Venturini), a morbid bad girl (Linnea Quigley), a cynical geeky-looking guy (John Philbin), an affable but naive good guy who went and got himself a job when he should have been out partying (Thom Mathews), a sassy and empowered ethnic guy (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.), a pouty-surly girl (Jewel Shepard), a cool-ish guy (Brian Peck) and a good girl (Beverly Randolph). Scream queen Quigley and company do a more than adequate job of bringing these disparate "youths" (most of the actors playing the punkers were actually in their mid-twenties at the time of the film's production) to life.
However, it's the old guard who really make an impression here. Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa all turn in earnest and interesting performances that serve to add a touch of class to the show. This being a zombie flick, we know that some of the film's characters aren't going to make it to the end. The fact that we become emotionally caught up in these diverse characters' fights for survival is a tribute to all involved here.
Watching The Return of the Living Dead is a bit like opening a 1980s time capsule: there's a great nostalgia trip to be had for those who remember seeing the film at the time of its release. However, O'Bannon's innovative take on zombie aesthetics, the cast's sometimes charming but always spirited performances and the show's sprightly sense of pace and plotting mean that The Return of the Living Dead has aged remarkably well. As such this low budget but fun show continues to possess the power to appeal to a whole new generation of horror/zombie flick fans.
Second Sight Films' presentation of The Return of the Living Dead also sports a raft of extra features, a number of which have appeared previously on the 2011 Region 1 DVD release More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead. First up is the main feature from that earlier release: More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead is a two hour documentary that features interviews with an impressive number (I counted well over twenty) of the film's surviving cast and crew members. More Brains is a fun and enthusiastically delivered talking heads-heavy documentary that might have benefited from just a bit of judicious editing here and there but it succeeds in providing a really thorough and insightful account of The Return of the Living Dead's production history.
The content of A Conversation With Dan O'Bannon: The Final Interview (29 minutes) is also insightful and the writer/director relays some contextual information that helps to aid our understanding of the film's look and tone. O'Bannon is conciliatory and understanding when he responds to questions concerning rumours and accusations about his behaviour on the film's set.
Next up are two mini-documentaries, They Won't Stay Dead: A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part II (29 minutes) and Love Beyond the Grave: A Look at Return of the Living Dead III (20 minutes), which focus upon the two sequels that followed The Return of the Living Dead. Featuring interviews with relevant cast and crew members, the format employed for these talking heads-heavy featurettes is pretty much identical to the one used for More Brains. The Return of the Living Dead in 3 Minutes features cast members delivering key lines from the film (as shot during the More Brains interview sessions) which have then been edited into an order that matches the film's narrative chronology. Stacey Q Live! is a music video while Deleted Documentary Scenes (15 minutes) offers out-takes from the More Brains interview sessions. Resurrected Settings: The Filming Locations Today (9 minutes) features Beverly Randolph and Brian Peck taking a whistle stop tour of the show's key shooting locations.
There are also three new featurettes present here that are exclusive to this UK release. Party Time! (19 minutes) features 45 Grave's lead singer Dinah Cancer and Enigma Records' Steven Pross discussing the genesis of the film's punk/rock soundtrack. The FX of the Living Dead (21 mins) covers the history of the show's busy and at times troubled special effects team(s). Fans of Night of the Living Dead will enjoy The Origins of the Living Dead (16 minutes) in which scriptwriter John A. Russo talks about his work on the original script for The Return of the Living Dead as well as detailing his input into Romero's 1968 movie. A couple of trailers serve to round out this presentation's pretty impressive and comprehensive selection of extra features.
Given that the 2010 US Blu-ray of The Return of the Living Dead received a somewhat muted reception, I'm guessing that Second Sight Films have commissioned a brand new transfer for their release because the picture quality here is really quite superb. There's good news in relation to this release's sound too. When the film hit DVD back in 2002, it sported a remixed 5.1 audio track and it soon became apparent that the remix featured a number of significant changes. Fans were dismayed to discover that certain zombie voices had been altered while some music tracks had been placed lower in the sound mix or deleted altogether. Second Sight Films' Blu-ray actually includes the film's elusive original 2.0 audio track and it sounds great. Audio tracks that feature 2.0 and 5.1 versions of the 2002 remix are also included here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.