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Return of the Living Dead, The

MGM // R // September 14, 2010
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 20, 2010 | E-mail the Author
"...and I know you're here because I can smell your brains!"
-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

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are a lot of moral messages you can take away from The Return of the Living Dead, although I think the main one goes something like this: if it's your first day on the job at a medical supply warehouse and your supervisor asks if you wanna see the actual zombies that inspired Night of the Living Dead that are vacuum-sealed down in the basement, shake your head no. Nope, enjoy the weekend. Tandem bicycle. Fireworks. Barbecue. Sucking in a lungful of Trioxin 245 from a leaky corpse canister isn't gonna do anyone any good.

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
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goofing around in the cemetery next door waiting for him to get off work dash back to their car, but nope. Won't start. It's dead. Hey, you know what else is dead? A hundred or so of the poor bastards buried in that cemetery. This juiced-up rain oozes into their coffins and sends them screaming back to life. These hordes of the walking undead haven't had a nosh in decades, and as luck would have it, there are plenty of live, fresh brains to go around...

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
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impressive cast too. Everyone on the bill has a hell of a lot of personality, down to the zombies themselves. I'll start with the less dead ones first, though. Take Suicide, the kinda-sorta leader of Freddy's pile of punk friends. The guy's draped from head to toe in leather and chains. In any other movie, he'd be some kind of raging, anti-authoritarian bad-ass. Here, he...well, tries to pull that off, but none of Suicide's pals really seem impressed with that act anyway, and he feels pretty frustrated and insecure about it too. Not that that's a huge difference, but there's a playfulness there that comes across as so much more alive than more formulaic flicks that feel like they're trying too hard. A lot of these characters are like that. No one in the '80s vamped it up quite like Linnea Quigley, Miguel A. Núñez Jr. is almost as awesome here as he was when he got skewered in the shitter in Friday V, and the endlessly adorable Beverly Randolph screams and sobs for an hour straight without seeming anything less than endearing. There are two really great comedy teams here too. I love how the two seasoned vets -- Clu Gulager and that bug-eyed, pistol-packing Don Calfa -- banter back and forth. James Karen and Thom Mathews are what really make the movie, though. The whole thing starts off with a pretty traditional dynamic -- the smirking vet and the wide-eyed new kid -- and from there, they perfectly balance the horror of the dead being reanimated with the ridiculousness of their situation. So many of their early scenes are played for straight-up comedy, but when they start to transform...dying shrieks, noticing the massive bruises forming as their blood pools, succumbing to rigor mortis...the stabs at drama connect too. It's no wonder that Karen and Mathews were brought back for the sequel, even though they had to play completely different characters.

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:
A Nightmare on Elm St.
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Compare that to any of the screengrabs from The Return of the Living Dead scattered around this review. I know, I know: apples and orangeszombies. Differences in film stock, lighting, camera equipment, the visual intents of the directors and can't reasonably expect one movie to look like any other. So, I guess that means I'm about to be unreasonable. If you think this is as good as low-budget '80s horror flicks can turn out on Blu-ray, you're not paying attention. I've seen plenty of 'em look phenomenal on Blu-ray, and I feel pretty damned certain that The Return of the Living Dead ought to have turned out a lot better than this.

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.
MGM's first DVD (2002)

DVD re-release (2007)

Blu-ray disc (2010)

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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.

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strike! Yes, The Return of the Living Dead carries over the same modified soundtrack from the 2002 DVD.

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.
  • Audio Commentaries: First to bat is the
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    cast/crew/um, undead commentary. This track is headed up by production designer William Stout, and cramming into the recording booth with him are actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Allan Trautman, and Beverly Randolph. Oh yeah! And a zombie. I really, really, really love this track...or most of it, at least, but I'll bitch about that a little later. Stout plays the role of moderator, and being involved with the movie from pretty much word one, he's able to speak about the precise budget, when and where things were shot, the shooting schedule, and...heck, even the fact that a TV-friendly version of the movie was being shot side-by-side for a while there. There are way too many highlights to rattle off here, but I particularly enjoyed hearing how Quigley wound up in the movie even after LegsTrash had already been cast, filming already being underway before Clu Gulager was brought in, the endless make-up and effects headaches early on in production, what exactly was in the garbage bags of writhing body parts, necrophilia chatter, stumbling onto bags of baby ashes, and splicing in actual news footage about a chemical explosion in Louisville. Someone at MGM thought it'd be hysterical to shove a zombie in the recording booth too, and he starts throwing out agonizingly painful one-liners, interrupting the cast when they try to speak, groaning endlessly in the background, and then indulging this dumb gimmick where he attacks the actors when they die on-screen. The whole zombie thing is abandoned after a while, at least. Despite being dragged down by that gimmick, this is still one of my favorite commentaries I've heard in a while.

    The second, older commentary track also features William Stout, only this time writer/director Dan O'Bannon gets to take point. It's not that great, to be honest. For obvious reasons, it doesn't deliver nearly the same sense of personality as the cast commentary, and there's so much dead air that the pace is quite a bit slower too. There are still some notes I was glad to hear -- Alien influencing the dialogue in the medical warehouse, what the Trioxin smoke was made out of, how the crematorium was put together, way more about rain machines than you ever wanted to know, and the original concept for the end credits -- but it's best left playing in the background. If you only have time to tear into one of these commentaries, I'd opt for the cast track instead.

  • The Return of the Living Dead - The Dead Have Risen (21 min.; SD): Pretty much every surviving member of the cast is interviewed for this one. Geysers of blood, Ernie picking out just the right German pistol to tote around, Tar Man's held-together-with-goop-y gait, picking up a legless zombie on Hollywood Blvd., oodles of casting's really personable, really fun, and covers a lot of ground. There's not too much overlap with the cast commentary, and it doesn't hurt that a lot more folks are featured here than are on that commentary track, among them Clu Gulager and James Karen.

  • Designing the Dead (14 min.; SD): The only of these extras to feature Dan O'Bannon in front of the camera, "Designing the Dead" starts by touching on how O'Bannon landed the gig
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    as director in the first place. After discussing how the project came together and his disinterest in John Russo's much-too-serious original script, the featurette delves into crafting the look of the flick. Their extensive zombie research, drawing inspiration from EC's horror comics, designing the Tar Man suit, production designer William Stout showing off quite a bit of his original artwork: it's a pretty solid look into how the visuals came together.

  • The Decade of Darkness (23 min.; SD): The last of the three featurettes isn't really about The Return of the Living Dead itself so much. No, this '80s horror retrospective focuses on plenty of other movies too, among them Motel Hell, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Child's Play, The Howling, The Fog, and...well, even though it was released in the summer of '79 which makes it a not-an-'80s movie, The Brood. Oh, and the long list of interviewees includes the likes of Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, John Landis, Tom Holland, Fango's Tony Timpone, Elvira, Catherine Hicks, and Dee Wallace. They discuss the allure of horror in the '80s, both from the studios' and audiences' perspectives, along with how the looming menace of the Cold War influenced the genre. There's also some chatter about comedy creeping in halfway through the decade, and that's right about the time they decide to dive into The Return of the Living Dead. The rise of make-up effects, slashers, ghosties, covers a decent amount of ground, and I like that there's a focus on less obvious titles like Motel Hell. They're clearly just picking stuff MGM is shoving out on DVD, but they have such a great selection of films that it doesn't drag the whole thing down anyway. Well, maybe aside from the sheer volume of Pumpkinhead, anyway...

  • Zombie Subtitles: Why not? There are two zombie-fried subtitle streams. The regular zombie subtitles just caption stuff like "Aaarrrr! Brains!", so it's a pretty straightahead novelty thing. "In Their Own Words: The Zombies Speak" dives into the rotting heads of these walking corpses, and it's all lame puns. "You guys can kiss my reanimated yellow ass!" "Mmmmm...tastes like chicken!" "My arm came off. Somebody give me a hand." It's obviously trying to go for a hack comic feel, but...yeah. Not even a little bit funny. Not worth it.

  • Trailers (4 min.; HD): The only high-def extras on this Blu-ray disc are a pair of trailers: the "bloody" version followed by the "even bloodier" clip.

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.
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