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Blu-ray Review: Return of the Living Dead

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Way back in 1985, Dan O’Bannon delivered a new take on the zombie film. Well, perhaps not new new, but definitely a different spin that is a lot of fun and has stood the test of time. This is no small feat for a genre that had long been defined by the 1968 George Romero classic Night of the Living Dead. Prior to that, zombie films were primarily of the voodoo variety, beginning with the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie. As entertaining as the voodoo zombies can be, the Romero style zombie film is my preferred take on the zombie sub-genre. Now, what Dan O’Bannon did was take the lore built by Romero and the related films and turned it on its ear, crafting a sneaky blend of horror and comedy set to a pulsing punk-rock soundtrack.

Return of the Living Dead begins in a warehouse where a young man, Freddy, is getting an orientation as a new worker for a medical supply company. This leads directly to a Night of the Living Dead reference where we learn it was not just a movie, it was real and the victim of a widespread cover up. Of course the reality comes home to this warehouse as canisters containing the reanimating chemical, as well as some of the leftover dead bodies are in the basement. It is when the canisters make their appearance that everything really gets the fun started. A leak and the resulting expulsion of gas begins the reanimation process, .

Meanwhile, Freddy’s punk friends are cruising around looking for a place to party and for Freddy to get out of work. A cemetery proves to be the perfect place to start the party, with the centerpiece of the party is Trash (Linnea Quigley) stripping naked and spending much of the rest of the film that way. It is unforgettable.

Back to the the zombie plot, Freddy and his boss take a dismembered reanimated corpse (from the accident in the warehouse) to the mortuary next door where a friend works embalming and burning the dead. They proceed to burn the body, sending ash into the sky just as a rainstorm hits. Obviously, this is going to wind up being a bad idea. The last thing that you would want to do is risk spreading a chemical that reanimates the dead over a cemetery! Right? Surely this decision is going to haunt them.

The pace picks up as we go from wondering when it is going to hit the fan to actually seeing the dead claw their way out of the ground as our characters try to survive. The quickly diminishing numbers of punks end up in the mortuary, reunited with Freddy and the few other “survivors”.

Return of the Living Dead is an absolute blast. These zombies somewhat retain their ability to speak and move at a more normal pace, just a little different from the Romero-style. We learn why they desire brains (another new addition to zombie lore), and that they like paramedics in one of the best lines of the film (almost as memorable as the Trash dance).

As the film builds to its climax, the number of zombies increase, and the gore factor also rears its bloody head. It is a crazy climax that is sure to please horror fans while still retaining a fun factor.

There is no denying that this film marked a shift in the realm of horror comedy. It is not truly a laugh riot, just as it is not truly a horror film. It crosses the lines of both while forging something new right down the middle. It is a fine line that Dan O’ Bannon has walked. Who knows what the zombie genre would be like if he did not head down this new path. This is an undeniable classic of the genre.

Audio/Video. This Blu-ray looks pretty good, especially when you compare to the included DVD. Of course, the movie is 25-years old and made on a low budget and it shows. The film has an overall muted look with the occasional pop of color from fires, blood, and the outlandish 80’s punk outfits. There is some grain evident and some noise pops up in some of the darker scenes. It is the best I have seen it, don’t get me wrong, but it is not likely the best it could be. If you are a fan, you are going to like this, I know my DVD will be getting retired with this in the house.

There are a couple of audio options. One is a new DTS-HD lossless track, which is decent if front heavy. There is not a lot of use of the surrounds, save for the rain sequences and a random sound effect. I actually prefer the original 2.0 mono track, it just seems a bit more authentic considering the original mono source. The dialogue is always crisp and clear. Either way, you won’t be disappointed as long as you aren’t expecting a big involving surround experience.

Extras.

  • Commentary. The track features members of the cast and crew, including Linnea Quigley (Trash), Beverly Randolph (Tina), Brian Peck (Scuzz), and Allan Troutman (Tarman). It is a good track as the group reminisce on their casting and the filming with plenty of entertaining anecdotes. Part way through there is also a zombie attack in the commentary booth.
  • Commentary. A second track features Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout. This track is good, but a bit drier in tone.
  • Return of the Living Dead: The Dead Have Risen. A retrospective on the making of the film, featuring interviews with the cast and crew. (20 minutes)
  • The Decade of Darkness. This takes a look at the 1980’s era of horror films and includes interviews with historians and directors including Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, John Landis, and even Elvira! This is more than just Return of the Living Dead. (23 minutes)
  • Designing the Dead. This featurette takes a look at the creation of the film. (13.5 minutes)
  • Zombie Subtitles. There are two zombie tracks. One of them spells out the grunts and such while the other tells us what they are thinking. Nothing special.
  • Trailers. There are a couple of versions of the trailer, including the bloody version and the even bloodier version. It is always nice to have these on the DVDs.
  • DVD. That’s right, there is also a DVD version of the film included.

Bottomline. This is a good movie, a really fun movie. Don’t listen to the naysayers. It has laughs, scares, blood, and nudity. What else can you ask for?

Highly Recommended.

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