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THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews
Director:  Dan O’Bannon
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  September 11, 2007

“Look alive!”

Film ***

The 80s were a great decade for horror, and the perfect time for me to discover the genre.  I was in my early teens, working in my parents’ video store, and smacking my chops over titles and cover art to movies I wasn’t allowed to see!

But despite their best efforts on my behalf, my mom and dad couldn’t keep me from becoming a horror fanatic.  Those years brought us Freddy and Jason, a rich crop of envelope pushing films from Italy, and even the resurrection (no pun intended) of some well-known and loved flesh eating ghouls.

Like any good film with a solid lore behind it, The Return of the Living Dead both built upon the established foundation of zombie movies and added to the vernacular at the same time.  While cheerfully acknowledging the influence of George Romero’s classic films up front, it also gave us the new lexicons of the dead being able to speak while reducing their diet to a single food…brains.

The story was originally conceived by Romero’s partner in crime on Night of the Living Dead, John Russo, but remained shelved while Romero turned out his own sequels.  The picture wouldn’t see the light of day until the mid-80s, when writer/director Dan O’Bannon was offered the project.  His main concern:  not to imitate or rehash what Romero had created, but turn his Living Dead into something else entirely…a horror comedy.

The combination of gregarious gore and tongue-in-cheek humor made for effective entertainment, and audiences found they loved shrieking and laughing at the same time.  O’Bannon’s film was crafted on a manic energy that defied Romero’s more somber, contemplative tones.  These zombies were fast, ferocious and furious.  They didn’t movie like listless beings…they swarmed, attacked, and ate with a fury…from the first appearance of the now legendary “tar man”, fans knew they were in for a wild ride.

The tale at hand purports that the original Night of the Living Dead was actually loosely based on a real occurrence.  This bit of information is handed down by Frank (Karen) to Freddy (Matthews), two employees at store dealing in…well, dead things for research.  Supposedly, a chemical leak in a hospital once re-animated some corpses in the morgue.  It just so happens that after the army was able to contain them, a few were accidentally shipped their way, stored in big tanks in the basement!

Before long, a tank is compromised, the chemical is once again out, and all hell breaks loose because of their proximity to a cemetery, where a bunch of 80s-cliched teens (with names like Trash and Suicide) are partying.  The dead are coming back…lean, mean, and hungry for live brains.

All of this leads to murder and mayhem, as our helpless living try their best not to become either food or zombies themselves.  It won’t be easy…unlike in the original series, these zombies don’t die if you shoot them in the head or decapitate them (“You mean the film lied??”).  The ending, which I will not reveal, has been described by some as an unnecessary downer.  Personally, I think it’s a hoot.  Like a co-worker once told me, the biggest lie of them all is “I’m from the government, I’m here to help.”

The story is told in rapid fire fashion…not many lulls…and with a maximum sense of humor.  O’Bannon liked juxtaposing grueling horror with off-the-cuff humor.  It was a strange brew that worked…so well, in fact, that The Return of the Living Dead earned the ultimate compliment in the horror genre…a series of sequels and a franchise all its own.

And like most horror franchises, the follow-ups never matched the spirit or energy of the original, but at least didn’t detract from it.  The Return of the Living Dead is a quintessential 80s horror flick.  You’ll squeal, you’ll squirm, but you’ll be glad they came back.

Video ***

With the 80s seemingly the most problematic decade for DVD quality, MGM delivers a quality product for this movie.  Coloring and detail level are both strong throughout, with only a few minor instances of softness and less definition, but frankly, far fewer than I’m used to seeing for films from the period.  A bit of grain here or there during the darkest sequences is also forgivable.  Overall, I think this is the best the Dead have looked in some time, and fans should be quite pleased.

Audio **

The mono track offers serviceable sound, but nothing remarkable.  Dynamic range is fair but limited, dialogue is clear, noise is pretty much non-existent.  A plus is the very 80s sounding score and song list, which add to the fun.

Features ****

This disc boasts a good array of extras, starting with a fun and informative commentary track by director O’Bannon and production designer William Stout.  They seemed to have a good time making the picture, and an equally good time reminiscing about their effects, sets, actors, and general ideas for making a slightly different zombie picture than had been seen before.  For more fun, check out the commentary with the cast, crew, and "undead".  Great stuff!

A short featurette “Designing the Dead” gets a little more into the visual detail of the movie.  There are also two new featurettes and zombie subtitles for the movie.

Summary:

The Return of the Living Dead is a bona fide modern horror classic…a frightfully funny twist on the George Romero zombie flicks that blends the grisly with comic for maximum entertainment value.  For fans of the genre, this DVD from MGM is a dead-on good bet.

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