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THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
Blu-ray 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:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  September 14, 2010

“BRAINS!!”

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 ***1/2

I'm very pleased with this Blu-ray offering from Fox...normally, I kind of hold my breath when it comes to seeing an 80s movie on disc, even in high definition, but this one passes the test with flying colors.  The problematic decade for film preservation actually offers no problems here, as the coloring and detail are solid and sharp throughout.  Yes, one or two darker scenes show some grain inherent in the film stock, but that's far from an issue, as the gore and bad 80s fashions really come pouring out of your screen on this presentation.

Audio ***

Going from the mono track of the original DVD release to a newly mastered DTS HD 5.1 is like going from dead to alive (pun intended).  This is a clever and fruitful audio offering that kicks up the dynamic range and brings in a welcome sense of surround to add to the fun and terror.  The new discreet channel mixing doesn't take away from the original dialogue or very dated (amusingly so) music score.

Features ****

This disc includes both the Blu-ray and a DVD version of the movie, and each one 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.

On the Blu-ray, you also get two original trailers, one marked 'bloody version' and one designated 'even bloodier version'...guess which one I went for first.  Plus you get to hear the zombies speak in their own words.

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.  Fox did right by fans with this solid Blu-ray issue, offering a great picture, terrific new audio, and a fun bevy of extras.

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