Do you wanna party? I remember picking up the VHS box for Return of the Living Dead and wondering if I was, in fact, in the mood to party. It looked inviting and the suffix “of the Living Dead” was the sort of pedigree that teenagers look for in their entertainment choices on a Friday night. I didn’t imagine I would be in for one of the most memorable film experiences of my life, but I’m sure my Friday night with Return of the Living Dead was an experience that mirrored those of thousands of others. I would go into the experience sadly unaware of the writer/director’s pedigree (the irreplaceable talent of Dan O’Bannon), but Return of the Living Dead was an unforgettable experience regardless of my prior knowledge. O’Bannon’s film was notable for its break from established zombie dogma, especially since the film’s title borrowed heavily from George Romero’s established “rules” for how the undead functioned in the movies. With the sketchy legality of the film’s naming rights sured up, O’Bannon would find himself competing with Romero as Return of the Living Dead would hit theaters only a month after Romero’s original conclusion to his Undead Saga with the underrated Day of the Dead. Looking to set his film apart, O’Bannon reimagined much of what made Romero’s movies tick: slow zombies were replaced with fast, thinking creatures. To make matters worse, O’Bannon’s undead could reproduce speech, strategize, and were impervious to anything short of total disintegration. Where some may have found it hard to believe that the shambling undead of the Romero films could ever conquer the planet, O’Bannon’s creatures were an unstoppable juggernaut. Toss in some cliche’ counterculture by making many of the film’s protagonists punk rockers, and the stage was set. Over two decades later, Return of the Living Dead still holds a special place in the hearts of many horror fans, and Scream Factory brings another addition of this classic to Blu-ray. How does it measure up? Let’s find out.
The Film – 4/5
Chances are, reading this review means you’re familiar with the film. In the annals of horror classics, Return of the Living Dead is one of the reigning champions of horror’s 80’s heyday. However, for you folks who haven’t touched this gem, it’s a simple little story: boy meets girl, boy gets job, boy opens old chemical barrels, boy becomes undead, boy tries to eat girl, world ends. See? Nothing to it. But seriously, Return of the Living Dead tells two parallel stories that convene somewhere in the middle of the second act. Frank and Freddy work for Burt Wilson’s medical supply warehouse. Eager to impress the young Freddy, Frank reveals sealed military barrels from the incident depicted in Night of the Living Dead. When their perusing breaks open a barrel, Frank and Freddy are knocked out by the fumes. When they awake, they’re well on their way to becoming the walking dead. Meanwhile, Freddy’s punk rock girlfriend Tina decides to wait patiently for her boyfriend to get off work with her punk rock friends (Spider, Trash, Scuz, Casey, and Chuck) who decide to party in the graveyard. When the fumes released by the barrel start to work their magic, the whole crew meet some additional friends and try to make it out of the night alive.
Return of the Living Dead, while inexorably tied to the films of George Romero, is very much its own beast. Romero’s penchant for social commentary is gone here, replaced a total commitment to the set-up of the film: zombies are violent, zombies are bloody, zombies are fun. by tossing the rules of Romero’s world aside, O’Bannon uses his new found freedom to inject a lot of youthful energy into the film. The soundtrack lends itself well to the high-energy excitement that the film feeds off of (after a slow opening fifteen) and the culture clash between the “responsible” adults who got everyone into the mess they’re in and the rebellious punk rockers with all the right ideas is a wonderful back drop that O’Bannon uses to ramp up the zombie threat to eleven. Yes, the acting is problematic almost across the board and yes, the budget shows in the last act, but between the great creature work and witty writing, Return of the Living Dead has more than earned its longstanding cult status.
The Picture – 4/5
For this review, we’ll be comparing Scream’s new release of the film with MGM’s 2010 Blu-ray release that is still fairly easy to come across. Scream’s release comes to us in its original 1.85:1 formatting with a new 2k scan of the interpositive, and the changes from the previous edition to Scream’s release are fairly drastic in a positive way. MGM’s release was extremely bright and much of the color palette tended to be washed out in the release, distracting from the warmer, deeper tones intended to compliment the film’s gritty subject matter. Scream’s new scan, on the other hand, fully embraces this warm palette leading to a somewhat darker, yet richer experience. In addition, much of the overall picture comes across sharper in the previous release, especially noticeable in scenes featuring the zombies where the outstanding creature work and make-up can shine to its full potential.
Grain is present throughout the picture, but with the restoration of the proper color palette for the film, the distraction is lessened. One has to expect some grain for a picture of this age, so considering the time elapsed from release to new scan, this is an impressive piece of work. If you don’t already own a high definition copy of Return of the Living Dead, Scream’s print is undoubtedly superior to MGM’s previous release. For those who own the previous release, I’d still have to strongly recommend the upgrade. Scream’s reputation for treating horror films with respect is well-warranted, and that respect is on full display here. They showed some real love for this film.
The Sound – 4.5/5
Choices, choices, choices! Once again, Scream stakes its claim as the king of horror home video. This release of Return of the Living Dead features three separate audio tracks for folks to make use of. Fans of the film will know that certain releases of the film have seen minor changes to voice acting and the score, and what we see here is a release that seeks to cater to each viewer’s preference. The obvious choice is the Dolby HD Mono soundtrack which restores the changes made to the voice acting to the original theatrical release. While a mono release, it is still somewhat more robust and audible without turning your stereo system too high than the previous MGM release. However, if you’re looking for the altered track available on the MGM Blu-ray, it too has been included as a choice while watching. Further, a lossless 5.1 mix has been included. Unfortunately, this surround mix uses the altered voices. However, despite the changes, it is a rewarding experience to take in a viewing of Return of the Living Dead as your living room comes alive to the sounds of the undead all around you. Each brings their own unique take on the film and I’m still torn on which I’m truly the happiest with. To enhance the experience even further, Scream has returned to the sources for each of the songs featured in the film, inserting clear recordings of the cherished songs. The only detriment to the film’s audio presentation is the absence of the Damned’s track “Dead Beat Dance”. Scream Factory makes note of the absence on their listing for the film on their website without giving a clear reason for its absence.
The Packaging and Features – 5/5
Return of the Living Dead comes to us in a beautiful new rendition created especially for this release. With the “Tarman” featured front and center on the art and slipcover, you have a lovely new piece to add to your collection. As expected, Scream also includes older box art for the inverse of the cover art if you’re feeling nostalgic. Inside the case you’ll find two BD-50 discs packed to the brim with special features, with plenty of new features put together just for this release. From Scream’s database:
- NEW 2K Scan Of The Interpositive
- NEW Audio Commentary With Gary Smart (Co-author Of The Complete History Of The Return Of The Living Dead) And Chris Griffiths
- NEW Audio Commentary With Actors Thom Mathews, John Philbin And Make-up Effects Artist Tony Gardner
- Audio Commentary With Director Dan O’Bannon And Production Designer William Stout
- Audio Commentary With The Cast And Crew Featuring Production Designer William Stout And Actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, Allan Trautman
- The Decade Of Darkness – Featurette On ’80s Horror Films (23 minutes)
- Theatrical Trailers
- TV Spots
- Still Gallery – Posters, Lobby Cards, Movie Stills And Behind-The-Scenes Photos
- Still Gallery – Behind-The-Scenes Photos From Special Make-up Effects Artist Kenny Myers’ Personal Collection
- Zombie Subtitles For The Film
- In Their Own Words – The Zombies Speak
- NEW The FX Of The Living Dead With Production Designer William Stout, FX Make-up Artists William Munns, Tony Gardner, Kenny Myers And Craig Caton-Largnet, Visual Effects Artists Bret Mixon And Gene Warren Jr. And Actor Brian Peck (Expanded Version) (30 minutes)
- NEW Party Time: The Music Of The Return Of The Living Dead With Music Consultants Budd Carr And Steve Pross And Soundtrack Artists Dinah Cancer (45 Grave), Chris D (The Flesh Eaters), Roky Erickson, Karl Moet (SSQ), Joe Wood (T.S.O.L.), Mark Robertson (Tall Boys) Plus Musicians Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) And John Sox (The F.U.’s, Straw Dogs) (Expanded Version) (30 minutes)
- NEW HORROR’S HALLOWED GROUNDS – Revisiting The Locations Of The Film
- The Return Of The Living Dead Workprint – Includes 20 minutes Of Additional Footage (In Standard Definition)
- More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead – The Definitive Documentary On The Return Of The Living Dead (120 minutes)
- A Conversation With Dan O’Bannon – His Final Interview (28 minutes)
- The Origins Of The Living Dead – An Interview With John A. Russo (16 minutes)
- The Return Of The Living Dead – The Dead Have Risen – Interviews With Cast Members Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Brian Peck, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley And More… (21 minutes)
- Designing The Dead – Interviews With Writer/Director Dan O’Bannon And Production Designer William Stout (15 minutes)
The Technical Stuff (click for Technical FAQs)
Feature Duration: 91 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: DTS-HD Mono (Original), DTS-HD Mono (Altered), 5.1 Surround
The Verdict – 4.5/5
Return of the Living Dead has come to home video many times over the years, but never with as complete of a presentation as you can see here. Scream Factory continues its winning streak with this collector’s edition that is overflowing with new and exciting features along with a slew of previously available content. I rented this film more than my fair share of times growing up and it’s always occupied a strong place in my favorite horror films. It’s fun, exciting and unafraid to be different at a time where zombies were already beginning to lose their luster. If you’ve never owned Return of the Living Dead, now’s the time to pick it up. If you’re an owner of MGM’s 2010 Blu-ray or another previous release, make room on your shelf for this one. It’s party time!