Zombies! Return of the Living Dead on DVD

Woo! Brain Eating and Full Frontal Nudity! Sign me up!
By David B. Grelck
June 23, 2005

With Land of the Dead opening this weekend, I decided to revisit my favorite Non-Romero zombie movie.

Can you imagine my dismay when I found out, via the featurette on this DVD, that the genesis of this project was John Russo, the same man who went on to use his half stake in the Night of the Living Dead franchise to bastardize the film in its 30th Anniversary Edition. You see, John Russo created Night of the Living Dead along with writer/director George Romero. When they parted ways shortly after, they gave each other the right to make sequels to the film. Romero did with Dawn of the Dead, brilliant satire and, to this date, one of the greatest horror films ever made. Russo tried to with his script Return of the Living Dead, then not a comedy, then a direct follow up to the film. The funding was secured and Tobe Hooper was attached to direct. Hooper disappeared via circumstance and Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien) was asked to direct. He didn’t like the script or the direction the film was taking, so he used a bit of influence to allow him to write a draft, and changed the film dramatically. He didn’t want to compete with the films Romero was making so he decided to do things differently. To make the film funny. To allow the zombies to talk when they need to. To allow them to run and dive and grab. And in the process, he created one of the only horror comedies that gets the balance between the two just right and produced a great bit of eighties horror.

I wish that I could say this was one of my introductions to horror, but Halloween did that, or to onscreen nudity, but Revenge of the Nerds did that. To many, however, Return of the Living Dead was the one that introduced our generation to sex and violence and language and punk music. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until many years later, while doing time at Blockbuster Video, that I caught this flick. Despite years of seeing better, more extensive gore (thank you Peter Jackson, thank you for Dead Alive) and certainly better acting, Return of the Living Dead manages to hold its own.

The story takes place in a mortuary, cemetery and medical supply facility. Supposedly, Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story, and the army, after destroying most of the zombies, shipped some accidentally to the medical supply facility in canisters. On Freddy (Thom Mathews)’s first day of work, Frank (James Karen) shows the canisters to him and, accidentally, breaks the seal, releasing a yellow gas into facility, reanimating one of the cadavers in the freezer. Boss Burt (Clu Gulager) deals with the problem by taking the body parts to his friend Ernie (Don Calfa)’s mortuary for disposal in the crematorium. The smoke from the fire gets into the atmosphere and rains down on the nearby cemetery where a bunch of punks (and I mean eighties punks) are hanging out and, in the case of Trash (goddess of scream queens, Linnea Quiggley) get naked. This is just in the first half hour of the film. Then the zombies begin to rise and the gore ensues.

The film lets itself be silly. It shows us the absurdity of not only its own premise, but of the eighties themselves. One needs look no further than the portrayal of the punks in the film, two of them dressed like good young republicans. It became camp, making fun of those groups that, in the second half of the decade began to unintentionally parody themselves. Things were different back then. I may have been only six, but I could see the difference. The acting is a step above other horror movies of the era, especially that of Clu Gulager and the always wonderful James Karen who you’ll know by sight even if you don’t KNOW him. The effects with one exception are top-notch man in a suit f/x that really make you wonder “how the hell did they do that?” Something that, in this day of special computer effects, you don’t wonder much anymore. The design of the film is tremendous as well, modeled off of the old EC comics like Vault of Terror and Tales from the Crypt, they made the most of their extremely limited budget, made back on 1500 screens on opening weekend. (Which was, in an interesting bit of serendipity, seventeen years to the date before the DVD release)

Movies are afraid to be like this these days. Years of politically correct drivel coming out of the mouths of the mothers of America have cause the MPAA to take note and slap NC-17 on anything like this, often forcing a re-cut. This movie was just rated R. And in the eighties, it wasn’t even a hard R. The gore is extensive, with brains literally getting eaten right out of skulls. Then there’s the nudity. Full frontal is so rare today, and is only used in arty films that can get by on the pretence of intellectualism. No one would be allowed to have a supposedly teenage girl strip down to nothing but stockings and dance on a crypt. Mothers all across the country are breathing a sigh of relief at this fact. Okay, I see your point. Is it necessary?

Probably not. But with a film like this, and the way Resident Evil should’ve been made, excess is what it’s all about. Zombie and slasher movies are driven by excess and it harkens back to the decade that was also driven by excess, the eighties. The decade of Porky’s and Friday the 13th. It also marks the beginning of the shift. Return of the Living Dead was released in 1985, as these films had hit their zenith and began to decline. Friday the 13th 4: The Final Chapter had been released the year before, and Friday the 13th 5: A New Beginning was to see some major cuts to its violence, but not its nudity. As the decade wore on, people began to get more sensitive and, when big daddy Bush took the helm in ’88, gory movies had been cut to the swift, with the camera lingering just long enough to ALMOST see that knife penetrate. The decade can be traced through the Friday the 13th lineage by just looking at the difference between parts 2 and 8. Two had the last full frontal nudity shot in the series, along with beheadings, a screwdriver in the ear and other delightfully brutal moments of senseless violence. Eight offers a bloodless beheading akin to that in Killer Klowns From Outer Space’s “knock your block off” scene, and the closest thing to nudity is a girl in a bra and panties that we could see on television. I’m sorry. I just want my eighties horror back.

The film on DVD still looks like a low budget eighties movie. It’s grainy and sometimes washed out, and the black levels don’t always match. But, it does have good color and rich blacks at times, there’s no pixelization (my own private arch-nemesis) or compression artifacts. My biggest gripe with the film is that they don’t seem to have cleaned it that much. It’s still filled with artifacts and blemishes that easily could’ve been removed if the proper care was taken for this release. But being one of MGM’s low budget easy on the wallet collection, and retailing for a low SRP of $14.99, they obviously didn’t think the film was worth that extra care. That all being said. The film is presented in 1.85:1 Anamorphic widescreen, which almost didn’t happen. Advanced notes suggested a non Anamorphic transfer, something that enraged the fans the way only a non-widescreen Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory had in the past so the release was altered to include a new Anamorphic transfer.

The audio is another portion where, given the proper care, this DVD could’ve excelled. It’s presented with its original audio mix, mono. I’ve seen lesser films than this get entirely remixed with wonderful 5.1 mixes and I was very disappointed to find only mono here. This film has a great goofy eighties score and some fun punk music that does sound good here, but could’ve sounded much better. The soundtrack is cleaner than it has ever been before, with the dialogue well adjusted and the levels fine, but I’m just left with the feeling that we, the fans, deserve something much better.

Here’s the DVD’s redemption. We get an audio commentary featuring Dan O’Bannon and the film’s production designer William Stout. The two seem to enjoy the film and each other’s company and talk extensively about working on the set and the various aspects and struggles for making the film. One such tidbit is that William Stout was forced to create a latex body covering for Linnea Quigley’s lower half due to the fact that the producers got nervous the day they arrived on the set to find Dan O’Bannon with his lens in her crotchular region. So, boys, I’m sorry to say, that is NOT Linnea Quiggly’s full frontal shot. It just looks like it is. They ruined it for me, and I’m ruining it for you. Pass it on.

The featurette is on the longer side, running fifteen minutes and offering more (and DIFFERENT) information than the commentary something that is always nice. Both O’Bannon and Stout speak about how they were drawn to the project and things of that ilk. The theatrical trailers are typical eighties trailers, but the production art is nice. All in all, quite a features section for a film you can pick up most places for less than ten dollars.

I’ve avoided the two (soon to be three) sequels to this film because I’ve heard they are significantly inferior. I’m talking an army of Nightmare on Elm Street 2s. But, as an original, as a trendsetter, Return of the Living Dead is significant. It remains a snapshot of the eighties, something that has been attempted many times, without even intending to be so, and succeeds far better than The Wedding Singer. It was there. This isn’t retro faux eighties nostalgia, this is the real deal, music, visually, and the film genre that belonged to the eighties, splatter films. Of the line bending films, most tip one way or the other, (Killer Klowns From Outer Space tips into comedy, Gremlins into horror) or they wind up a muddled mismatch of both like Arachnophobia, never clearly deciding what they really want to be. Return of the Living Dead is sure of what it wants, and what it is, pure, silly, gory, entertainment.

Dave Grelck is a writer/photographer/geek from Chicago who occasionally finds time to write articles for Entertainment-Geekly. Most of the time he’s just pimping his geek calendar. What a self serving tool.