It's been said that right before a genre dies, it begins parodying itself. Examples of this can be seen as early as the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET... movies of the late 40s/early 50s which brought about the end of the Universal monsters at the time, and as recent as SCREAM which some say, has brought about both the resurrection and demise of the modern slasher film. With countless Italian and domestic zombie flicks saturating theaters in the wake of DAWN OF THE DEAD's success, it's no wonder that by 1985, the sub-genre had become tired and the perfect fodder for a parody. Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was just the film to provide the sub-genre's much-needed satire.
Thom Matthews (FRIDAY THE 13th PART 6) and James Karen (MULHOLLAND DRIVE) star as two medical supply warehouse workers who accidentally release a toxic gas from inside a canister stored in the basement. This just isn't any toxic gas, though. This gas was accidentally shipped to the warehouse by the U.S. military, which had been experimenting with it in regards to raising the dead! As expected, the gas gets into the air, rains down into a nearby cemetery during a thunderstorm, and causes hundreds of corpses to rise in search of live human brains. Clu Gulager (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2), Linnea Quigley (SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT), and Don Calfa (WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S) show up in entertaining roles as well, as the warehouse owner, a punk slut named "Trash" and the nearby mortician respectively. To top it all off, the film is set to 80s punk rock music. While not a fan myself, I found the particular songs in the film quite fitting in most scenes.
I knew from the moment I saw a veterinary school "half-dog" display begin barking, after being reanimated in the warehouse, that this film was going to be quite a fun ride. I have to admit that before reviewing the disc, I had never seen the film. When I was little, I had always seen the eye-catching VHS box in my parents' video store, but despite how big of a horror fan I grew to be, this one somehow slipped through the cracks. I knew it had amassed a cult following, but I hadn't heard nearly as much about it as I've heard about other cult favorites along the same lines (namely, the EVIL DEAD films). I'm here to tell you, however, that in the world of gross-out horror comedies, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is a much more entertaining film for my money than both EVIL DEAD II and ARMY OF DARKNESS. I prefer EVIL DEAD to both of its sequels, due to its more serious-horror tone. While THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD provides a few laughs, its tone changes halfway through and becomes more of a straight zombie film and less of a satire.
While not overt, the gore is definitely there. Unlike Romero's zombies, the ones in this film run, move quickly, and can even speak fluently (mostly chanting "Brains!") Though, there aren't many real scares in the film, it has that fun zombie movie vibe in abundance. My only problem with the film was its ending. It felt a little too abrupt.
As usual, MGM has put together a stellar disc for horror fans to enjoy, available in its theatrical release format (letterboxed at 1.85:1 with Anamorphic enhancement) and on the flip side, the standard full frame version. For a movie that's almost 20 years old, the video quality looks very good for the most part. A couple of spots could've been cleaned up a little bit here and there, but overall, there's nothing visually to whine about. The audio on the disc is mono, but works quite well with the sound content of the film.
Extras on the disc include an audio commentary with writer/director Dan O'Bannon and production designer William Stout, a featurette titled "Designing the Dead" (which runs 13 minutes long, minus the credits), a gallery of conceptual art by William Stout, TV spots, and two original theatrical trailers (G-rated and R-rated). The audio commentary is entertaining, but isn't without occasional dry moments (mostly toward the end). The "Designing the Dead" featurette was informative but a little short. Why not include interviews with Linnea Quigley, Thom Matthews, or Clu Gulager? A workprint version of the film is reportedly 20 minutes longer. It would've been interesting to have some or all of this footage included on the disc, but maybe MGM has plans of re-visiting the title as a Special Edition someday. One final interesting note about the disc's presentation is that its cover artwork on the front, back, and spine actually glows in the dark!
Overall, RETURN OF THE LIVING
DEAD is a definite buy. Despite the lack of workprint footage and cast interviews,
there's not a single reason this disc shouldn't be in every serious horror fan's
collection. Go buy this one now, and don't forget... "Send more cops!"
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