It's "Party Time" for the living dead when Scream Factory gives us a two-disc ultimate collector's edition Blu-ray of Dan O'Bannon's 1980s hit RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.
On his first day working at Uneeda Medical Supply in Louisville, Kentucky, young Freddy (Thom Mathews, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI) gets the grand tour from supervisor Frank (James Karen, THE CHINA SYNDROME) who reveals that the film NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was based on a true event in which the spill of an experimental reanimated corpses in a military base's morgue. The government hushed it up but the drums holding the corpses were shipped to Uneeda through a clerical error and have been in the warehouse's basement for twenty-odd years. The military-grade construction of the drums has not held up well and an accident douses Freddy and Frank with the gas which is also sucked up into the warehouse's air conditioning system causing the reanimation of anatomical specimens including a cadaver in the refrigerated lockup. While boss Burt (Clu Gulager, THE INITIATION) tries to figure out how to dispose of the evidence without getting the military involved, Freddy's girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and his buddies Suicide (Mark Venturini, MIKEY), punk exhibitionist Trash (Linnea Quigley, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS), Scuz (Brian Peck, THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN), jheri-curled (Miguel A. Núñez Jr., FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING), ballbuster Casey (Jewel Shepard, CHRISTINA), and nerdy Chuck (John Philbin, CHILDREN OF THE CORN) have decided to party in the nearby Resurrection Cemetery while waiting for Freddy to get off work. Burt, along with Freddy and Frank (who are getting progressively sicker from their exposure to the gas), takes the reanimated medical specimens and the dismembered but still very lively cadaver across the street to the adjoining Resurrection Funeral Home for mortician Ernie (Don Calfa, 10) to incinerate in the crematorium, but the smoke from the chimney carries the chemical into the atmosphere and a sudden thunderstorm has it soaking into the ground of the graveyard and bringing the dead back to life to feed on human brains. In fleeing, the group split up between the funeral home and the warehouse while any responding cops and paramedics end up as "more brains" for the masses of walking dead.
Very loosely based on John Russo's novel sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with the story credited to Russo, NIGHT's producer/actor Russell Streiner, and Rudy Ricci (THE BOOBY HATCH) but heavily rewritten by screenwriter turned director Dan O'Bannon (ALIEN, DEAD AND BURIED), RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD forgoes the social commentary of George A. Romero's "Dead" films in favor of EC Comics grue and humor. The film's young characters seem like slasher types lined up for the slaughter but endear themselves viewers as much as the film's elder trio, with the momentum of the film carried along by O'Bannon's highly quotable dialogue ("Go choke a chicken!"), the actors' improvisations, and a memorable Enigma Records compilation soundtrack more so than the effects set pieces (showcasing the work of ARMY OF DARKNESS' Tony Gardener and THE FINAL TERROR's Kenny Myers among others). The visuals are anchored by the striking production design of William Stout (MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE) – authentic in the particulars of mortuary practices – and the photography of Jules Brenner (SALEM'S LOT) so much so that repeated viewing reveals a wealth of background detail alongside the nuances of performance, rightfully earning the film its place among the immortal cult classics of the eighties.
Released theatrically by Orion Pictures and to home video by HBO on tape and laserdisc by Image, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD came under the ownership of MGM as a Hemdale production distributed by Orion. MGM first released the film on disc in a widescreen/fullscreen flipper disc in 2002 with commentary by O'Bannon and production designer William Stout along with the featurette "Designing the Dead". A special edition followed in 2007 that added a second commentary with Stout and actors Calfa, Peck, Quigley, Trautman, and Randolph with additional unwelcome zombie commentary (another tiresome addition was a zombie subtitle track and a zombie thoughts track), "The Dead Have Risen" featurette, as well as the middling featurette "The Decade of Darkness" focusing on eighties horror with MGM-exclusive clips ranging from THE FOG (actually 1979) through CHILD'S PLAY with John Kenneth Muir (HORROR FILMS OF THE 1980s) suggesting that AIDS and Reaganomics were responsible for the move away from the sexualized horrors of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT to the impaled teenager genre of the early eighties and the turn towards supernatural horror in the late eighties (illustrated by DOLLS and PUMPKINHEAD among others). MGM would upgrade this package to Blu-ray in 2010 with a Blu-ray/DVD combo edition and a Blu-ray-only edition the following year.
Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is derived from a new 2K scan of the original interpositive and, unlike their new scan of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 and the cinematographer-approved color correction of the MGM master – the results are dramatically different with slightly different framing, superior detail, and more satisfying color timing (the sickly pallor on Frank and Freddie is not so immediately apparent but reveals itself in subsequent close-ups in oily variegations of black, gray, and rouge). It is also much easier to appreciate the amount of detail in Stout's production design from the mossy cemetery monuments to the touches in Burt's office often remarked upon by the cast (the eye chart being quite amusing once you can read the lettering). Earlier American DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film (along with the short-lived Hemdale Home Video 1991 VHS) were subject to music rights issues losing The Damned's "Dead Beat Dance" and audio alterations including the voices of Tarman and the "Send more cops" zombie and the volume levels of some of the other music. The new Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 stereo downmix tracks reflect these alterations but the disc also includes a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 original mono track which restores all but The Damned song which could not be cleared for the release. While imperfect, the mono track does prove that the film works without surround enhancement. The optional English SDH subtitles do include at least one noticeable gaffe in transcribing the lyrics to SSQ's song "Tonight (We'll Make Love 'Til We Die)." Also carried over, unfortunately, are the zombie subtitle tracks but they are easily ignored.
While MGM's collector's edition DVD and Blu-ray seemed fairly comprehensive, the 2011 documentary MORE BRAINS: A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD revealed that there was still much to be said from the surviving participants in front of and behind the camera. While the inclusion of MORE BRAINS on Scream Factory's Blu-ray (it was also included on the UK Blu-ray from Second Sight) makes the carrying-over of MGM's old featurettes seem redundant, Scream has decided not only to go the comprehensive route have also produced two new commentary tracks to supplement the existing ones. Disc one of Scream's set carries over the O'Bannon and Stout track as well as the Stout, Calfa, Peck, Quigley, Trautman, and Randolph one. Stout and O'Bannon discuss the visual inspirations for the zombies (the mummies of Guanajuato) and EC Comics, raiding the Universal backlot for tombstones, the cast, and the inadequacy of original effects artist William Munns (SUPERSTITION), and the fortunate inheritance of Karen from the time in which Tobe Hooper was slated to direct before he was scheduled to shoot LIFEFORCE in England (on which O'Bannon worked on the screenplay along with Hooper's subsequent INVADERS FROM MARS on which Stout was conceptual artist). Stout is as much a moderator as participant on the cast track, but each of the actors come contribute enough to suggest that the characters were so likable because the personalities of the actors embodied them so strongly (Quigley points out that Randolph is playing herself as Tina). Calfa discusses the embellishments to his character, Peck discusses how he became involved in the film and ended up working behind the scenes with the effects crew, Trautman discusses the Tarman costume and his characterization, while Quigley an Randolph also have some complaints about Munns work on their regular make-up (as well as the "plug" cover that Quigley wore for her frontal nude shots).
New to this release is an audio commentary by Gary Smart (co-author of "The Complete History of the RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD" and "245 Trioxin: The Story of THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD" as well as a contributor to MORE BRAINS) and Chris Griffiths (director of similar feature-length documentaries on HELLRAISER and FRIGHT NIGHT and a fan of RETURN) who discuss their youthful encounters with the film on UK bootleg videotape and relay a lot of behind the scenes information on the film and it's novelization. A lot of this material is covered in the other extras but this track is more scene- and shot-specific about all of the minutia Smart has gleaned from interviews and obsessive viewing. The second new track is moderated by "Horror's Hallowed Grounds" host Sean Clark and features actors Mathews and Philbin along with make-up effects artist Gardner. Clark, Mathews, and a boisterous Philbin (who sounds like he is still the surfer kid he was when the film was made) dominate the proceedings but, like Gardener, even they do get caught up in watching the film anew. Of the film's punk aspect, Mathews recalls piercing his own ear for the role while Philbin recalls his clubbing days and disappointment that he was cast as the nerd of the group (Philbin recalls his genuine surprise at Quigley's total striptease and points out his unscripted reaction onscreen).
Disc one also carried over the "The Decade Of Darkness" featurette (23:23), five theatrical trailers (8:31) – including the British one which shows no footage from the film and seems more like a teaser – and several TV Spots (5:22), as well as two still galleries composed of posters, lobby cards, movie stills, and behind-the-scenes photos (7:21) and behind-the-scenes photos from effects artist Kenny Myers' personal collection (2:06). The most-anticipated extra of the set is disc two's inclusion of the workprint version of the film (108:05). Quality is admitted poor throughout given the processing of the dailies and the video source, but the encoding also looks like a upscaled YouTube video at some times. Unavoidable quality issues aside, this version features some great material including additional bits between Karen and Mathews. Some pick-up shots that had not yet been captured are featured here as close-ups of storyboard, the first instance of music on the workprint is SSQ's "Tonight" during the striptease sequence (replacing the on-set music), and the production audio lacks the dubbing of Tarman while featuring Peck voicing the female half-zombie. Disc two also includes the "More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead" documentary (119:43) in its entirety which features contributions of everyone included elsewhere on the disc (aside from the late O'Bannon) along with Karen and Gulager, DP Brenner, as well as Paul Sammon who had worked at Orion during the period and provides background on the Romero/Russo split and the distributor's lack of faith in the film. Owners of the "More Brains!" DVD of the UK Blu of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD may want to hold onto those since the only extra carried over from the packed documentary disc – which includes deleted scenes from the documentary and lengthy featurettes on the second and third films – is O'Bannon's final interview (see below).
Ported over from the UK DVD and Blu-ray releases are "The FX of the Living Dead" featurette (32:49) which includes contribution from Stout, Munns, Myers, Craig Caton (LEVIATHAN), and Gardner. Munns stands up for himself and points out O'Bannon's difficult personality and how he tended to drop concepts when inspired by something else. Stout concedes that O'Bannon could be difficult but also feels that Munn did not give his all, and does provide us with images of Munn's concept for the headless yellow man that are pretty damning. In "Party Time: The Music of the RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD" (29:31), Hemdale music supervisor Bud Carr recalls the challenge of getting the type of music O'Bannon wanted for the film for so little money and working with Engima Records' Steve Pross to select artists and songs. 45 Grave's Dinah Cancer discusses the story behind the song "Party Time" and how she balked at rewriting the lyrics for the film until she saw how prominently it would be featured (Carr reveals that The Cramps were disappointed that the 45 Grave song was used in the end credits rather than their "Surfin' Dead"). T.S.O.L.'s Joe Wood discusses the story behind the song "Nothing for You" and sings some of it accompanied by acoustic guitar (he also points out that the band was managed by Something Weird Video's Mike Vraney at the time). SSQ's Karl Moet discusses the song "Tonight" and how the band was brought on create some musical bridges for the score. Also interviewed are Rory Erickson (whose "Burn the Flames" is memorably utilized during the climax), Chris D. of The Flesheaters ("Eyes Without a Face"), John Sox of "The F.U.'s" who reveals that the song "Young, Fast Iranian" was actually meant to be a parody of arena rock, and Mark Robertson of Tall Boys ("Take a Walk"). (Eric Cotenas)
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