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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Return of the Living Dead

September 23rd, 2010

The Return of the Living Dead - Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack - Buy from Amazon

Back in 1968, George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead, which was based on a script co-written by John A. Russo. From that film, two franchises were born: George A. Romero's Dead Series and Return of the Living Dead series. While both faded from their glory days, the original The Return of the Living Dead is held in high regard by a number of genre fans. But how well does it live up 25 years after its initial release? Is it something mainstream audiences will like, or is it strictly for genre fans? And finally, does the Blu-ray do the film justice?

The Movie

The film starts with a claim that the events of Night of the Living Dead were based on a true story. The events were modeled after an accidental release of an army developed nerve toxin that caused corpses to move around. Unable to control these corpses, the army simply encased them in barrels and buried them. ... Most of them. Normally I hate films that take obviously fictional events and pretends they are real, but here it is played for comedy, so it adds to the overall effect, and doesn't detract from the film's effectiveness.

We are introduced to our protagonist, Freddy, as he starts his new job at a medical supply warehouse, which has got to be one of the weirdest places to work. Frank, his boss, shows him around their inventory, which includes human skeletons from India, dogs that have been cut in half to help teach at veterinary schools, even a fresh cadaver. Later Freddy asks Frank what the weirdest thing he's seen come through this warehouse was. That's when Frank tells him about the 2-4-5 Trioxin and the barrel with the animated corpse. Freddy doesn't believe him, but Frank's got proof. It turns out the paperwork for some of the barrels were misfiled and as a result, they were shipped to this warehouse. While showing him the barrel, Freddy is a little worried about what's in it and the possibility of it leaking out. To prove he's being paranoid, Frank shows how tough it is, by smacking it. Which of course causes a leak. The 2-4-5 Trioxin quickly renders the two men unconscious.

Meanwhile, Freddy's girlfriend, Tina, and her friends (Whatshisface, Thatotherguy, Whoever, Trash, Someothergirl, and Don'tknowdon'tcare) are looking for him to see if he wants to party. (There's a reason Trash is the only character whose name is worth mentioning, but more on that in a second.) They arrive at his work early and decide to wait for his shift to end while hanging out in the cemetery.

Frank and Freddy finally wake up only to discover the Trioxin is having an effect on the items in the warehouse (which provides for some of the coolest scenes in the movie). This includes animating the fresh corpse in the freezer. Panicking, they call their boss, Burt, who is not happy with the situation, but helps get it under control. Mostly. In the end, they decide to cut the corpse up and cremate it in the mortuary next door.

Meanwhile back at the cemetery, the friends get into a discussion about the worst way to die. Trash describes her worst way to do it, which includes a bit of foreshadowing, while stripping naked and dancing on a tombstone, thus cementing the actress, Linnea Quigley, as one of the most popular genre actresses of all time.

The smoke from cremating the animated corpse mixes with the rain clouds above and we learn contaminated showers bring hungry zombies. The result is one of the best zombie movies, one of the best horror comedies, and one of the best B-movies of all time.

A lot of B-movies are comedies, but unintentionally so. Here you laugh with the movie, not at it. It has some of the most quotable lines ("Send... more... paramedics.") while for a low budget movie, the special effects are excellent. The pace is fast (it takes less than 10 minutes for the Trioxin to be released) and from there is never lets up. And strangely for a film that features one of its lead actresses wearing nothing but leg warmers for much of the movie, it actually tackles both the political allegory of zombies and the science of zombies in intelligent ways. Here the zombie invasion is an allegory to the hopelessness of Reagan's America, which despite how it is looked back upon today, featured high unemployment, a high budget deficit, and was arguably the beginning of the end for America's manufacturing domination. While scientifically, the zombies here are shown to be more than mindless killers looking for food (i.e., humans.) but instead they retain their intelligence; however, they feel the pain of their bodies rotting, and the only thing to dull the pain is living brains. I'm not sure that would hold up in a peer reviewed journal, but it's a lot better than most zombie movies attempt.

Not everything is perfect, obviously, and some of the acting is suspect. (A lot of the performers were new to the profession, while some of the veterans were a little over the top.) However, I really enjoy this movie, so I'm willing to let this go. In fact, I know more than a few people who think the "quirky" acting is a large part of the charm. The film only cost $4 million to make, which means the special effects were low-budget, even for its day, but that is also forgiveable given the film's strengths elsewhere.

I've seen this movie about half-a-dozen times, and it still holds up every time I see it.

The Extras

Unfortunately, this is an MGM release and recently every one of their Blu-ray releases have sucked. It doesn't matter how good the movie is, the Blu-ray release has been terrible. My expectations could not have been lower...

So imagine my surprise when the Blu-ray was loaded with extras. Firstly, there are two audio commentary tracks. One is with the director, Dan O'Bannon, and the production designer, William Stout, which is the more technical minded track. The other is with the cast, which is more entertaining. There are also two zombie subtitles tracks, the first with such important lines as, "Graaaagh!" and "Raaaagh!" and the second translating this lines, mostly into, "Give us your brains!" If there were any doubts that the humor was just as important as the horror to the filmmakers, these two tracks will end that.

There are also a few featurettes starting with a 21-minute retrospective called The Dead Have Risen. The Decade of Darkness looks at the horror movies in the 1980s. It's quite in-depth, but it only barely touches on The Return of the Living Dead. Designing the Dead is a 14-minute interview featurette with Dan O'Bannon, the director, and William Stout, the production designer, talking about the look of the movie.

As for the film's technical presentation, I feel the need to present a lot of caveats. The film was made 25 years ago for a $4 million budget, which was low, even for the day. It wasn't a large enough hit that the studio was going to go back and do a frame-by-frame re-mastering of the film, so there's definitely an upper limit to expectations here. It looks about as good as you would expect and the detail levels are not quite as sharp as they possibly could be. Some of the darker scene have problems with shadows swallowing details. Other scenes show off the detail in the design very well. As for the audio... Originally the film was done in 2.0 stereo and while there is a 5.1 track here, there's not much in terms of surround sound. Solid, especially given the age, but nothing spectacular.

The Verdict

I've seen The Return of the Living Dead many, many times over the past 20 some odd years, having first seen it on VHS. Every time I see it, I'm entertained and the Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack is absolutely worth the price on Hell, at $10.49, it's worth a blind buy and it is a contender for Pick of the Week.

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