The Return of the Living Dead: Collector's Edition | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition

Studio: Scream Factory

Jul 18, 2016 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


If 1968’s Night of the Living Dead created the modern zombie mythos, it was 1985’s Return of the Living Dead that gave them a taste for “braaaaaaaaains!” The former stands up nearly fifty years later as one of the scariest movies ever made; the latter is among cinema's greatest horror-comedy hybrids. Each film is a classic in its own right, even though their approaches to the genre couldn't feel more different.

A (semi-quick) history lesson: George A. Romero and John A. Russo co-wrote Night of the Living Dead, but an unfortunate copyrighting oversight sent the film into the public domain. Romero and Russo went their separate ways in the 1970s, each free to pursue their own continuations to the story thanks to the copyright situation; Romero made his seminal sequel, Dawn of the Dead, while Russo penned novels set in that same zombie-ridden universe. The first of those novels, Return of the Living Dead, was adapted into a screenplay and briefly attached to Poltergeist director Tobe Hooper (who backed out to make the wonderfully bizarre Lifeforce for Cannon.) The script continued to bounce around Hollywood until it was eventually greenlit with Hooper’s handpicked replacement, Dan O’Bannon, at the helm. By this time O’Bannon was considered a hotshot screenwriter after scripting Alien, and drastically re-worked Russo’s Return of the Living Dead screenplay, transforming it into more of a comedy.

Meanwhile, Romero was working on his second sequel, Day of the Dead. Production moved forward amicably on the two films, up until both were scheduled for release within one month of each other in the summer of ‘85. A legal battle ensued over the marketing—in the end, Return of the Living Dead could retain the “of the Living Dead” bit of its title, but couldn’t officially market itself as a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. (The Dawn side won on that front.) That’s all water under the bridge now, and each series has continued to spawn sequels: Return of the Living Dead 2, 3, and so forth, with Romero keeping up his titling theme with Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and the like. It gets even more confusing when you start to factor in the various remakes and their own sequels, but we’ll get to those when there’s a collector’s edition of Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead ’90.

Stylistically, Return of the Living Dead was miles and miles from any of the movies Romero’s name appeared on. First off, O’Bannon’s movie was what he called a “splatstick” comedy—which is to say it was silly and purposefully over-the-top. While Romero’s zombies shambled and groaned, O’Bannon’s could run, talk, and even operate machinery. While Romero hid not-so-subtle criticisms of American society within his zombie features, Return of the Living Dead filled its runtime with gags, nudity, and gore.

Return of the Living Dead is set in Louisville, Kentucky, where a good-hearted punker (Thom Matthews) and his boss (Invaders from Mars James Karen) accidentally release an experimental gas stored at their medical warehouse. The gas immediately brings to life all of the cadavers stored in the facility, and worse: it seeps into the air, where it gets absorbed into passing storm clouds, which rain the reanimating agent down into a cemetery below. Obviously, that’s bad news, and shit spirals out of control real quick.

The movie takes a purely tongue-in-cheek approach to its zombies—this was the first film to put the call for “braaaains” in the living dead’s vocabulary—but it's stood the test of time because it blended real scares and a few honest-to-goodness, heart-wrenching moments in with its humor. (Notably, its zombies are not entirely mindless, and possess memories of their previous lives, which the movie mines for real drama.) On top of everything, the film both looks good, and sounds great. O’Bannon wished to also separate his film visually from Romero’s, so rather than going with the greying skin and peeling flesh seen in Dawn and Day of the Dead, the best-looking of Return’s zombies are modeled on the withered, leathery skin of Mexican mummies—it’s a much grosser effect (and one that you imagine might have been an influence on the look of Tales from the Crypt’s Cryptkeeper.) The movie’s award-winning make-up and effects are exemplified by “Tarman,” a brain-cravin’ cadaver who drips black goo, a gangly monster which is arguably cinema’s most iconic zombie. Plus, the movie’s soundtrack is nearly as famous as the film itself, filled with punk rock cuts by 45 Grave, The Cramps, T.S.O.L., and the appropriately-named The Flesh Eaters.

The fans who love this movie tend to really love this movie. (This writer counts himself among them.) That’s why it’s so heartening to find Scream Factory has endowed their Collector’s Edition Blu-ray with an absolute overabundance of lovingly-compiled bonus materials—more than enough to tell the casual fan everything they’d want to know about the movie, and even more that will keep hardcore devotees poring over both discs for hours and hours.  

The chief among these bonus features is the two-hour (!) documentary titled More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead. The 2011 documentary checks in with practically every surviving talent who worked on the film, and is easily the definitive behind-the-scenes story of the film. (It touches on literally everything imaginable, from O’Bannon’s eccentric casting process to the practical make-up effects required to remove Linnea Quigley’s crotch from view.) There are also previously-released interviews with the cast, production designer, O’Bannon, and Russo; stills galleries, TV spots, and trailers; and a few other features carried over from previous editions. But wait, there’s more! Scream Factory has commissioned a number of new docs, including two essential ones focusing solely on the film’s punk soundtrack, and on its special effects. (The discs also include an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds which revisits the locations used for the movie.) We also get a whopping four commentaries (two new) and a blurry work print of the movie, which includes twenty minutes of footage which didn’t make the finished film.

The disc’s new 2K transfer makes the film look as good as it ever has on home video, and the soundtrack—despite missing one song from The Damned, which couldn’t be licensed—has a nice, clean punch. Scream Factory’s The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition belongs in every horror fan’s collection. But, if you’re already of its cult, that was probably a no-braaaaaaaaaain(s)er.  

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