When people begin a discussion of cinematic zombies, the conversation inevitably first turns to George A. Romero’s classic trilogy, which consisted of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), and “Day of the Dead” (1985). However, beyond the realm of the serious zombie films, one always eventually comes to Dan O’Bannon’s horror-comedy classic “The Return of the Living Dead,” a film that is more than worthy of being placed right alongside not only the very best zombie films, but also the very best films in its bizarre little subgenre. Having just celebrated its 30 anniversary last year, it’s been a film that has continued to endure ever since its release back in 1985, despite not having quite the reputation that Romero’s films have achieved. But what is it about the film that has kept fans coming back for the last three decades, and how could such a silly little zombie film garner such praise from critics as well? Let’s dive in and find out.
As the film opens, a young man named Freddy (Thom Mathews) is being shown the ropes of his new job at a medical supply warehouse by Frank (James Karen). All of the strange supplies, including skeletons, cadavers, and split dogs, lead Freddy to ask Frank about the strangest thing he has ever seen while working there. Frank then tells him about the time the Army accidentally created a compound that reanimated the dead, and how they mistakenly shipped the bodies to the very warehouse they’re at now. This inevitably leads to Frank showing him the canisters these bodies are contained in, one of which begins to leak after just a slight tap on the side. The gas ends up bringing back to life a cadaver in the freezer, forcing them to call their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), for help. After chopping it up fails to kill it, he calls on a nearby mortician, Ernie (Don Calfa), for help in cremating the body in order to destroy the evidence. However, while it appears to work, little do they know that they’re nightmare has just begun.
“The Return of the Living Dead” is one of those films that, like many others, I keep coming back to year after year because of its strong staying power. Yes, on the surface it’s an incredibly silly, low-budget zombie film, but it brings with it a fascinating and twisted sense of humor that you don’t get much in horror films anymore. It’s not necessarily the kind of humor that’s going to have you burst out laughing, but rather the kind that will leave you in disbelief at just how over-the-top and ridiculous the film gets.
To put it another way, it’s fair to say that, while the film is a horror-comedy, it actually leans a little more to the horror side, whereas a film like Edgar Wright’s outstanding “Shaun of the Dead” takes the same genre and leans a little further towards the comedy side. That’s not to say that there aren’t jokes in O’Bannon’s film that you can outright laugh at, there certainly are, but after having seen the film so many times, I find that the vast majority of the humor remains in its more shocking elements, including the infamous character of “Tarman” (the body that eventually comes forth from the broken canister).
You also have to admire the amount of fun O’Bannon was able to have with it, a spirit that becomes infectious as the film goes on. For instance, he takes the trouble of having Ernie explain to us all about rigor mortis (a process that happens after death, which results in stiff limbs), only to have it not matter in the least as the zombies that eventually surround the facility are rather quick to pounce on their victims. There’s also the fact that Burt, Frank, and Freddy first try to deal with the situation by thinking back to how it was dealt with in Romero’s original classic, but finding that that doesn’t work, much more extreme methods have to be worked out.
Normally, I wouldn’t resort to discussing performances when it comes to horror films, as they’re usually not part of what makes a film of the genre work as well as it does, but here we have a special case in which they are a large part of why its silliness is as effective as it is. Particular credit has to go to James Karen for his half-whiny/half-panicked turn that goes way over the top, making for some of the film’s more amusing moments. Keep in mind, this is while most of the others are keeping a level head about themselves (or at least doing the best they can under the circumstances). I would also include the younger actors here who go “full 80s” for their scenes. True, the film is from 1985, but in order to give it yet another exaggerated element, O’Bannon throws in a ton of clichés to give us that extra laugh, perhaps knowing full-well that the style and mannerisms would be looked back on with hilarious results.
By the time the film gets to its downright ridiculous ending, you find that you’ve had such an entertaining time that you just sit back and accept it without hesitation, and there you have one of the main reasons that “The Return of the Living Dead” has continued to be a cult favorite among horror enthusiasts. It’s a vastly entertaining film that gives you a good laugh with its goofiness and excessive nature, which, as its fans would claim, makes it just as memorable as any of Romero’s zombie outings. It may not be considered as much of a classic as his films, and it might not be nearly as well-known, but it has earned its place in the pantheon of great zombie films, and it will only continue to endure for a long time to come.
“The Return of the Living Dead” comes to Collector’s Edition Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of remarkable quality. I’ve seen this film in several formats over the years, including on TV, DVD, and the first Blu-ray release, and I can easily say that the film has never looked better. You can still see a little bit of grain in the picture, but you’ll really only notice it if you’re looking for it (besides, a little grain only adds to the charm of the film). Otherwise, you are treated to a beautifully sharp and clear picture throughout the entire presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue and Matt Clifford’s catchy score in outstanding quality. Overall, the film has been given stunning treatment from the amazing folks at Scream Factory, leaving you with an experience that can’t be beat.
Commentary with Gary Smart (Co-author of The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead) and Chris Griffiths
Commentary with Actors Thom Mathews, John Philbin, and Make-up Effects Artist Tony Gardner
Commentary with Director Dan O’Bannon and Production Designer William Stout
Commentary with the Cast and Crew
You certainly get plenty of commentaries to choose from, and while they all have some fascinating bits, I’d have to say that the track with O’Bannon and Stout is the best of the bunch.
The Decade of Darkness (23 Minutes): An awesome featurette about horror films of the 80s.
Zombie Subtitles for the Film
In Their Own Words: The Zombies Speak (More Subtitles)
More Brains!: A Return to the Living Dead (120 Minutes): A fantastic, feature-length documentary about the history and making of the film.
The FX of The Return of the Living Dead (33 Minutes): A fascinating featurette that takes you through the film’s special effects.
Party Time: The Music of The Return of the Living Dead (30 Minutes): A featurette that discusses the film’s soundtrack.
Horror’s Hallowed Grounds (10 Minutes): An episode of the series that takes you to several of the film’s filming locations.
A Conversation with Dan O’Bannon (29 Minutes): An excellent interview with the writer/director that would be his final one before his death in 2009.
The Origins of The Return of the Living Dead (15 Minutes): An interesting featurette that discusses how the film came about.
The Return of the Living Dead: The Dead Have Risen (21 Minutes): An older featurette that features the cast discussing the making of the film.
Designing the Dead (14 Minutes): An interview with O’Bannon and Stout in which they discuss the film’s various designs.
The Return of the Living Dead Workprint (108 Minutes): The original workprint cut of the film that features deleted and extended scenes, as well as alternate takes. While the quality of the print isn’t too good, it remains a fascinating piece of cinema history that fans of the film will find worth the watch.
Dan O’Bannon’s “The Return of the Living Dead” is a classic of the zombie genre that delivers a good laugh with its silly, over-the-top nature, while also giving you several thrills along the way. Whether it’s your first time seeing it, or you’ve seen it a couple of dozen times (like me), Scream Factory’s new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray is the definitive, must-own release of the classic that not only brings you the film in the best quality it’s ever been seen in, but also a ton of fantastic extras that will give fans even more delight. To put it simply, this is a release that any self-respecting horror fan should pick up on day one.
Available on Collector's Edition Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates.