More Brains!: A Return to the Living Dead (US - DVD R1)
Gabe learns just about everything about O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead...
I quite enjoyed Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch’s all-inclusive, some would say excessive, Nightmare on Elm Street series documentary Never Sleep Again, and have actually watched all 480 minutes on more than one occasion. But those 480 minutes cover the making of eight films. When presented with a 240-minute documentary on a single film, I was suspicious. I could see 240 minutes covering a film as massive as Fellowship of the Ring, or as lasting and ‘important’ as Seven Samurai, but Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead isn’t exactly what I’d call worthy of such an extensive runtime. And I say this as a fan of the film, and of zombie cinema in general. Well, despite what the lack of verification on the box art, the Return of the Living Dead part of this documentary runs somewhere around 120 minutes, which is still 30-plus minutes longer than the film, but not as excessive as I had assumed. The other 120 minutes are found in this disc’s special features.
More Brains, directed by Never Sleep Again producer Bill Philputt, is a fun, poppy ode to a fun, poppy film, and is generally quite informative, even for those of us that already gave a thorough listen to Dan O’Bannon’s commentary on the Return of the Living Dead DVD and Blu-ray releases. There is a lack of behind the scenes footage, which certainly hurts. However, there are plenty of pertinent photo stills, and on occasion there’s some footage from the rough cut of the film as well as what appears to be b-roll, which is a pretty impressive ‘get’ for the filmmakers. The bulk of the doc is made up of talking head interviews, which are augmented and made interesting with comic book inspired titles, graphic design, and backing set pieces. Interview subjects include actors Brian Peck (who also acts as narrator), Linnea Quigley, Thom Matthews, James Karen (who is a sarcastic, witty joy), Clu Gulager, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Allen Troutman, Jewel Shepard (who makes it pretty clear why people didn’t get along with her on set), James Dalesandro, Drew Deighan and Don Calfa, writer John A, Russo, former Orion Pictures head Paul Sammon, production designer William Stout, co-producer Grahm Henderson, make-up effects techs Tony Gardner, Kenny Myers and William Munnis, cinematographer Jules Brenner, casting director Stanzi Stokes, SSQ lead singer Stacy Q, and second assistant editor John Penny. There is a brief, touching piece of filmed interview with O’Bannon at the very end of the film, but otherwise this footage is delegated to the special features for some reason.
Much of the focus is on the difficulties of the production, including the usual money issues, rights issues, studio disinterest, rewrites, O’Bannon’s inexperience as a director and his battles with Clu Gulager, cast arguments, the effects challenges stemming from a difficult budget which led to the firing of original effects artist William Munnis (the images of his work are pretty telling), and filming long hour night shoots in pouring rain. The doc also covers more positive elements, including the basics of production design (based largely around EC Comics), special effects, make-up effects, casting (Miguel A. Núñez Jr. was homeless when hired), rehearsal time, costuming, the basic filming process, the most simple and successful of the special effects (especially the half-torso woman), Linnea Quigley’s nude dance (including her ‘modesty patch’), the scripts more original elements (brain eating, no death rule, though no mention of running zombies), the editing process, the novelty punk-infused score, and the surprise box office success.
My only real complaints pertain to a slight glaze over some of the George A. Romero stuff inherit in the fabric of Return of the Living Dead. Philputt does cover the film’s Romero and John Russo roots, Russo and Romero’s break into two different companies following Night of the Living Dead, and a lawsuit that Russo claims had nothing to do with his relationship with Romero. My disappointment pertains to the doc ignoring the minor feud that was kindled among horror fans. Return of the Living Dead was released almost exactly a month after Romero’s third zombie film, Day of the Dead, which led to a bunch of comparisons, and petty, but juicy, fan arguments. If there would’ve been internet at the time, there would have been a gigantic flame war. In the end the R-rated, comedic, poppy Return was a hit, and the unrated, dark, depressing Day was relatively ignored (though it made a decent profit on video after the fact). This is possibly unfair of me as a George Romero fan, and I also admit fanbase melodrama was probably beyond the scope of this documentary, but it would’ve been a blast to see a bevy of fans and critics weighing in on the subject.
This DVD release looks about as good as a standard definition release of a low-budget documentary can. The 1.78:1 image looks as good as the quality of the interview footage. For example, Linnea Quigley’s footage is darker and grainier than the majority of the other interviews. The interviews are set against cartoonishly bright red, blue and green lit backdrops, which offer a lot in the way of vibrant colours, which are pretty smooth, and feature only the usual, minor compression artifacts. Contrast around these areas is also quite sharp, and the blacks are usually deep and pure. The footage from the subject film, Return of the Living Dead, strangely enough, looks inconsistent, and sometimes pretty terrible. It’s dingy, dark, heavily edge-enhanced, and appears misframed several times. I don’t know if this was because the production wasn’t sure if they could get the rights to use the footage and never bothered to replace some of their temp footage, or if they couldn’t afford to buy the new HD footage.
There is almost nothing to say about this Dolby 2.0 Surround audio outside of the fact that it sounds just fine. The dialogue is clean and clear, and pretty consistent from interview to interview, and volume levels maintain a basic middle ground throughout. Occasionally I noticed the otherwise (ghost) centered dialogue wafting into the stereo channels a bit too loudly, but it wasn’t particularly distracting. The film footage appears to be mono, which is fine, though the clips are a bit tinny. There are plenty of sound effects between shots, the best of which abstractly represent a zoom into a still photo, or an image sliding over another. These offer a bit of stereo movement, and occasionally echo in the rear channels, but are still largely centric. The doc’s music is pretty low-key, but lays over almost the entire film, and offers warm stereo texture to the proceedings. The bulk of the track’s bass also lies in the music.
The disc’s special features continue the story, and eventually fill out the 240 minutes of runtime promised on the back of the box. ‘They Won’t Stay Dead’ (29:40) covers the production of the utterly awful Return of the Living Dead Part II. This includes interviews with many of the same people, plus Part II actors Suzanne Snyder and Michael Kenworthy. The basic theme here is that no one wanted to do the film, and that the bulk of the original production staff resents the film, or at the very least their work in it. Discussion includes the script’s plagiarist elements (it’s almost the same movie), director Ken Wiederhorn’s ( Shock Waves) disinterest in the project, casting, the more elaborate special effects, the last minute addition of a Michael Jackson zombie, and the film’s general failure as both a comedy and a horror film. There is no footage from the original film present, or any behind the scenes footage, only still photographs, which are put to good effect.
‘Love Beyond the Grave’ (21:00) covers the making of the third film in the series, the aptly titled Return of the Living Dead 3. The third film is actually quite entertaining, and even moving at times, but doesn’t have a lot in common with the first two films. It’s more of an imaginative, standalone zombie feature. I do recommend seeing it, preferably in its uncut, unrated form. Some of the same interview subjects appear, but very few people crossed over into working on the third film, and the bulk of the interviews belong to director Brian Yuzna, make-up effects supervisor Steve Johnson (who married Quigley), writer John Penny, and actors J. Trevor Edmond and Brian Peck (again). Subject matter includes the writing pitches (including Kenny Myers and Brian Peck’s treatment), script development, casting, filming on sets and locations, difficulties filming the opening scene, splitting the effects throughout different effects houses, and the film’s disappointing release. There is a reasonable amount of behind the scenes footage, and production photos and illustrations, but again no footage from the film itself.
Next up is footage from Dan O’Bannon’s final interview (28:30), a rather extensive interview that was for some reason almost entirely unused for the final film. There’s good stuff here, stuff that could’ve helped the narrative of the documentary. O’Bannon does go a bit off the topic of Return of the Living Dead, sure, but there’s plenty of usable, pertinent information, especially his discussion concerning avoiding ‘stepping on George Romero’s toes’, and direct references to some of the negative things spoken about him by the actors. This is followed by 14 scenes deleted from the documentary proper. There is, unfortunately no ‘play all’ option, which is annoying, but these include some amusing anecdotes. The disc also features a ‘Tonight’ by Stacy Q music video (3:20), ‘Resurrected Settings: The Filming Locations Today’ with Brian Peck and Beverly Randolph (10:00), ‘ Return of the Living Dead in Three Minutes’ (3:00), a trailer, and a trailer for Never Sleep Again.
More Brains is exactly what Return of the Living Dead fans ordered, and fills a void left by the decent, but incomplete extras found on the special edition DVD and Blu-ray releases. It’s not a head the head to toe, exhaustive, and exhausting 240-minute documentary the box art threatens. It’s a full-bodied, but brisk two-hour look back with the cast and crew, and generally quite entertaining. The extras feature more information on the first two sequels, an extensive 28 minute interview with writer/director Dan O’Bannon, and several deleted scenes that total to bring things closer to that 240 minute runtime, just in smaller bites. This is a must buy for Return of the Living Dead fans, and a probable rent for more general and passing horror fans.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 18th October 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Surround 2.0 English
Extras: They Won't Stay Dead, Love Beyond the Grave, Dan O'Bannon Interview, Stacy Q Live Music Video, Resurrected Settings, Return of the Living Dead in Three Minutes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Bill Philputt
Cast: Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Thom Matthews, James Karen, Clu Gulager, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Allen Troutman, Jewel Shepard, James Dalesandro, Drew Deighan, Don Calfa
Length: 118 minutes
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