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In 1985, the same year George A. Romero was preparing the third part of his zombie epic, Day of the Dead, scriptwriter Dan O'Bannon inherited former Romeo partner in crime John Russo's Night of the Living Dead sequel script. O'Bannon, who had found some major writing success with Alien and Dead and Buried (a very underrated little film with an original take on zombies), was given the right to direct the film, his first. O'Bannon managed to turn a weak, sub-Romero bore into an audience friendly comedy. Return of the Living Dead went on to decimate Romero's film at the box office, proving that mid-'80s youth was more interested in comedy and punk rock than allegories and depressing social issues.

Return of the Living Dead
The plot is clever in that it pretends that the events of Night of the Living Dead actually happened, but that Romero's film was forced to change some of the facts by the U.S. Government, who kept some of the zombies in a medical supply house. When a couple of bumbling employees accidentally re-animate one of the vacuum-sealed undead, they also release the gas that turns people into the walking dead. It's soon clear that a bullet to the head will not kill these particular zombies, and the re-animated remains are burned in a crematorium furnace. The ashen remains are rained down on a local cemetery, and the process starts all over again.

Return of the Living Dead is most well remembered for its soundtrack, punk rock witticism (very similar to that of Alex Cox's Repo Man), and zombies that eat brains. Including this film on my list is a bit of a cheat considering that these zombies aren't really flesh eaters, but brain eaters, a fact that infiltrated zombie lore in the following years (brains... brains... ). Fans that despised recent films like Dawn of the Dead 2004 for their sprinting zombies have Return of the Living Dead to blame, as O'Bannon more or less introduced the subject. Some hardcore fans resent the film for appealing to the broadest possible demographic, with its 'R rating' and such. I say sometimes the mainstream is an OK place to be.

Return of the Living Dead

Video


Surprisingly this 1080p, 25GB disc presentation, loaded with extras, is a definite upgrade on the already good looking anamorphic DVD. It’s not the sharpest looking disc, but detail levels are high, grain is very minimal, and colours are vibrant. Blacks, though deep, do bleed into the hues occasionally, and the widest, darkest shots don’t look too great. The colours are the big deal though, from the vibrant costumes, the wacky neon lighting, and other contrasting palettes, like bright yellow zombies.

Return of the Living Dead

Audio


Return of the Living Dead was originally filmed in Mono, which makes it difficult for a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix to really be all that dynamic. The audio producers do their best, which is to keep most of the dialogue and effects in the center channel, while using the stereo, surrounds and LFE more for the musical track, which has never sounded better, even at lower volumes. If there were any major directional effects I didn’t notice them, and I wasn’t taken out of the film when the stereo channels occasionally sprang to life, so I suppose the mix is plenty effective. The centered dialogue is occasionally a bit poppy and scratchy, but not excessively so.

Return of the Living Dead

Extras


This new Blu-ray features all the same extras as the most recent special edition release, plus a few new surprises. Things start with the cast and crew commentary. Unfortunately it’s mostly the punk kids, not the older cult guys (except Don Calfa, who’s kind of grumpy), so it’s more cute than entertaining. More valuable is the second commentary featuring the late writer/director Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout. O’Bannon strikes the perfect tone, gives us plenty of information, and is generally dry witted. Stout doesn’t interrupt too often, and when he does, doesn’t waste anyone’s time with his factoids. Good news is that there isn’t a lot shared information between the tracks.

Next up is a series of featurettes, starting with ‘ The Return of the Living Dead – The Dead have Risen’ (SD, 20:30), a solid retrospective featurette including interviews with most of the cast, who share their favourite stories. A nice bit of nostalgia with a perfect dollop of saccharine. ‘The Decade of Darkness’ (SD, 23:20gf) is a catchall of ‘80s horror including interviews with Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Elvira, John Landis, Bill Mosley and a number of horror movie experts. It’s pretty much a good clip show (unfortunately only culled from MGM owned films), but there aren’t any good documentaries about ‘80s horror that cover subject matter outside of the slasher genre, so I enjoyed it. ‘Designing the Dead’ (SD, 13:40) is an interview with director Dan O’Bannon, who discusses his career and work on the film. There are two trailers and a stupid option marked ‘In Their Own Words: The Zombies Speak’, which just takes you to the cast and crew commentary.

Return of the Living Dead

Overall


This release is a classic ‘80s horror in ‘worth the upgrade HD’, and the price is more than right, including all the great extras from the previous special edition. The film has officially spawned four sequels. The first sequel is universally known as an awful film, but Return of the Living Dead Part III, directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, is a great comic-book exploration of teenage love and angst. It's too bad the R1 DVD is the censored 'R rated' cut. I've not seen the two newest sequels, but haven't heard a single good thing about them.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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