Return of the Living Dead, The (UK - BD RB)
The Wilson Bros are back from the grave and they're ALWAYS ready to party!
The year was 1985, and George A Romero released the final part of his Dead Trilogy, with Day of the Dead being released in an unrated form to allow every drop of blood to be seem without the burden of censorship. His was a strong vision, that of man's futile infighting in the face of its own destruction. Nothing could stop the dead from conquering the box office - except more zombies!
On his first day working at the Uneeda Medical Supplies warehouse, young Freddie is being shown the ropes by his boss, where a tour of the building concludes with a look at a mysterious canister in the basement. Accidentally mis-shipped there since the late sixties after the contents said to have caused the dead to return to life, the tank accidentally ruptures and fills the basement with fumes. As Freddie’s gang of misfits wait for him to finish work, something stirs six feet under the graveyard next door - not a wise time or place to party, but all hell is about to break loose as both zombies and punk proves that reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated…
Armed with naked zombies, a kick-arse soundtrack, a double-helping of humour to pull in a larger audience and an all-important “R” rating, Return of the Living Dead ended up trouncing its half-brother across cinemas in America. Released a scant three weeks after the final instalment of the Dead trilogy, it did nearly triple the business of Romero‘s film, raking in almost $15 million dollars and opened in almost seven times the number of cinemas, proving that whilst artistic principles will let you look at yourself in the mirror, releasing a movie unrated is a sure-fire way of diminishing the saleability of your work.
Adapting John Russo’s original draft of the script, Dan O’Bannon saw the world still in the grip of the “punk” phenomenon, and with the release of movies like Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilisation pointing to the destruction of society, it seemed only natural to have the rotting corpses of times past come back to attack the invaders. With filming underway in 1984, the punks of the seventies lingered on, refusing to stay dead as stubbornly as the title characters, and in spite of the obvious anachronisms of putting them in the time of New-Romantics, hardly anyone even questions their inclusion, a testament to the solid premise, deft writing and engaging performances. Punk was still kicking, and coming to get you, Barbara…
Whist there is no question that original script of Return of the Living Dead came into being due to Dawn of the Dead going before the cameras, there were a number of attempts made so as not to exclude Romero from the proceedings, such as repeatedly offering him the chance to produce the film - his refusal to even get back to them was a pretty firm response in itself. Presumably in an attempt to cool any wrath the rival project might generate with ol’ George, a line (which was eventually deleted) from Thom Mathews said that Night of the Living Dead was “…one of the best movies ever,” but this might well have been so as not to dump on the original film which was also co-written by John Russo.
One of the many reasons why Return of the Living Deadis such a “grabber” is through the expert way it switches tone half way through the movie, going from wink-at-the-camera spoof to hardcore horror and rocketing like a runaway train to the alarmingly cynical ending. There are a number of other films which have employed this gambit to varying degrees of success, Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners being one of the best examples of getting it right, but ROTLD goes as solid-cold as it can, and making everything past midway-point as shocking as possible. We remember watching the movie with our parents in about 1988, and whilst it was a spoof of the genre, they were going along with it, but once the gears shifted, it became a rather uncomfortable experience for them. It has nothing to do with violence per-se, as they saw I Spit on Your Grave before it was declared a “video nasty”, but the jokey tone of the first half really sucker-punched them for the rest of it, and this switcheroo has alienated a good number of viewers over the years.
There is little surprise that Return of the Living Dead and Stuart Gordon's Reanimator came out in the same year, as there are tonally similar qualities to both films. They share a cold, methodical look at the processes of death, along with a cynical view of the dead being merely raw materials for medical schools, taking equal time to lovingly show the instruments and procedures employed once death has occurred. Reanimator maintains a fairly consistent tone, pausing only to share in the grief of the main characters grief at his lost love, but the shift found in O’Bannon’s film only serves to let off the handbrake and step on the gas.
The Return of the Living Dead predated Zack Snyder's
"remimagining" of Dawn of the Dead by a good couple of decades, depicting zombies that did more than just shuffle; there are moments in O'Bannon's film where the living dead are seen running after some poor bastards that are set in their sights, taking on a mob-like mentality that has Louisville looking like a epicentre of a riot that increasingly turns into something resembling a war-zone. Horror film enthusiasts will know that Return of the Living Dead wasn't the first film to have zombies capable of getting a shift on - that honour goes to Umberto Lenzi's 1980 idiot-fest, Nightmare City.
The same narrative drive is still in play, as there is no reason to alter such a durable formula, as the innocent walk into the clutches of the zombies, and all take shelter and form a disparate group against the invading hoardes as they are picked off one-by-one. Where the McGuffins for survival in Night of the Living Deadare driving off in the truck or barricading themselves in the basement, here there is one: call in the army to save the day. Sure, it's been done before, but never with the energy and nihilistic vigour as Return of the Living Dead unleashed on audiences. Even then, it still has one last trump card to play...
We’re not the most militaristic of folks, and it is this quality which probably endears the works of George Romero to us all the more, as the army usually come in for a barrage of criticism in most of his films. Why bring this up? Well, this is something which both Day of the Dead and O’Bannon’s zombie film share, in spite of them being bitter rivals. The depiction of the military in the two films is that of a heavy-handed organisation which employs heavy-handed tactics to get the job done, with morality and democracy stomped on in the process. Scientists aren’t moving fast enough with the inadequate facilities forced upon them - shoot them. The army’s dirty secret gets loose in a town and has to be contained - nuke the whole area from the face of the earth. As a matter of fact, the military response in Return of the Living Dead is almost identical to that seen in Romero’s terrific 1973 thriller The Crazies…
We’d really hate to use such a cliché without a trace of irony, but Return of the Living Dead really did breathe new life into the genre. Long-established lore dictated that once the brain was destroyed, the zombie was nullified, and left to merely decompose, but with access to more elaborate effects than at the time of Night of the Living Dead, more opportunities were there for the taking. Here were the undead which kept on going no matter how many pieces you sliced it into, each severed bit becoming its own deadly entity in the quest to ensnare the living. Hell, even burning them will do you no good either, as the smoke will enlace storm clouds to produce and rain over the local area, reanimating more zombies upon contact. These creatures could even speak, making them even more dangerous, especially when luring in the unwary for a fresh supply of tasty brains - another change to the mythos, where only the grey matter was eaten rather than the whole flesh. This alteration is one which still lives on to this day, becoming a point of reference for any zombie joke in the media, thinking it relates to the entire genre. As irritating as such lazy usage is, it proves that Return of the Living Dead certainly has staying power within popular culture.
Although some may question just how relevant punks were in the middle of the eighties, we have to say that around the area where we lived, there were still a few of them around at about that time. The ones shown here are a varied collection, including a couple of New-Romantic-types, which we assumed banded with the punks to seek solidarity when they lifestyle they lived/loved went out of fashion with the rest of the world. Some of the gang - like Scuzz - are merely on the fringe of punk, leaving the unquestioned devotion to Trash and Suicide, with the latter’s statement to the cause perfectly encapsulating the entire notion of punk: “You think this is all a fucking costume? This is a way of life!” It’s exactly this attitude which makes The Return of the Living Dead the fast-paced, turbo-charged romp that it is, as the scene was an angry burst of youthful of energy which woke society up to the fact that everything was stagnating around them. From the moment the acid rain starts pouring down onto the graveyard, every possible stop is pulled out to put you in the seat of a fast car ramming its way into a morgue, where no characters are safe, all boundaries are removed and the bite of a famished zombie can sink into you at any given time. We’d passionately argue that there is more drive and vitality at work in Return of the Living Dead than either 28 Days Later or the Dawn of the Dead remake, as it dispenses with the protagonists wandering around deserted streets and focuses on the interaction between various characters from the outset, setting up the story elements in humorously interesting ways whilst making you care for those about to have hell break loose around them.
Whilst emulating the basic elements of Night of the Living Dead for the purposes of being a continuation of the story, it is the discarding of the Romero’s sensibilities that gives it license to cut loose and concentrate on giving the audience a good ride for the price of their admission. Romero would concentrate on a select group of characters battling the social breakdown around them, the clash of personalities among the protagonists, and their realisation that the greater danger comes from within their midst rather than the ever-present zombies threatening them. ROTLD just thinks “fuck it” and gives punters naked zombie chicks, kick-arse music, along with a hoard of creepy flesh-eaters, all at a pace where you’d think the script was carved on the nose of a bullet. This is one of the few Living Dead movies where the consumption of beer and popcorn should be actively encouraged so as to get you in the right frame of mind for maximum enjoyment.
At the heart of the movie is an unconventional love story, almost in the mould of West Side Story, where nice-girl Tina is besotted with Freddy, one of a gang of social misfits more than acquainted with the local police. She tolerates the gang in spite of their alien lifestyle, gravitating more towards the New-Romantic members of their clique, just so she can be in Freddy’s orbit, but once the zombies rise from the grave, their tale takes on more than shades of Romeo and Juliet. Even when a member of the undead trying to chow-down on Tina’s lovely, full, rounded… brains, Freddy still professes his love for her, and we can’t wait for the Blue Mountain greetings card with that printed on it! If only Tina had possessed the same name as the protagonist of West Side Story, as a rendition of I Just Ate a Girl Called Maria would have brought the house down.
The zombies featured are almost as spawned of the punk attitude as the tone of the movie itself, not wanting to conform to established dictates and just doing its own thing. These ghouls run, talk, have more intelligence than even the ones in Romero’s Land of the Dead and are utterly relentless. Whilst smashing in the skull might have taken down one of ol’ George’s creations, not even slicing off the head or cutting it up into pieces is enough to stop these guys. It is the moment when the audience realises that there is no way that you can satisfactorily kill one of them which really jolts them into the full-throttle weirdness which compels you to keep watching every time, and this bleakness gives them empathy for the characters worth caring about. Is there anyone who wasn’t freaked-out the first time they saw the Tar-Man zombie? He’s certainly one of the most disquieting walking corpses even to grace a cinema screen, with nothing to even compare to him in nearly thirty years. OK, even the FX guys don’t like the “Party Time” skeleton zombie, but it’s just another in the long line of varied creatures dug up for your viewing pleasure.
James Karen and Thom Matthews lead a diverse and interesting cast; Karen is initially gleeful and playful as Frank, luring the naive Freddie (Matthews) into the circumstances as to how the Uneeda Medical Supply company came to be in possession of some of the US Army canisters. Theirs is an interesting relationship in that Frank is the old hand at the place, showing the young newcomer some of the more bizarre items for sale and trying to freak out Freddie in a manner usually seen in ten year-old boys trying to scare a younger brother. When Frank's mixture of bravado and idiocy unleashes the contents of one the canisters, Frank almost immediately turns into a long-lost member of the Three Stooges, exhibiting more of a cowardly yellow streak than the cadaver that comes to life in the cold storage room. After the gas has been released, Freddie becomes more assertive and is able to hold things together a little more than Frank, but ultimately the two of them share the same fate, but the way that they deal with their eventually metamorphosis into the living dead are very different, mirroring the differences between what a hot-headed youth would do in that situation and the actions of an older, more morally responsible person. The chemistry between the two of them is wonderful to watch, particularly when Clu Gulager is thrown into the mix as an almost parental figure, allowing Karen to be even more cowardly and childlike, at times desperately looking to him for answers, even though there really aren't any that would have a particularly favourable outcome.
Speaking of Clu Gulager, this dependable character actor had been appearing in television westerns, the occasional film and various other small-screen projects for more than a quarter of a century and was well aware that his days as a leading man were fading into the distance. In the days before Quentin Tarantino made it fashionable to resurrect the careers of what were essentially washed-up actors, taking a chance on a faded star was a risky venture, but it more than paid of when Dan O'Bannon wanted him for Return of the Living Dead. Gulager has a magnetic presence and the rugged looks of a world-weary man and as Burt Wilson, the owner of Uneeda, he exudes an air of authority that injects a much-needed dose of realism to the proceedings. When the story begins, Gulager plays Burt with a lighter touch, but as things get progressively more bizarre, Gulager shifts gears and metaphorically saddles-up, turning into the sort of cowboy character that he had portrayed on television numerous times. Gulager also adds a certain cinematic weight to the story that prevents is from tipping over into camp and provides a much-needed counterbalance to James Karen's performance, which at times DOES threaten to cross the line.
What can we say about genre legend Linnea Quigley that hasn’t been the fuel of trouser-tenting for the past quarter of a century? Her role as Trash is probably the most iconic of her career, and given that the majority of her time is spent sans clothes and mostly dripping wet is probably all many will need to know, but there is much more than just fetching nudity. She brings the humour written into the character to life, and there are instances where you find yourself chuckling out loud at lines which might not have been as successful with other actresses. Possibly our favourite is when the gang want to pick Freddy up from work and go partying, but Trash points out that it’s “…not nice” to possibly get him into trouble by turning up unexpectedly at his workplace. You’ll find that words like “energy” and “vitality” are employed a lot to describe just what makes Return of the Living Dead so successful, but we have to say that Linnea Quigley embodies both of these qualities and becomes a lightening rod for imbuing the rest of the movie with them.
Of the cast who portray the other members of the band of disaffected youth, the standout member has to be Miguel A Nunez Jr; Nunez was 21 years old and essentially homeless when he was picked to appear as Spider in Return of the Living Dead and it was this film that put him on the path to a successful career, landing roles in other films (including the fifth entry in the Friday the 13th[I/] series, [I]A New Beginning, where he gets to deliver one of the most memorable lines of the film whilst sitting in a seedy outhouse "I'll feel a lot better when I'm outta here, this shit-box is gross!"), and going on to be one of the leads in the Vietnam television series, Tour of Duty. Nunez gives Spider something closely approximating a sense of morality, which seems to put him on a moral footing with Burt and at times has the two of them as equals, but coming from completely different backgrounds and certainly Spider comes across as more rational and even-handed than Freddie, Frank and the other members of his gang. Nunez' background living on the streets gives his performance a tough and realistic quality that helps to anchors the unreal events into a kind of reality.
Special mention has to go to veteran performer Don Calfa, playing the role of mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner, the man who comes to the rescue of our hapless warehouse workers only to make things infinitely worse through trying to destroy evidence. Calfa brings an honesty to the character, along with a disquieting sense of the methodical when it comes to death, and it’s very difficult to imagine anyone else making the role work anywhere near as well as he did. It was only years later than we realised all the clues which added up to good ol’ Ernie being Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the infamous Nazi officer of notable infamy. He likes music with a certain Teutonic flavour, has no problem with dead bodies, quotes certain pertinent German literature, owns a Luger and is a dab-hand as operating the oven in a crematorium.
What also makes Return of the Living Dead fairly unique within the genre - or at least certainly within the zombie sub-genre - is that the songs on the soundtrack are almost entirely punk/new wave; though in keeping with the antisocial gang members seen on the screen, the mixture of well-established punk groups such as 45 Grave and Britain's own The Damned alongside more diverse artists like psychobilly outfit The Cramps and Texas' psychedelic rock pioneer, Roky Erickson make for a pleasing listening experience, despite several of the songs only present in the film for a few seconds, which is usually a clear indication that the director was not happy with having to include all of them in movie. As mentioned earlier, by the time the movie was in production, the punk movement was well and truly dead here in the UK, but it continued, albeit in a fairly diluted form, in America until the mid-eighties, whereby it was pared down so much that it became a punk-lite caricature of the original intent.
Thankfully, the songs in Return of the Living Dead are mostly full-bore punk numbers that give an added sense of energy to several of the sequences where they are employed, especially the use of 45 Grave's Party Time during the graveyard resurrection scene and the employment of The Cramps' Surfin' Dead as the zombies are trying to break into the Ernie's funeral home. If the songs on the soundtrack serve to inject some added kinetic energy into the film, then Francis Haines' Trioxin Theme adds a palpable sense of dread during the theme, firstly appearing on the opening credits, then popping up at various times during the film the tell the audience that the nightmare isn't over and that things are only going to get worse from here onwards whenever the malevolent substance is being spread further.
The cast and the music are excellent, cementing just how well all elements of the movie were chosen. As a matter of fact, Return of the Living Dead lands every visceral punch it swings, be it a sickly-funny uppercut, a rabbit-punch of explosive gore or a even a TKO of total weirdness - this is a movie born of a mission to entertain its audience, and anyone walking away from it unsatisfied could only be as dead on the inside as the title characters. With such lofty praise and ardent following, this edition had better be something pretty damned special. Read on, guys, as we think you are going to be very happy with Second Sight about this one...
We’ve sat through Return of the Living Dead on all manner of formats, including the horrible Vestron rental tape, the Tartan widescreen edition, subsequent LaserDisc issue, the US DVD and a Hi-Def broadcast on MGM HD, but Second Sight’s Blu-ray bests them all. The image is a mile away from how we were accustomed to watching it, with the 1.85:1 1080p looking particularly strong and blessed with a pleasing amount of fine detail. There is a lovely sheen of natural grain, proving that there hasn’t been too much in the way of “cheating” going on during the restoration job, and the whole thing looks genuinely filmic. A good test of the resolution comes when looking at the “eye-chart” stuck on the wall of the Uneeda office, as most with experience of watching will know that it states: "Burt is a slaver driver and a cheap son of a bitch…” but it takes a really good transfer to decipher the rest, and Second Sight’s excellent Blu-ray edition it definitely up to the task! We’ll let you find out the bottom of the chart for yourselves.
For a movie about punks, there isn’t as much garish use of colour as you might expect, but this disc does a great job of bringing them to HD as they were originally filmed, with some instances really leaping out at you like a zombie waiting in the darkness. Speaking of such things, the black levels fluctuate throughout the movie, but this is probably more to do with the decisions made at the time, trying to achieve certain things through during the timing processes rather than digital tinkering. There are numerous things you aren’t supposed to see in the movie which are laid bare by the upgrade in resolution - we’re not just talking about the wires on the skeleton zombie - and they do tent to rip your heart out each time you spot another one, but it’s all a trade-off, and we’ll take a few fluffs over a lesser edition any day.
When The Return of the Living Dead was originally released on DVD in the US roughly a decade ago, director Dan O'Bannon decided to remix the audio into 5.1, but whilst doing this, the director went a bit George Lucas; the result was a sound-mix that dialled-down several songs ( Take A Walk by The Tall Boys suffered considerably) and one track was almost entirely eliminated ( Dead Beat Dance by The Damned), but the latter was also supposedly due to copyright issues. Being Roky Erickson fans, we were particularly dismayed at how his seminal Burn the Flames has been almost eradicated from the this re-mix. Along with these unpopular alterations was the decision to re-voice the iconic Tar-Man with something that didn't sound nearly as effective, as well as the lowered-tones of some other zombies. This controversial revisionist mix has been included here, presented in both flavours of DTS HD audio, that of 5.1 and 2.0.
Second Sight is to be commended for including the original unaltered audio mix for this release. Presented in PCM 2.0 audio, this will certainly please fans of the film (ourselves included) and also fans of the deeply cool soundtrack - we own it on vinyl and CD. The inclusion of the unaltered soundtrack alone is one of the best adverts for this Blu-ray edition, and we suspect that many copies will be exported to countries around the world based on this single, mighty attribute.
Second Sight have truly gone above and beyond the call of duty for their release of Return of the Living Dead, complimenting the film with a vast amount of substantial extras that serve to underline the classic status of the film. When you get a load of these babies, you’ll have to seal yourself in a canister in the basement of a building to contain you excitement!
More Brains - A Return to the Living Dead: Clocking in at a whopping 120 minutes, this documentary/love letter to Return of the Living Dead runs for nearly half an hour longer than the film itself. Directed by Bill Philputt, this is pretty much the last word on the subject of Dan O'Bannon's eighties shocker. Featuring pretty much all of the main cast (with the notable - and understandable exception of Mark Venturini) and many of the members of the production team, the word "exhaustive" doesn't quite cover it.
What is made clear is that Return of the Living Dead was not an easy shoot, with so many attributes inherent in the script that were easy to imagine and type, but mentally and physically exhausting on the cast and crew. Despite the myriad of difficulties in shooting the film, the cast and crew of Return of the Living Dead are all united in their love of the experience and from what they all say, it seems as though it was a bonding experience. Though some of the cast have not aged well at all (Linnea Quigley looks every minute of her age and Brian Peck is virtually unrecognisable these days), their love for the film is undeniable.
Quite early on into the documentary, many of the participants take time out to pay tribute to producer Tom Fox, who died in 1994 at the age of 68 (and produced many of the sequels, including the two latter-day ones, Necropolis and Rave From the Grave); it was Fox who acquired the rights to make Return of the Living Dead and without his determination to make movies, the film would probably never have materialised. Continuing the theme of producers, Quigley recounts an early meeting with producer Graham Henderson, which just happened to be during a birthday party thrown for him that included a stripper dressed as police officer (and, yes, there ARE photographs of the occasion - and the stripper - included!).
Though this is essentially a talking-head documentary - albeit punctuated and augmented by numerous rare stills and the occasional behind-the-scenes clips - the heads that talk impart many interesting, and at times very amusing, pieces of information about the shoot. The topic of Linnea Quigley's nudity comes up and Clu Gulager sums up Quigley's attitude rather nicely "she didn't give a shit about all of that morality crap... she's an actress!", followed immediately by James Karen saying "I would have been nude if anyone had asked me - I was hurt that they didn't..." Great stuff! Quigley's nudity is addressed later on as the cast and crew amusingly recount producer Henderson going apeshit when he arrived on set during the shooting of the naked dance on top of the grave and ordering Quigley's bush to be shaved, only to be even more horrified when he saw the now-hairless Linnea gyrating atop the tomb and then ordering a prosthetic device to be made.
One of the most intriguing revelations comes when actress Beverley (Tina) Randolph recounts the amusing tale of her being invited to director Dan O'Bannon's house, which she thought was unusual, being a timid 19-year-old at the time. Walking into his living room, she discovered a gun on the coffee table and what was purported to be pornography playing on the television; such a combination of elements would automatically cause alarm bells to start ringing, with only the addition of duct-tape and a cosh would have been more disconcerting, and made her excuses before dashing out of the door in a manner that could have possibly made her a potential gold medal winner in the 1984 Olympics. It later transpired that O'Bannon was a gun collector, which made Randolph feel a little better, but as for what was playing on television, who knows...?
The rate at which nuggets of ridiculously interesting information about the production are fired out suggest that O’Bannon himself was firing them out the barrel of his favourite gun from beyond the grave. Everybody possible has been gathered together to tell their stories, and with some already departed this world between then and now, More Brains is even more edifying for keeping them alive. Actress Jewel Shepard looks rather ill, and is not surprising considering that she has battled cancer recently and she sadly had to undergo a double mastectomy in 2011. The balance between humour and fact is perfect, and refuses to wear rose-tinted glasses about the more troubled aspects of the shoot, not to mention how certain personnel conducted themselves on the project, which is a rare thing on retrospectives made with this much love. In other countries, fans had to buy this separately, but we get an HD copy of this definitive look at Return of the Living Dead for free! Second Sight? They should change their name to 20/20 Foresight.
They Won't Stay Dead - A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part II: In preparation for writing this review, we took the opportunity to watch Return of the Living Dead Part II, and quickly wished we hadn't. It had been a couple of decades since we'd seen it and we have to report that it is every bit as rotten as it was back then, being a pathetic, kid-centric film with comedy broader than the shtick of the most starving of Vaudeville performers. Any movie which can render James Karen charmless is getting things monumentally wrong, and when the comedy doctor is brought in, he proceeds to kill all hope as surely as if his name were Kevorkian. Michael Kentworthy proves that the only thing more irritating than shrieking women (of which there are plenty) is the phenomenon of putting a kid in the lead before their balls have dropped. That the most remembered sequence is the brief shot of the Michael Jackson "Thriller" zombie is testament to just how much of a box-office ram-raid this movie was. It's akin to having someone eat your soul before shitting it back into your mouth. Bollocks. Just bollocks.
Anyway, enough of our coloured opinion - this featurette runs for nearly half an hour and isn’t exactly a flattering look at the sequels that polarises fans of the zombie sub-genre - even though there are no clips from the offending film, it is reasonably well-represented by copious amounts of on-set photographs. Beginning with interviews with some of the participants who refused to have anything to do with it (production designer William Stout even threatened to sue them if they used his designs), and revealing that the first version of the screenplay (by director Ken Wiederhorn) heavily plagiarised the original film and - according to Brian Peck - the writer/director didn’t even like the horror genre, which was not exactly the best start to the production. Don Calfa reveals that he was invited to meet with the director and he didn’t get the part (the actor who got his role in the film looks and acts like someone consciously TRYING to look and act like Calfa) - Calfa would receive a telephone call from James Karen during the filming telling him that he was better off out of it anyway. Even the main cast members from the first film who DID come back (Thom Matthews and James Karen) try to tactfully convey that they thought the film was a load of bollocks. Tar-Man zombie actor Allan Trautman recalls being asked if he wanted to do the film “non-union”, which pretty much sums up the attitude of producer Tom Fox. Fellow cast members Suzanne Snyder and Michael Kenworthy are also interviewed, but seeing as they weren’t veterans of the first film, their memories of working on Return of the Living Dead Part II are somewhat more rose-tinted than those of Matthews and Karen.
Make-up designer Kenny Myers recalls that his make-up design for the iconic Tar-Man character in the sequel was done “blindfolded and badly”, meaning that the sheer volume of make-up designs needed for the film meant that not enough time could be devoted to doing it well - we have always hated the zombie make-up In Return of the Living Dead Part II and this featurette at least confirms our suspicions as to why they seemed distinctly second-rate when compared to the remarkable work on the first film; Myers made up a huge array of zombie masks that were hastily put on to a small number of actors to help minimise time and money costs - Myers would do a similar trick several years later (and to much greater effect) on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Myers also reveals that he provided the voice for the toe-curlingly awful Severed Head Zombie in the film, which came about through larking about on-set with the prop.
Director Ken Wiederhorn is discussed and most of those interviewed say the same thing “nice guy, but hated horror films”; Kenny Myers explains that his ignorance and apathy toward the genre was typified when the horror genre’s greatest fan, Forrest J Ackerman, turned up on-set to put in a cameo and Wiederhorn had no idea at all who he was.
Ultimately, this is an entertaining and fairly frank post-mortem (ahem) of a supremely flawed film, with most of those involved not looking back upon it too kindly (Matthews and Karen stop short of directly slagging it off, with the former saying that the catering was good and the latter amusingly adopting the smile of Mona Lisa. Oh, and for those of you wondering, we think that the infamous Michael Jackson zombie IS crap…
Love Beyond the Grave - A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part III: After being severely disappointed with Part 2, we entered into Part 3 with a degree of cautious optimism, but that turned out to be largely misplaced, and though we didn't bone up on the third instalment for this review and haven’t seen the thing in nearly two decades, but remember it enough to know that we really didn’t warm to the movie, but there is not way that we could fault Second Sight for the inclusion of what might be the only retrospective it will ever be afforded. Telling the tale of a boy, a ghoul and love that will never die, it was an attempt to cut the apron strings on the series and ditch the lowbrow nature of the second film. Some loved it, others were left cold, but it didn’t really get the level of distribution which the others attained, leaving its legacy floating in limbo.
Here we get a pretty board overview of the movie, from the troubled origins to through the shoot and enduring appeal among certain liberated types. Return of the Living Dead Co-Producer Graham Henderson appears just long enough to recall his swift departure from the project to focus on another movie he had in the pipeline - ironically, it was a comedy, which he hints he chose after the ROTLD2 turned out so bad. It’s never a good sign when the idea for a movie sequel is cemented and THEN they go looking for people to pitch concepts to them, rather than coming up with an idea in the first place. With that in mind, Brian Peck and Kenny Meyers recount their unsuccessful attempt to give the upcoming project a solid premise, noting that the final script did utilise some of their ideas. Eventually, it was turned over to John Penney, who wrote it not long after the death of his father, channelling the reticence to let go of someone you love in the face of death in a Romeo and Juliet tale of love and loss.
Brian Yuzna has made a solid career delivering sloppy seconds to successful projects, kindred spirits with director Tommy Lee Wallace, but with a longer CV than the John Carpenter associate. This is the man who conceded that his sequel Bride of Reanimator was “set up to lose”, and we hope that he went into ROTLD3 with the same attitude, so not to walk away disappointed. Yuzna concentrates on the practical production side of things, as do most involved, rather than anecdotes from the set, but this is in line with his training as a producer first and director second.
FX legend Steve Johnson talks - unsurprisingly - about the rubber-shop work required to take put the printed word credibly on screen, but is initially coy about his previous connection to the series, that being his former marriage to Linnea “Trash” Quigley. Their split was acrimonious, and his although he seems to have mellowed somewhat, he is still cheerfully sexist about her. When he was talking about the homeless they got to play the zombie which is chained up in the military facility, where every time he was hoisted, his genitals were exposed to the world, presented a curious instance of cultural divide. To Americans, female nudity is erotic, but male nakedness is threatening or wrong, and the sight of exposed tackle provokes two different responses from those reliving the incident. Brian Peck refers to the dangly bits has either his “junk” or “delicates,“ so as not to be either smutty or offensive to the owner of them. Steve Johnson (no irony intended) is less coy, utilising the work “cock” instead. The aforementioned cultural divide comes into play in how the latter interviewee seems to find the sight of - specifically - an uncircumcised nob offensive, attitude from a country where the operation to remove said skin is widespread.
Some pretty extensive behind the scenes footage papers over the lack of actors coming forward to tell their tales, not that Mindy - sorry, Melinda - Clarke is too big for them now, but you couldn’t ask for a cooler guy to interview than J Trevor Edmond, who starts things off with how he got fired from his job in a movie theatre for watching movies rather than working - and the film which he was finally caught out on was Return of the Living Dead. This guy clearly has his priorities straight, and if he’s ever over here, we’ll cheerfully buy him a pint.
There are still diehard fans of ROTLD3 out there, and is in the process of being rediscovered by the piercing community every couple of years, eager to see a movie where a “hot chick” turns herself into the most amazing piece of body art. Yes. Having frequented S&M clubs over the years, we’ve run into people with bugger all interest in films except where it directly relates to their alternative lifestyle. Hell, one of us almost wound up clocking some dickhead who honestly believed that the pinnacle of cinema was Preaching to the Perverted, lavishing it with praise usually reserved for a Bergman retrospective. Our overriding memory of ROTLD3 is that whilst it was commendable that they were trying to return to the more adult themes that were present in the original, the principle of mixing punk/goth sensibilities with Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers (a sort of Romero and Juliet if you will - ahem), just didn't work for us. Melinda Clark was a cracking piece of skirt, though.
As to the documentary itself, a lack of clips from the finished film will disorientate the casual viewer, not having enough reference points to see just what they were all working towards, but it covers enough ground to be an engaging watch, even if ROTLD3 wasn’t for us. Best of all is Brian Peck’s predictably spot on narration, bringing humour and aural wink without being obvious about it. Peck has such a wonderful voice, almost like a wistful Don LaFontaine on helium, that he should be used for every elevator/lift, speaking clock and directory enquiries across the globe. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if you heard “Press 3 to make a payment, Press 4 to speak to an operator” with Peck’s voice when you tried to get through to your bank?
Stacey Q Live - Exclusive 'Tonight' Video: One of the most memorable songs on the soundtrack (it also helped to feature over shots of Linnea Quigley doing her naked dancing on top of a tomb) is here given a modern twist by the original vocalist. Regular readers of this site may have spotted that we are big fans of Dario Argento and several of his DVD/Blu-ray releases have featured new interpretations of themes from his films, performed by founder member of Goblin, Claudio Simonetti and accompanied by a cheaply-shot promo video - what Stacey Q does here is similar, taking the original arrangement and making it more contemporary, but retaining much of the original feel. The new version presented here isn’t TOO bad (the chorus sounds pretty much identical, but the way the verses have been altered are slightly jarring to those intimately familiar with the original arrangement.
The video itself appears to have been shot (using multiple cameras) at a Return of the Living Dead convention, as she seems to be on stage, in front of a number of people dressed up as zombies (the carefully-sculpted facial hair and the amount of black hair dye are pretty much a giveaway that they are fans dressed up as the living dead). Ms Q herself has weathered quite well, looking pretty vampish as she lip-synchs her way through the number and plays to the cameras and plays up to the zombies behind her. Fans of the soundtrack will find this moderately interesting - those new to the Return of the Living Dead party will wonder what all the fuss is about.
The Origins of Return of the Living Dead: You have to feel more than a little sorry for John Russo - the main co-wrote the script of Night of the Living Dead and had the same sort of passion for horror films that his colleague George Romero possessed, but somewhere along the line, their paths diverged and they went on to have very different levels of success in the entertainment industry. This fifteen minute featurette merely consists of Russo explaining how he came up with the idea of revitalising the usage of zombies in film (arguing that before Night of the Living Dead, zombies were just lumbering things that occasionally threw protagonists up against the wall - he neglects to mention that a year or two earlier, Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies also tried to redefine just what could be considered a ‘zombie’); Russo also explains about the writing of Night of the Living Dead (not mentioning that it was originally entitled Night of Anubis) and how success drove Russo and Romero to work separately. The various legal wrangling over the rights to make a sequel are touched upon but not discussed in any sort of depth; Russo explains the original outline of his proposed sequel (entitled Return of the Living Dead) and it comes across as being pretty interesting, having some vague similarities to Romero’s The Crazies, and Russo eventually novelised it - Russo would eventually novelise a draft of the script to Return of the Living Dead and, somewhat confusingly, used the same title as his original novelisation.
Russo also mentions the to-do that occurred when Return of the Living Dead was going to be released head-to-head with George Romero’s Day of the Dead; Russo insists that there was never any serious falling out between him and Romero, but he rather amusingly details the uncomfortable legal issues that arose and explicitly named producer Richard P Rubenstein as the troublemaker, trying to take away the right to the words “Living Dead” in the title and belittling Dan O’Bannon’s film. Russo almost gleefully relates the favourable outcome, and wraps the matter up by saying “the assholes got what they deserved”.
Russo comes across as a likeable chap, but you can only imagine what sort of things he would have achieved if he had been granted the same sort of successful circumstances as Romero; like Romero, Russo turned his hand to another genre entirely and the results were not well-received - Romero made the pretentious experimental romantic comedy, There’s Always Vanilla (if you’ve ever seen it, you’ll know just how ghastly it is - even Romero disowned it) and Russo made soft-core comedy The Booby Hatch. If his negative experiences have made him bitter in any way, it’s entirely understandable - George A Romero became a household name, whereas John A Russo only vaguely rings a bell within the mind of the average horror enthusiast. This featurette makes you appreciate the man’s contribution to the modern horror film.
The FX of the Living Dead: The make-up effects of the film are explored here, featuring the participation of three of the effects artists who worked on Return of the Living Dead, William Munns, Kenny Myers and Tony Gardner, along with production designer William Stout, who helps to put the whole saga into perspective. Munns was originally hired to transform Stout’s impressive images into working, practical effects, but due to budgetary constraints, along with dissatisfaction from director Dan O’Bannon, Munns was fired halfway through the shoot and replaced by Myers, who was able to pull off minor miracles on a shoestring budget. Stout dismisses the efforts of Munns, saying that he put in “the minimum amount of effort” and Mumms defends his work on the film by saying that O’Bannon wanted the impossible on no money and that the director was so single-minded in his work that he wasn’t good at working (or relating properly to) others around him. Some of the ghastly publicity stills that adorn the UK soundtrack album sleeve show some of the original zombie make-up work that O’Bannon signed-off on and subsequently changed his mind on the day of the shoot and if these were typical of how things went under Munns’ time on the film, then his dismissal might not have been that rash. Munns was also responsible for the iconic skeleton that rises from the grave, which doesn’t look TOO bad, but when you compare it to what Stout had envisioned, it comes across as distinctly lacklustre - Munns was also working on the headless “Yellow Man” zombie and even shows you a picture of a work-in-progress version which looked pretty laughable. In his defence, Munns was doing what was asked of him and his version of the Tar-Man zombie was pretty much what ended up on -screen, with only a few minor modifications.
This featurette allows all of the participants to have their say and there is also much mud-slinging from each of the participants; Munns just seems to want to put the record straight as far as what led up to, and caused, his firing and he comes across as someone who is a LITTLE bitter, but it still proud of his work. Kenny Myers tries his best to remain fairly neutral, as he was thrust into a difficult and unpleasant situation and Stout saves his venom for Munns - this is not unexpected, as Stout and O’Bannon were apparently quite good friends, so it was natural for Stout to defend his late friend.
Despite all of the unsavoury cat-fighting, there are some interesting make-up secrets revealed, particularly how the “Half-Corpse” zombie was puppeteered and just which member of the voice was partly operating it and providing the voice on-set. Tony Gardner constructed this impressive puppet and during the interview keeps mentioning how bizarre it was that someone who was still in college found himself working in the movie business. This is an entertaining way to spend 22 minutes, if you don’t mind the bitchiness that comes out now and again.
A Conversation With Dan O'Bannon - The Final Interview:Recorded not long before his death in 2009 after battling with Crohn's disease for some 30 years, this candid interview sees O’Bannon recorded at his home by Brian Peck to get his thoughts about his career for (unexpectedly) the last time. There are a number of subjects covered, from his “lost” directorial effort being taken out of his hands and completely reedited without his approval or knowledge, and how he adopted the Hitchcock method of directing, where all work in delegated and he makes the movie doing nothing.
Naturally, this contributed to the rather low opinion of him from his colleagues whilst on the set, and this nicely segues into the much-publicised dust-ups between Beverly Randolph, Clu Gulager and himself, which he concedes that his lack of experience at handling people was the main cause of the such problems. With distance from the times, he learned to control his temper, but those with Gulager stemmed from his late casting, and combining the actor’s nerves with the director’s methods of winding up actors to get the best performances proved explosive.
We’ve heard it from a number of other folk in the movie business, but O’Bannon adds his voice to the choir which says that to do too much at an audition is a guarantee that you’ll not get the job. With a number of actors trying out for the punk kids in the movie, a number of them tried to curry favour by dressing appropriately but only served to find them tossed into the “reject” pile, their abilities and performances obscured by the clothing. It was probably a sign of O’Bannon’s declining health that he recounted the tales of casting with little trace of the snide he could be known for.
Possibly the most bizarre and disquieting revelation from O’Bannon comes when he mentions about the spurious notion he came up with in the movie about the “skeleton farm” in India, in which James Karen attempts to unnerve Thom Mathews by asking just how they are able to meet the demand for medical schools across the world. About a year after Return of the living Dead came out, the Indian government stepped in and shut down certain facilities in the country and the trade was slashed. O’Bannon’s relief that the action taken to put such a business is palpable, and you might even read a little bit of pride in there, too.
In spite of being delivered a jumble of music from British composer Matt Clifford, the final usage of the material met with O’Bannon’s approval, being “proud” of both that and the deployment of the disparate selection of Punk tracks throughout the movie - we have to say that Dan was certainly the man when it came to cool sounds. Possibly the funniest of O’Bannon’s musings comes at his surprise that the audience for ROTLD was an even 50/50 split between men and women, and given that the guys had Linnea Quigley to keep them visually stimulated, if he known in advance, he would have had Thom Mathews take his pants off!
Things draw to a morbid close with the question: “If this were your last interview about Return of the Living Dead, what would you say?”. His reply ends things on a surprisingly touching, sincere note, with something he says pointing to knowing that the end was near. Although some of it found its way into the More Brains documentary, we won’t spoil it for you, but a lot of the abrasive quality O’Bannon often had just seems to boil away as he’s talking. This was the final interview with a man of many contributions to modern cinema, and it’s a human look at a man signing off from his life.
Return of the Living Dead in Three Minutes: This is priceless - all of the interviewed cast extol their classic lines in a brave attempt to recreate the movie in record time! That all of them were willing to do this is testament to having a really cool guy like Brian Peck coaxing his fellow stars to get into the spirit of things. It’s an utter treat, and absolutely bloody hilarious!
Deleted Documentary Scenes: This is self-explanatory - a selection of footage which either didn’t make it into the final edit, or squeaked through in a truncated form. The sequences presented are many and varied, yet all entertaining in their own right, and well worth watching to bolster your Return of the Living Dead knowledge. You’ll question director Dan O’Bannon’s thought-processes when you find something wrong with about Beverly Randolph’s stunning face which he couldn’t put his finger on, and the time and expense trying to put it right. Linnea Quigley mentions her worries when her hair wasn’t able to stay upright in the manner desired in the movie hair, some of the crew recount their experiences of touring the local LA mortuaries, whilst some of the gang reminisce about the locations used, and designer William Stout remembers his rather odd cameo. Chuckles abound as Miguel’s Nunez Jr swears on his children’s lives that Linnea Quigley is wrong that he wore a “codpiece,” insisting that such an impressive bulge was all natural.
Bigger laughs are to be had through Jewel Shepard’s ignorance of the term “go choke a chicken”, and the trouble she had trying to deliver the line - given that she was a genuine farmer‘s daughter, it clearly meant something entirely different to her. We find out about Scuz’s aborted back story, the processes of cinematic embalming, Cocktails in the editing room, DP Jules Brenner’s use of an Hispanic alias to avoid union trouble, and all that without even mentioning Thom Matthew’s injury from smashing through the attic door, including a look at the admittance sheet from the local hospital. Sweetest of all is entitled “Remembering Dan O’Bannon“, with Clu Gulagar brandishing a page from the memorial service as he professes his love for the late director. Rounded out by some parting thoughts, there is more in these outtakes that you will usually find in an entire featurette from a modern studio title.
Resurrected Settings - The Filming Locations Today: Beverly Randolph and Brian Peck take a tour of the LA locations which bravely stood in for Louisville, Kentucky, for the filming of the seminal eighties zombie classic. Just about every major sequence in rediscovered and noted, and you’ll be surprised how many sequences were filmed almost on top of other pieces. Want to see the area where the paramedics get attacked? What about the street the zombies charge the police in? They are all to be found and enjoyed, zipped along with Peck’s trademark mixture of humour and minutia about the movie.
To expect everything to be exactly as they left it is somewhat unrealistic, but our hosts are rather surprised when they find an enormous modern industrial building gracing the are where one major location used to be. Similarly, the location for the cemetery is found to be a housing project, with only a few of the original olive trees surviving, but Peck livens such depressing “progress” up by squeezing in the title of Last House on the Left and the revelation at the end of Poltergeist into the proceedings. One of the coolest things is a stopover at Kenny Meyer’s ranch, housing material from most of the projects he’s worked on, where we are afforded a look at the original Tar-Man facial mould.
The two have great chemistry, and relish any opportunity to recreate their lines at appropriate locations. It’s relatively short, but the amount of love poured into it by two of the most loyal of the cast is nothing short of infectious, and reminiscent of Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin hosting a similar documentary on Black Christmas. This is compulsive viewing for ROTLD fans, who should hoover it up like a eighties stockbroker doing a line of coke.
Party Time! 45 Grave and the Sound of Return of the Living Dead: Dinah Cancer is the focus of this look at music so cool, it brought the dead back to life just to get down and party. The lady with one of the most distasteful aliases in the business recounts the moment she was seduced by punk scene, her association with The Germs, joining various bands like The Castration Squad as well as the various incarnations of her band, 45 Grave. Keeping things on-topic, the dubious origins of ROTLD anthem Party Time are explored, and just how it was slowed down and cleaned up for the soundtrack, being a Blues Brothers-like adaptation of the material when being accidentally booked into the wrong venue.
She takes particular pride in how 45 Grave were ranked third on the US list of Civil Disobedience for inciting riots, with a note next to the name noting that she had “a big mouth” and would turn a crowd against members of authority, “I’m doing something right!” she beamed at the time, wearing such condemnation as a badge of honour. Once the band imploded, she faced problems of being married to her guitarist, and their subsequent divorce when the usual excesses of the lifestyle caught up with them both. With reality knocking at the door, Cancer recalls how she had to conform to society in order so live. Can you imagine her as not only a mother of two, but a pre-school teacher? Yep! She certainly was!! Old attitudes never really die, and Cancer now has a new incarnation of 45 Grave, made up through a careful selection of musicians she got along with, purely to play all of her old songs, as she eventually realised that she both liked and missed performing them.
Enigma Records’ Steven Pross takes over to recount just how the superb collection of bands for the soundtrack came about, and this was the process of picking up the coolest acts on their books and tendering them an offer. With The Cramps being the biggest clients they had, their hastily written song The Surfin’ Dead was intended not only to be used in the movie, but on the end credits, and anyone familiar with ROTLD will know that 45 Graves’ Party Time took the honour of playing over the titles. Pross notes that Lux and Ivy were not very pleased when they found out about it…
Pross stresses that everything was put together incredibly fast, all groups given a in two week window in which to get everything done. When The Damned expressed an interest in contributing, a rough-cut of the movie was couriered over to the UK, and Pross received a finished copy of Dead Beat Dance from them a couple of days later! Pross rounds things off by bringing out various original vinyl releases of the soundtrack, including both of the UK editions, one with the really crap artwork as well as the more familiar one - even he isn’t sure just why there were two covers! For the occasion, he actually opens a mint, sealed copy of the rare picture-disc, where only once freed from the packaging can you reap the rewards of a terrific naked picture of Linnea Quigley on the reverse.
We have always adored the soundtrack to Return of the Living Dead, and it introduced us to the worlds of both The Cramps and Roky Erickson, performers which rank among our absolute favourites. Too many albums are put together with the mentality of “which songs/artists will shift the most copies?”, and you only have to look at the Batman and Robin soundtrack for the ultimate example, but when putting together the one for ROTLD, Enigma Records just asked “what is the best we’ve got?” This documentary was a lot of fun for us, and suspect that we won’t be the only ones to get a kick out of it.
Trailers: We’ve all seen them both before, but they’re always guaranteed to raise a smile. We have the original theatrical trailer and a one minute TV spot, both presenting the movie in a hugely appealing way, with some pretty cool editing to the tune of Party Time. What would the Road-Runner be without the Coyote? Where would the fox be without the hound? Can you have a definitive release of The Return of the Living Dead and leave these really cool trailers off of it? Certainly not!
Exclusive Ernie's Notepad: Included with every Blu-ray copy is this fun little addition, which is a booklet that is written in the style of everyone's favourite mortician. It’s filled with genuinely interesting facts about the cast, crew and production, whilst crystallising a few plot points only suggested in the story. A few references in the film point to the dubious true identity of our plucky mortician, but this indispensable book prints a picture of him in full Nazi regalia! This is not available with the DVD edition, and we suggest you read it right in front of a ROTLD fan who hasn’t switched to Blu-ray yet.
The Return of the Living Dead’s revolutionary splatterpunk opus still resonates today, and makes many of the subsequent zombie films look positively anaemic. With great performances, a sly, black sense of humour, a great soundtrack and a level of violence that stays with you long after the film has ended. Fittingly, Dan O'Bannon's classic comedy/horror comes to Blu-ray in the UK in an edition that is resoundingly definitive. Second Sight has put together a package that not only impresses in the audio/visual department, but has a selection of extras -particularly the feature-length More Brains documentary - that can truly be described as the last word on the subject.
Along with the movies of George Romero and Lucio Fulci, The Return of the Living Dead made us fall in love with the zombie genre, and compelled us to be in Shaun of the Dead so we could join the ranks of the cinematic living dead, and we can’t express our love enough for the movie. It can truly be said that they don't make them like this anymore, and is just as much fun today as it was nearly 30 years ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, we urge you do treat yourselves to a night of sheer enjoyment. For everyone else, you owe it to yourselves to buy this incredible Blu-ray edition, and experience it the best way inhumanly possible. It's party time!
* Note: The above images are taken from a Standard Definition release and are not representative of the quality of the Blu-ray transfer.
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 4th June 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, LPCM Stereo 2.0 English
Extras: More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead, A Conversation With Dan O'Bannon: The Final Interview, They Won't Stay Dead: A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part 2, Love Beyond the Grave: A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part 3, Stacey Q Live: Exclusive 'Tonight' Video, Even More Brains: Deleted Documentary Interviews, Return of the Living Dead in 3 Minutes, Resurrected Settings: The Filming Locations Today, The Origins of Return of the Living Dead, The FX of the Living Dead, Party Time, Exclusive Ernie's Notepad
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dan O'Bannon
Cast: Thom Matthews, James Karen, Don Calfa, Clu Gulager, Linnea Quigley
Length: 91 minutes
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