The Return of the Living Dead
U.S.A. / 1985
Directed by Dan O'Bannon
Starring
Clu Gulager
James Karen
Don Calfa
Color / 91 Minutes / R
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
MGM Home Entertainment
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New 2007 Collector's Edition
Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
8
    8   10 = Highest Rating  
Forming a triumvirate with Re-Animator and Evil Dead 2, this tongue-in-cheek salute to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead written and directed by Alien scribe Dan O'Bannon represents the best of the horror-comedy hybrids of the 1980s.
It's the first day on the job for teenager Freddy (Thom Mathews), hired by the Uneeda Medical Supply Company as a warehouse stockboy. Training him is Frank (James Karen), a middle-aged guy who's worked there for decades. While showing him the ropes, Frank can't resist letting Freddy in on a little secret: in the basement are sealed metal drums accidentally shipped to Uneeda by the U.S. Army some 14 years ago. Freddy is astonished when Frank tells him the movie Night of the Living Dead was actually based on a true case
the drums stored below contain zombies captured by the military after an unpleasant incident in the Pittsburgh area back in 1968. Because of a government shipping snafu, the corpses ended up at Uneeda... where they've been ever since. To prove he isn't bullshitting, Frank takes Freddy down into the basement to show him. Big mistake. The bumbling duo accidentally crack open one of the drums, which spurts out a toxic, foul-smelling gas that knocks them unconscious. Carried by the air conditioning system, the gas is spread throughout the building. When Frank and Freddy awaken they're horrified to discover that a consignment of "split dogs" used by veterinary instructors has come to life, along with the med school cadaver stored in the freezer which is now pounding on the door, screaming in agony like a torture victim. Completely freaked out, Frank calms himself long enough to call Burt Wilson (Clu Gulager), the company owner, who rushes over to take charge of the situation. Hacking up the cadaver (after driving a pickax through its brain) doesn't do the trick, so Burt hatches a scheme to get his old buddy Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa), manager of the funeral home next door, to dispose of the animated corpse in his cremation furnace. An even bigger mistake!
The resulting ashes wind up settling in a nearby cemetery, activating the dead bodies buried there. This bodes ill for Freddy's punk rocker friends, who've been partying in the graveyard while waiting for him to clock out. The zombies attack, hungry not for human flesh (as in Romero's film), but human brains. Meanwhile, just when Burt thinks he's got the crisis nipped in the bud, Frank and Freddy become debilitated by the toxic gas they inhaled. They're very sick
a lot sicker than anybody realizes. Paramedics are summoned. From the examination, neither of the warehouse workers should technically even be alive. How is this possible? And what's that noise outside? Sounds like people screaming...
Containing reams of instantly quotable lines, Return of the Living Dead is a thoroughly enjoyable little B-movie, still every bit as fun as when it first hit theaters nearly 20 years ago. Like some of the great drive-in "classics" of the 1950s, this picture
while dated by its very '80s teen fashion and music will remain a timeless delight. O'Bannon's clever (and profanity-laced) script, wild set pieces and some memorable 'featured' zombies ("Tar Man", "Half-Lady") play their respective roles in this regard, but the flick's main strength is the quirky ensemble of characters and the actors who play them. The cast is very, very good, in particular Gulager ("Burt"), Calfa ("Ernie") and Karen ("Frank"). It's great to see these veteran character actors get to headline a cast for a change, an opportunity they obviously relished. Their performances are simply terrific; Karen and Calfa, displaying superb comedic timing, really seize the moment to shine. Gulager, as the can-do (but shady) warehouse owner, takes a fairly nondescript character and turns it into a role you can't imagine anybody else playing. The interplay between him and Calfa during the whole "Rabid Weasels" sequence is priceless.
Gory and goofy, with a healthy dose of nudity (courtesy of scream queen Linnea Quigley), Return of the Living Dead is a low budget Reagan era B-movie that handily succeeds in accomplishing its mission providing a fast-paced 90 minutes packed with thrills and laughs. It's a joyous little Halloween carnival ride on celluloid.

Like MGM's simultaneous release of Last House on the Left, the company's new edition of Return of the Living Dead is loaded with extras the remarkably low price makes it an absolute steal for horror fans.
Both widescreen (anamorphic 1.85:1) and fullframe versions come on the disc. I dug up my old VHS copy of the film to run some comparisons; the transfer used for the DVD looks a hundred times better. All sorts of little details that I never noticed before were suddenly brought to light. While the audio track is mono, music and dialog sound great all things considered. (Though occasionally the blasting punk rock tunes do drown out the odd line of dialog.) In terms of A/V quality, the movie hasn't looked/sounded this good since it opened in theaters.
As for extras, the DVD definitely delivers though not to the exhaustive extent as seen on the Last House on the Left disc. We get a featurette, Designing the Dead, giving an overview of the production and the concepts that went into its creation. While only O'Bannon (who comes off as an odd, very eccentric guy) and production designer William Stout are interviewed, it's quite interesting and should delight fans of the film. Accentuating the documentary is a gallery of Stout's conceptual art, which sprang from his research into corpses using medical school reference books. Not one but two trailers are included (one R-rated, the other approved for general audiences); at least five or six TV spots are thrown in for good measure.
Finally, there's an audio commentary with O'Bannon and Stout. These gents have a good time watching the film together, describing the various difficulties encountered during production and the way these hurdles were overcome with the very limited resources at hand. The discussion is liberally sprinkled with humorous anecdotes about the principal cast members and the L.A. locations where the film was shot. (They also point out numerous flubs and bloopers that I'd never noticed before, even though I've seen the flick at least ten times.) While it tends to peter out towards the end, with occasional lapses into silence, the commentary is fun and thoroughly enjoyable. 9/30/02

UPDATE In September 2007 MGM is releasing the Collector's Edition of ROTLD, which features the same transfer, soundtrack and supplements as the disc reviewed here plus new, additional bonus materials. More brains!
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