1985 was a banner year in zombie movie history. With the splatter fest 80s horror boom in full swing, it only made sense that shuffling bags of gore from the days of yore would make a comeback. In fact, 1985 boasted not one, but two official sequels to George Romero’s iconic Night Of The Living Dead. Thanks to a lawsuit spitting rights between former collaborators, Romero had the right to make “Of The Dead” titled sequels about was about to extend his trilogy into the Day. Meanwhile, his former co-writer/producer John Russo finally launched his branded “Of The Living Dead” sequel after years of development. Not that Russo was really the author of the movie. By the time the project reached production, Russo handed writing/directing duties off to underrated genre icon Dan O’Bannon. The former John Carpenter and Alejandro Jodorowsky collaborator who created Alien finally got a chance to direct in addition to scripting Return Of The Living Dead and he delivered a delightfully absurd punk zombie comedy that’s grown from cult hit into iconic fan favorite. Good ol’ Shout Factory have been kind enough to give the movie the stacked disc it deserves, so the time has come to show this brilliant flick a little love.
O’Bannon’s approach to zombie movie mayhem was ahead of his time. He went the horror/comedy route and more specifically a self-consciously po-mo genre satire set in a world where the events of Night OF The Living Dead actually took place, but were covered up by the government (the movie was still made and released as part of the cover up). A few surviving zombies from the fateful night were stored away in an army surplus warehouse, waiting a few decades for this 80s revival. So a pair of dumbbell employees accidentally let one free and then the next thing you know it’s zombie time in small town America, complete with a gang his hysterical parody 80s punks getting all zombiefied for our viewing pleasure. The tone is tongue-in-cheek, but the horror frequently played straight. It’s a delicate balance that O’Bannon achieves. The scares are legit and the characters are played with just straight enough by a gang of character actors and youngsters to actually develop some dread n’ frights that aren’t overwhelmed by the laughs.
Return Of The Living Dead plays out through a thick layer of camp. O’Bannon clearly knows how absurd zombie movie conventions had become and the fact that even in 1985 audiences were a little tired of the repetition. So it all plays out arch and ridiculous, with the visuals deeply indebted to EC comics for an added layer of cartoon distancing. It’s a cheap movie that makes the most of minimum resources, pitching low fi production as high style. The zombies themselves are brilliantly designed, particularly the infamous tarman, a gangling melting corpse that looks like a EC comic brought to life and is one of the most visually striking zombies ever conceived. Plus it was O’Bannon who invented the infamous “brain-eating” convention in zombie lore, giving the flick an important place in genre history beyond all the cheap thrills and big laughs.
And oh what laughs there are, particularly from the satirical punks who feel as though they walked off of the set of the simultaneously shot Repo Man and into O’Bannon’s wild n’ wacky walking corpse romp. Though clearly made by folks who weren’t part of the punk culture, they did treat the characters with a certain knowing respect and filled the soundtrack with some fantastic music that’s almost as beloved as the film itself.
Yep, Return OF The Living Dead is one of the most purely entertaining horror movies of the 80s, a peak era in the genre for pure spooky fun. If you can’t have a good time watching Return Of The Living Dead, then there’s a good chance you don’t like horror movies or good times. In that case, I pity you.
It has to be said that Shout! Factory have really gone above and beyond with their release of Return Of The Living Dead, matching their recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 disc for an embarrassment of riches. First up, Shout! went ahead and made a new transfer of the film that blows previous releases way. Colors are vibrant and details run deep (especially in those gory beauty shots). It looks slick in a way that the film never has, but proves just how well O’Bannon and co. used their minimal resources. Obviously, this is still a low budget flick from the 80s, so you can’t expect it to match the beauty of your Mad Max: Fury Road disc, but it’s still likely even better than the film ever looked in theaters. The new soundmix is also crisp and clear, with a nice range to the surround effects and a fantastic fresh mix of the iconic soundtrack.
However, it’s the extras department where this disc really delivers and whoo-boy is this disc ever overflowing with special features. First up, everything from previous releases is retained. So you’ll get the old interviews with the late Dan O’Bannon (who also delivers a nice commentary track with designer William Stout) and John Russo that were fantastic, as well as a nice 20-minute documentary on the movie featuring interviews with cast members and a 24-minute survey of 80s horror movies featuring a bizarre series of talking heads like Joe Dante, John Landis and Elvira.
So, that’s the archival stuff. What’s new you ask? Well, how about a two hour fan made documentary about production featuring virtually every member of the cast and crew as well as some almost embarrassingly candid stories about the whole wild production. Not enough? Well good news, there’s also a half hour documentary on the special effects including both the initial fired make up designer and the folks brought in at the last minute to run damage control that tells a really wild tale about a tough production. Next up, there’s a 40-minute documentary on the soundtrack boasting interviews with all of the 80s punk bands discussing each individual song and it’s legacy in the film. Then you’ll get another one of those “Horror’s Hallowed Ground” docs visiting all of the old locations today and a workprint cut of the movie with all sorts of alternative takes, extended scenes, and extra bloody bits. Toss in the usual trailers, TV spots, still galleries, a zombie subtitle track, and two new audio commentary tracks and you’ve got a release of Return Of The Living Dead that’ll take even the most enthusiast fan a few spare days to wade through. It’s a truly amazing release from Shout! Factory’s Scream label and one of their finest Blu-rays to date.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
If you have a sweet spot for this cult zombie flick or just horror in general, run out to buy this disc immediately. You won’t regret it, no matter how many times you’ve bought this movie before.