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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 9/24/02

Return of the Living Dead
1985 (2002) - Orion Pictures (MGM)

review by Robert Smentek of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Return of the Living Dead Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C/B

Specs and Features
91 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single layered, Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (by writer/director Dan O'Bannon and production designer William Stout), Designing the Dead featurette, theatrical trailers (R-rated & G-rated), TV spots, film-themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English and Spanish (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"They're Back From The Grave and Ready To Party!"

Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead is a film that is well deserving of the cult status it's earned since its release. A modest hit in the summer of 1985, over the years it's developed a loyal following, even being referenced on a Simpsons Halloween Special. Even with two sequels on video (and a third reportedly in the works), the film has been out of print for several years. Now, thanks to the ever-expanding catalog of MGM, Return of the Living Dead finally comes to DVD.

A pseudo-sequel to George Romero's influential classic Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead mixes zombies with punk rockers, creating a film that could best be described as EC Comics meets the Ramones. Wildly funny, without being an over-the-top parody, writer/director Dan O'Bannon deftly mixes gore and thrills with camp humor.

According to the opening title card, Return of the Living Dead is based on "real events" and "real people." The movie begins in a medical supplies storage facility, where Frank (James Karen) is showing new recruit Freddie (Thom Matthews) the ropes. During a lull in the workday, Frank creeps Freddie out, by telling him that Romero's Night of the Living Dead is inspired a true story. It seems that in the 60s, the government experimented with reviving the dead, causing an army of zombies to attack Pittsburgh. To prove this to Freddie, Frank takes him to the cellar to show him one of the monsters, which is contained in a sealed canister. Unfortunately, Frank jostles the barrel, releasing a toxic yellow gas… and the greasy, rotting monster that was imprisoned inside. The gas, which renders the fellas unconscious, has the ability to raise the dead, and it isn't long before corpses begin to rise… and crave BRRRAAAAIIINNNSSS.

Meanwhile, Freddie's punk rock pals (who all have ridiculously clichéd names like Trash, Scuz and Suicide) continue their never-ending search for a party. Intent on raising a little hell, the gang, which includes a frequently naked Linnea Quigley, decide to hang out in the run-down graveyard located behind the warehouse. At times like this, you have to wonder if these guys watch horror movies. In these scenes, O'Bannon cleverly parodies the intrinsic gloom associated with "misunderstood" punk rockers.

Unlike Romero's zombie films, things move quickly in Return of the Living Dead, and soon Frank, Freddie, the punks and two guys named Burt and Ernie, are facing a freshly raised army of the undead. Battalions of cops and paramedics are given zombie-induced lobotomies in scenes loaded with gore… and laughs. With its cutting edge production design (by renowned illustrator William Stout), Return of the Living Dead has great make-up and visual effects, particularly for a low-budget, mid-80s flick. Stout's zombies are gruesomely cartoonish, each with individual personalities and, of course, dripping with slimy decay. Also, in what may be a first in Hollywood, the zombies in Return of the Living Dead are crafty and quick, unlike the drowsy, creeping undead that haunt most zombie flicks. The film culminates in the most unexpected cinematic denouement since Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

The DVD presentation of Return of the Living Dead is exceptional for a value-priced DVD. With a MSRP of $14.95, the disc offers quality supplements and a good video presentation. The colors are sharp and the picture has virtually no flaws; certainly an improvement over the USA's Up All Night version that made its way to cable over the years. The audio is similarly good, and the film's punk rock soundtrack, used brilliantly by O'Bannon, sounds fantastic.

The disc's extras include a funny and informative commentary by O'Bannon and Stout. They both discuss the making of the film in-depth, and include some interesting behind-the-scenes gossip. O'Bannon, who was at the time an acclaimed screenwriter (Alien), shares quite a bit about his experiences as an inaugural director on an ambitious, low-budget film. Also included on this disc is an all-new featurette entitled Designing the Dead, which expounds on the behind the scenes gossip. In fact, O'Bannon reveals a somewhat convoluted tale about the movie's direct relationship with Romero's Dead films. Much of the featurette revolves around William Stout's production design, particularly his creation of the film's zombies. The DVD also features an interactive gallery of concept drawings and storyboards, which make an interesting companion supplement to the featurette. Finally, Return of the Living Dead includes the obligatory theatrical trailers and TV spots.

Unlike many horror films from the 80s, Return of the Living Dead holds up surprisingly well almost 20 years later. Consistently entertaining, the movie has good effects and decent performances from the actors. The material is intentionally campy and funny, without being an over-the-top parody. It's clear that the filmmakers and actors respected the material, and set out to make an entertaining monster movie. They succeed.

One warning: After viewing Return of the Living Dead, it is inevitable that you will have 45 Grave's song Partytime ringing in your head for days.

Robert Smentek

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