Back when I was in college and first getting in to horror, and zombie movies specifically, I thought the Italian cycle was good gory fun. But the George A. Romero trilogy (at the time, there were only three) ranked as untouchable—the Bible of the Living Dead, if you will.
So when I watched Dan O’Bannon‘s The Return of the Living Dead from 1985 (the same year as Romero’s Day of the Dead), I was aghast. How could any movie openly mock and deride what happened in Night of the Living Dead? How could zombies talk? Why do they only eat brains? It all seemed so ridiculous. Now, a decade or so later, I’ve largely changed my tune, thanks in no small part to the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
O’Bannon wrote Alien and the pretty solid horror flick Dead & Buried, and he’d go on to write Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and Total Recall, so he definitely has the pedigree. But for some reason, his feature directorial debut, which he rewrote from a story by Night‘s original producers and co-writers John A. Russo and Russ Streiner, never sat well with me. As a result, I never gave it much of a chance following the first viewing or two. But now I can see O’Bannon had something slyly different up his sleeve, using silly comedy and punk rock music to work in a very nihilistic, apocalyptic mentality and mistrust of authority and society that is very in keeping with the writer’s other work.
The story starts at a medical supply warehouse in Kentucky (though it could be anywhere), where two dumb graveyard shift workers, the elder Frank (James Karen) and the young punk Freddy (Thom Mathews), are talking about Night of the Living Dead. Frank maintains it was based on a true story and the government covered it up; he claims the outbreak of rising dead bodies coming from a chemical the military had been developing. Freddy doesn’t believe it, but Frank assures him it’s true, since the chemicals are stored at the very facility where they work. Naturally, they very quickly mess things up and release the gas, inadvertently reanimating all the cadavers and specimens at the warehouse, and likewise releasing an old zombie in a canister (known colloquially as “Tarman”). Oh, and the warehouse just happens to be right next to an old and super large graveyard.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends, all punks, drive over to hang out and wait for Freddy to be done with work, spending their evening drinking (and stripping, in one young lady’s case) on the graves in the yard. Frank and Freddy call their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), to help out, but he certainly has no idea what to do about the rampant, zombified dead stuff. They also quickly determine that destroying the brain or removing the head, as the original movie said, does not actually do anything. Only complete immolation does the job. Burt calls his friend Ernie (James Calfa), who we’re led to believe is a former Nazi scientist, to help and they determine the zombies want to eat brains because the endorphins ease the pain of being the living dead. But with the gas getting into the atmosphere, and then a freak rainstorm right overhead, there’s quickly way too many living dead running around, and not nearly enough time before the military bombs the whole town.
Watching The Return of the Living Dead again, it’s not nearly as big an “affront” to zombie movies as I initially perceived; the jabs are certainly much more comedic than I remembered. The film has vivid characters and some terrific set pieces, and the tone ably jumps from the more comedic to the more horrific without whiplash. Likewise, it features some truly tragic moments, like a zombie lady’s torso explaining that death hurts, and Freddy and Frank slowly realizing they’re technically dead even if they haven’t gone rabid yet. It’s some heavy stuff, especially for a movie with a naked punk rocker dancing on a tomb. (But all that considered, I still hate the scene in which a zombie tells a police radio, “Send more cops.”)
I feel like I’m always saying this about Scream Factory releases, but the care shown to the 2K scan of the film, and the sheer number of extras packed in to the two-disc set, are simply breathtaking. Disc one boasts four commentary tracks (the two new ones are with two British fans and scholars, and with two actors and a make-up effects artist), a featurette on ’80s horror films, and other such miscellany.
Disc two has the workprint version of the movie, new documentaries about the effects, music, and locations from the film, a feature length documentary about the making of the movie with interviews with everybody still alive five years ago when it was made, the final interview with Dan O’Bannon prior to his 2009 passing, and some other interviews and featurettes.
It’s truly hours of content, and it will certainly make you reassess the movie as I did, or appreciate it further. I always look forward to Scream Factory’s releases, even for movies I don’t like or know that well, because by the end of reviewing them, I’ll probably have been made a fan.
Images: Scream Factory/Graham Humphreys