Home Video Hovel: The Return of the Living Dead, by David Bax
Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead is an important film in the history of the zombie subgenre. It’s also proof that a movie doesn’t have to be particularly good to be noteworthy. Don’t get me wrong, Return is no disaster. With its Repo Man-style cadre of punk rock characters and ethos plus its sense of humor (the military has a 1-800 number specifically for reports of zombies), it can often be a lot of fun. But unlike its ancestor, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it has nothing much going on beneath its gory, exploitation surface.
Based on a novel by Night of the Living Dead co-screenwriter John A. Russo (though it bears little resemblance to the source material), Return is about two employees, Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews), at a medical supply warehouse that happens to be located next to a graveyard. When they accidentally release gas from a long-dormant government experiment in the basement, the deceased residents of the cemetery return to life, making the night increasingly and violently dire for Frank, Freddy and others, including their boss (Clu Gulager), the coroner (Don Calfa) and Freddy’s punk rocker friends who come to pick him up at the worst possible time.
One of that gang, a young woman named Trash played by Linnea Quigley, strips off her clothes for an impromptu nude dance atop a crypt just before the zombies show up. Thus, Quigley spends most of the remainder of the movie completely naked. The absence of a narrative or thematic purpose for this choice speaks to the film’s and O’Bannon’s cheap ambitions and tawdry impulses. It also engenders quite a bit of sympathy for Quigley, who must have been thrilled at spending long nighttime shoots running through rain and mud in the altogether. The film’s goal of immediate, base stimulation pays off much better for those with an affinity for splattery carnage. The practical creature effects are terrific, with sickeningly animated bodies in various states of decomposition, putrefaction and dismemberment.
As mentioned above, The Return of the Living Dead is an important zombie movie. For one thing, it’s one of the only ones to actually use the word “zombie.” It also features zombies with the then-uncommon ability to run. Mostly, though, it will be remembered for introducing the trope of the undead seeking to feast on gray matter, calling out their favorite snack with the drawn out groan, “Braaaaiiiiinnns.” If only the movie had more for them.
The video transfer is a thing of beauty, sharp and clear while still looking filmic. This will be a plus for the gorehounds. The audio—available in mono, stereo or 5.1—is also solid and does a good job of highlighting the movie’s punk-heavy music track.
This is a two disc set and so Scream Factory features are plentiful. There are no fewer than four commentary tracks, two of them new to this release, a featurette on 1980s horror, zombie subtitles and a featurette called “In Their Own Words – The Zombies Speak,” a new featurette on the effects, a new featurette on the music (including members of 45 Grave, T.S.O.L. and the Circle Jerks), a new featurette that revisits the film’s locations, 20 minutes of additional footage, a feature length documentary on the film, the last interview O’Bannon ever gave, an interview with Russo as well as interviews with the cast and the production designer (phew!).