As far as Zombie films go, I would put Dan O’Bannon’s terrifying undead masterwork The Return of the Living Dead right up there with Romero’s Trilogy. The film itself was co-written by John A. Russo, who co-wrote the Romero classic and when the two had a falling out Russo retained the rights to any titles featuring ‘Living Dead’, while Romero was free to create his own series of sequels, beginning with Dawn of the Dead. Return had Russo pairing up with former Carpenter collaborator and writer of Alien Dan O’Bannon, who would make the film his feature length directorial debut. Released in 1985, the film just hit 4K in a comprehensive package thanks to Scream Factory who have left no stone unturned when delivering everything a fan could want on the film.
For those who have shockingly never caught this before, The Return the Living Dead reframes the original Night as a true story, albeit with a few alterations. That gives this film a bit of a latitude, while still being able to take place in the same canon if you will, when a pair of Uneeda medical supply warehouse workers accidentally unleash the Darrow Chemical Company’s 2–4–5 Trioxin chemical that can reanimate the dead. This happens when Frank (James Karen) shows his young new trainee Freddy (Thom Mathews) the “weirdest thing he’s ever come across in the facility”, which happens to be several zombies from the original film in oil drums in their basement. When a drum springs a leak, this ensnares the two workers along with Freddy’s punk rocker friends in this undead madness as when the workers attempts to cover up the folly by burning the evidence only to have that smoke rise up, and rain down on the local cemetery reanimating the corpse around them.
While keeping the template of the slow moving zombies O’Bannon makes a few very terrifying updates to Romero’s tried and true formula, these zombies can not only speak, but use complex tools and have a taste for human brains. These zombies also can’t be dispatched with a simple headshot and will keep coming as long as the creature is willing. This turns every zombie into an unstoppable feeding machine that dwindles our survival chances down to zero with every one of these films. There’s also a pitch black humor at work here as the zombies figure out they can get more cops and paramedics simply by radioing for help. The film frames this story with a weird generational observation as Freddy’s older coworker approaches this situation much differently than his younger counterpart. This is echoed when his boss Frank becomes involved along with the local mortician. The icing on the cake if you will for this thread is the military, who’s answer to their problem is about as nihilistic and old school as you can get.
This is executed flawlessly with practical effects that still hold up, even in 4K. The scan here really highlights not just those effects, but the production design and the fact that everyone is simply pouring sweat throughout the entire film. This is supplemented by a punk rock soundtrack that really hammers home the “us against them” attitude as the younger generation is saddled with these flesh eating zombies in an oddly still relevant metaphor. Watching this now it’s actually a bit sad O’Bannon didn’t do more directing, the film’s weird mix of humor and horror still works rather well, while somehow never offsetting the horror. Humor here is used to further drill in the nihilistic tone of the film and the lack of escape.
The film is presented in a 4K scan that looks great, albeit with a bit of the old DNR applied. But that said the film looks and sound good if not better than you’ve even seen it. The sound track here is also mixed fairly well and the package is completed by a comprehensive collection of extras. This not only includes the great feature length doc More Brains, which is a comprehensive look at the film with most of the cast and crew interviewed, but the full length workprint also included. While not great quality this is something fans like myself have not doubt purchased at conventions and these workprints sometimes differ quite a bit from the original film. I know for example that this one features an extended ending that is simply hilarious and chilling. But as far as horror films go these sometimes contain unedited gore or practical effects that are usually the first to go for an R rating.
That was my biggest qualm with Scream’s Friday the 13th set; the lack of inclusion of the workprints that contain longer or more explicit cuts of the film.
I was surprised at how well this film held up. Not only the effects, but the acting and the premise and that’s no easy feat. Its still one of the few zombie films that actually scares me, and I don’t know if its the based on a true story premise or just how completely claustrophobic and nihilistic it is. I just wished the sequels lived up to the original. This was definitely a series of diminishing returns, while I do have a special place for the follow up that puts a kid front and center for the kind of horror film that would never be made today. So for fans this is a no brainer. The extras here are comprehensive and the scan here is as good as this film is going to get and what most rep houses are using when they screen the film. This is the definitive take on this film if there ever was one.