MGM's hi-def transfer for Return Of The Living Dead comes via AVC and, I'm happy to say, is digitally unmolested. Aye, that's right. There's no DNR or edge enhancement to take the shine off what is a relatively flat, soft, grainy but faithful-looking image.
I say flat, folks, and I mean it. This was the early 80's and Dan O' Bannon was happy with a comic-panel aesthetic that almost totally refused any sort of depth to is frequent master-shots, leaving the image resolutely two-dimensional as a result. This isn't a complaint, you understand. Just don't go expecting this image to stand out from the screen with any impressive depth of field in the graveyard, the basement, the chapel or the main drive in which most of the attacks occur. However, there are a few instances when the image musters up something that provides a little bit of that “pop”. The Tar-man suddenly looming out towards us, say, or Trash's sudden shock-chomp on a down-and-out. But the picture is soft and has some slight elements of dirt as well. Grain is pretty much intact, but I will say that it becomes a little more aggravated during some of the darker moments, even if only briefly.
But this is unmistakably a fine and improved image compared to any version that I've seen before. The film was always garish and bright and over-egged with comic-book colour, and this Blu-ray very definitely captures all of those mighty visual tones. All the primaries are bright and strong, but predictably, the reds can go right over the top. Things, other than the spraying blood that is, such as Freddy's jacket, Trash's hair, the flashing lights of ambulances and police cars etc really blaze out now. But the gore is spectacular. Just look at when Scuz's head gets chewed-into and that crimson geyser showers the entire set – bright, thick and happily splattery. And look at the half-eaten noggin of the paramedic. And that chunk of livid brain that slips from a ghoul's mouth. Nice. The colours of the zombies – ghastly pale, almost blue for Trash, icky, putrid green for the half-corpse and livid banana for the “yellow man”. In fact, the hi-def image actually shows us the portions of this guy that the paint has rubbed-off from! But the hue is spot-on, otherwise. Of course, the colouring of the Tar-man is exquisitely repulsive – look at that shiny black molasses texture, and the pinky-orange skull-sludge! Costumes and set-décor all look fine too. Skin tones are not natural, but this is down to a lot of elements from the heavy makeup (and this is before anyone gets zombified) to the garish, day-glo lighting. But the slow transformation that both Freddy and Frank undergo is very well rendered. It isn't subtle by a long shot, but it looks good.
And the disc wins with greater detail levels too. Now it isn't going to garner any awards, but this 1.85:1 image now offers a fair bit more to scrutinise. Distance shots – cars on the freeway, Spanish Moss and trees at the periphery of the cemetery set, graffiti on the walls, and all manner of paraphernalia in the offices of the medical warehouse and in Ernie's embalming room – are much better resolved. It is far easier to spot the cameraman and sound-guy in the back of the escaping car now, as well as the trains that we aren't supposed to see passing through where the graveyard set is supposed to be. But close-up detail is better again. Facial texture is much more apparent, especially on the ailing Freddy and Frank, and upon the amazingly animated visage of Don Calfa. It can also be too easy to see the stuck-on appliances on certain zombie faces too – especially the old Confederate who uses the radio to call for “more paramedics.” But, once again, the Tar-man (especially when we see him inside the toxic vat) and the half-corpse are the clearest examples of the effects done right and baring-up to clinical study. The half-corpse is a truly stunning piece of work. Little flesh-nuzzling chomps on the top of the noggin look better as well, the bubbly soft dough-mound on Suicide's skull has more gristle and grain to it, and the gouged hole in Scuz's appears deeper on account of the stronger blacks which this image now excels at producing. Shadow depth is rich and although grain can seem accentuated against some darker regions, as I said earlier, having such good and consistent black levels leads to an image that is much more stable and reliably moody.
Overall, for an unrestored image, this is actually a great transfer. The encoding engineers haven't monkeyed around with it, and the colours and the detail of this necessarily vibrant picture have been allowed to shine through with sure-fire results. There are a couple of shots when the frame seems to cut down too much on the top of characters' heads - Spider pleading with the others to come away from the Half-corpse, for example - but I think that this has always been the case, so we can't blame the transfer here either. Return Of The Living Dead gets a good, solid 7 out of 10 for its video image.
MGM provide us with two audio flavours to enjoy here. One is a 2-channel mono mix which is presumably akin to how the film originally sounded and the other is a well-presented and entertaining DTS-HD MA 5.1 which I think is definitely the track of choice.
Matt Clifford's excellent main title theme (which we hear several times throughout the movie) really pounds away and has lashings of presence. The songs featured on the soundtrack also come through with pleasing vigour. Dialogue isn't the most detailed and nuanced-sounding, but it certainly comes across without any problems. There are moments when voices are lost within babble, rain, action or effects, or just submerged beneath the music, but this is how it has always been, and I would say that the audio mix actually sound more balanced in this lossless incarnation. Certainly the voices of our two prize zombies – Tar-man and Half-corpse – come over with great presence and clarity. O' Bannon has apparently bumped up the tone and timbre of the Tar-man and, whatever the reason, it sounds great to me. “BRAINSSSS!!!” The Half-corpse has a real creepy, lost old lady croon that rasps and rattles convincingly. The track certainly does such elements proud.
There's a reasonable amount of bass to the track that aids the various encounters and skirmishes with the undead. Gunshots have a little bit of kick to them, especially Ernie's Walther P38. Shattering glass and the massive thud of a pickaxe through a ghoul's bonce are well rendered in a track that is often crowded with screams and music at the same time. Actually, just listen to the whoosh! of the axe as Burt swings it down through the front right speaker. There's some nice hissing and popping in the furnace as the bodyparts go up in flames. The various clangs and clatters as zombie arms are battered with bars and pipes and other things as they crash through windows are drowned-out beneath The Cramps' awesome Surfin' Dead, but then once the track dies down, the sound of nails being hammered-in is very clear and sharp.
Surround usage is there, but it is rarely demonstrative. The big test of a good wraparound track – rainfall – is something of a letdown with this mix, unfortunately. Considering that we do get some interesting pans front to back and a reasonably wide and active stereo-spread, I'm a little bit surprised that they didn't try to stretch out something like the ferocious downpour that fills a large part of the film to add just that touch more of an immersive atmosphere. However, there are little odds and ends that emanate from the rear speakers to supply a slight tingle or frisson now and then, and the film's aural environment does sound unmistakably widened and more spacious than ever before.
I think it would hard to complain about this track, folks. It provides a fair degree of oomph for a film that only ever had a limited range to begin with, and nothing that this lossless mix sounds bogus or strained. All in all, this gets another 7 out of 10 from me.
As Evil Dead's Ash would say … “Groovy!”
MGM's region A coded release has some great stuff to get your teeth into, and happily follows the same tongue-in-cheek approach as the main feature itself. For a start, the film carries a couple of inspired subtitle tracks. They are both for the zombies – and whilst the first, which is just an assortment of “uuurgghhh's”, “aaargrrrrhhh's” and “grruhhh's”, the second, which translates those gurgles and growls into English, is wonderful. “Sh*t! Where's my head gone?” and “Try the SWAT guys … they're delicious!” are just a couple of the choice quotes from the dead-heads. Naturally there are a lot of “dead” spots when only the living are around to do the yakking, but this is still a fun feature that is a welcome touch.
The cast and crew commentary is one of those fast and irreverent ensemble pieces that tries to deliver facts and whatnot, but ends up being a just a bunch of people having a laugh. Which is fine by me. We have William Stout (production designer), Don Calfa (Ernie), Linnea Quigley (Trash), Beverly Randolph (Tina), Brian Peck (Scuz) and Allan Trautman (the Tar-man). Amid the laughter and the asides, we hear how each came to the film, how they embellished or endured their roles with regards to costumes, makeup, props and rain-effects, and we hear a lot about the set-design and the in-jokes. We also a lot of very unpleasant things about mortuaries, funeral homes and the people that work in them. This is an excellent and extremely entertaining track, folks, that is well worth your time … but you'll just have to put up with the zombie-impersonation routine half-way through.
The commentary with William Stout and Dan O' Bannon is less funny. Naturally, with only the two of them involved, this is a quieter and more considered track. A fair bit of repetition occurs, and there are a few lulls in this one, but there is also a lot of new stuff and certainly a different and less frivolous, more considered perspective. Of the two, the cast effort is unmistakably the more enjoyable, but it is great to hear from the late Dan O' Bannon, though.
The Return Of The Living Dead – The Dead Have Risen is a half-hour retrospective that brings back most of the cast for individually filmed interview segments. This is great for fans. We get to hear from the bumbling trio, themselves, Clu Gulager (replete with Stetson), James Karen and Don Calfa, as they kick-back and have a good laugh at the time when they battled the living dead. Gulager, especially, is off his cake! We also get to meet the luscious (well, a tad less so, these days) Linnea Quigley, as she talks about inclement weather and pubic-wigs, Beverly Randolph, Thom Matthews and the Tar-man, Allan Trautman as they all reminisce about the crazy production. Everybody praises everybody else, but this is still a fun and strangely sincere piece. O' Bannon and Stout get to have their say, too. Good solid stuff, and amusing too.
The Decade Of Darkness lasts around twenty-two minutes and is a fun little jaunt down massacre lane for those of gorily jaded tastes. Not about any one film in particular, this is just a piece of macabre cinematic nostalgia that chronicles, without any depth, the most popular genre films that splattered their way across the screens during this “Scarlet Period”. People like Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, John Landis, the ever-gorgeous Elvira, Tony Timpone (Fangoria editor) and some horror historian try to dissect the cultural impact of this trend with a few choice clips from Texas Chainsaw 2, Motel Hell, The Fog, Lifeforce, The Howling, Dressed To Kill, Poltergeist, Dolls and Pumpkinhead to illustrate how exciting and prolific this barrage was. It is always good to see people like this, but the feature really doesn't tell a fan anything they don't already know.
Designing The Dead is about fifteen minutes-worth of weird spiel from O' Bannon and much more detailed, well thought-out production trivia from Stout. The writer/director sits in front of a screen playing the film, whilst Stout sits beside a chart of his zombie designs, boasting that EC/Bernie Wrightson style with pride. I actually have a copy of this chart that I picked up somewhere. Should really get that framed and put on the wall. Both men talk about how their ideas come to them, and about the challenges they faced on this production.
We then two original theatrical trailer – the Bloody Version that first went out and lasts about a minute and a half, and the Bloodier Version which is extended by another minute or so and just shows a lot more of the film. Both have an oddly scripted voiceover-man.
All of these features – I think - are replicated over on the second disc, which houses the SD DVD of the film. It's not a bad bunch of material on the whole and fans will certainly have some fun with this package.
One of those much-loved 80's cult faves, The Return Of The Living Dead is a real ghoulish pleasure to revisit. Great visual and makeup effects, a tremendous cast, an eclectic soundtrack (albeit slightly modified now by O' Bannon due to copyright reasons for a song and a couple of voice-tweaks) and a deliciously witty and subversive script all go hand-in-rotting-hand to create a mini-masterpiece of mayhem and dark gallows humour. Linnea Quigley strips off and dances on top of a grave. Skulls are regularly bitten-into and brains ooze merrily out. Dan Calfa induces hysterics just with his eyes whilst James Karen has a nervous breakdown on-camera, and Clu Gulager does a fantastic Texan Groucho Marx routine of trying to keep a lid on things. The film is fast, frothy, fun and full of gags.
MGM's transfer is surprisingly good. For some reason I had expected a bit of a mess with this. But there's no obvious DNR and no edge enhancement to spoil the gruesome goings-on, and the print looks nice and vivid and delightfully colourful. The audio does reasonably well, too, without being made a mockery of with any bogus-sounding effects being flung about. And fans will definitely enjoy the extra features. Solid and interesting featurettes are capped-off with a marvellous group commentary, and you've got the fun of the zombie subtitles too. Something for everyone then, living or dead.
Return Of The Living Dead sits right alongside Re-Animator as the best of the tongue-in-cheek horrors from the 80's, and it even earns a great ranking in the overall zombie league-table, despite being massively liberal with the usual conventions. It didn't beat Romero at his own game, but then it didn't try to. Romero was the undoubted foundation-stone, but Dan O' Bannon and William Stout and their wacky cast really put their heart and soul into it. And it shows.
Awesome entertainment and very highly recommended.
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