Dir. Dan O’Bannon, USA, 1985, 90 mins
Review by Daniel Laverick
DVD Re-releases of ‘cult’ films have become boringly predictable. Loaded with hour upon hour of monotonous extras that even the fanboys don’t want, they tend to be a dull affair that I usually avoid. But I have to admit to being quite excited about the long-awaited re-release of the 1985 zombie comedy Return of the Living Dead.
For starters, let’s get the review of the film out of the way. When I first watched it in the late 80s I thought it was great. And it still is. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to see it before now, here’s what you need to know: Freddy, a young guy just starting his new job, is working a late shift with his manager Frank in a medical supplies warehouse. After accidentally opening a barrel with the supposed remains of a zombie and a mysterious US military chemical, they unwittingly set off a chain of events that sees the dead return to life and the protagonists involved in a desperate fight to stay alive as the hordes of brain-eating corpses grow.
Released in the same year as George Romero’s Day of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead attempted a radical new take on the zombie film genre. Instead of slow, shambling zombies, we are treated to zombies who can run (with or without legs), zombies with a specific taste for brains, and a hefty dose of comedy with some great one liners (“How do you kill something that’s already dead? It’s not a bad question Burt”).
Although this is, at heart, a comedy – it remains true to the genre when it comes to scares. The mix of horror and comedy, not always an easy combination to execute, is just about perfect. When the slapstick and one-liners hit their peak, the horror kicks in, with a suitably gruesome dismemberment, scare or zombie attack to remind the audience that the laughs come with a fright. This is the essence of the film, and the reason why it stands alone within the genre.
A look at the pedigree of Return of the Living Dead reveals why it works and why it has cemented its place in the zombie movie hall of fame. The co-writer of Night of the Living Dead and Romero collaborator, John Russo, wrote the original novel the film is based on. Although the concept of the comedy element was director O’Bannon’s, the ideas are Russo’s – something he makes abundantly clear in the DVD extras.
As a fan of the film, I approached this review with the intent of judging the DVD on its extras – once again, I was not disappointed. Accompanying a lengthy documentary on the making of the film, including interviews with virtually every actor and crew member, are shorter documentaries focussing on the music and the effects. The soundtrack of Return of the Living Dead is great, with tracks from the likes of 45 Grave, The Damned and The Tall Boys – a real slice of mid-80s horror punk rock which deserved an in-depth look – and the extras don’t disappoint.
The story of the production is also given a review, which includes details about the endless script rewrites, chaotic casting and filming. Most interesting of all is the bitter fallout of original make-up artist with the director, the tension between the cast and the legal battle regarding the name of film – let’s just say that a few individuals still take issue with what happened on the 6-week shoot and take the opportunity to get it off on their chest.
Overall, this a film that is entirely worthy of a re-release with extras that, for once, make good viewing. The special edition DVD will be loved by fans who saw the film in the 80s and will no doubt be a refreshing look at horror for younger viewers fed on a diet of soulless torture-porn. They really don’t make em like this anymore kids, so grab yourself a slice of the “definitive splatter-punk movie”.