On September 11, 2007 MGM/FOX Home Entertainment released a Collector's Edition DVD for the cult classic "The Return of the Living Dead." This marks the second time the film has been issued on DVD with the first hitting stores back in August 2002 but this review will obviously center on the new release. The movie itself has already been discussed on this web site so this time around I'll just focus on the disc itself.
The previous 2002 DVD presented the film in a 1.78 aspect ratio which was approved by director Dan O'Bannon but since he was not involved with this particular DVD the ratio is back to it's original 1.85. Whether or not the DVD is using O'Bannon's color corrected transfer (which he did for the first DVD release but MGM ultimately did not use for that one) is unknown.
Aspect ratios aside (and really, there is VERY little difference between 1.78 and 1.85) there seems to be some slight framing differences between the two DVD releases with the collector's edition looking as if it's a bit more cropped on the sides which is apparent for the end credits with the skull looming a bit larger on screen and some of the unused space on the right cut off. Is this an issue? Not really. It was just unused space with no image being cut out of the picture. Frankly this is hardly worth mentioning but since some fans have noticed it, I thought I'd refer to it briefly.
The transfer itself looks as good as ever and is about the same (if not the exact same one previously used...slight framing difference aside.) Any dirt, scratches and other faults normally found in films 22 years old are virtually absent. Image remains sharp and detailed (or as sharp and detailed as such a film can be.) Black levels remain solid throughout. Colors don't necessarily POP off the screen but considering this is not a colorful film (other than Trash's bright red hair) it's a non-issue. Film grain seems to be less of a problem this time around though it wasn't really an issue in '02.
It should be noted that the collector's edition does NOT include a full screen (or open matte) version of the film this time around, only a widescreen version. This is how the film should be seen, this is how it was composed not the open matte version which exposed some production faults such as a zombie calling for more paramedics and we see his sleeve roll down to show the part of his arm that had no make-up applied. While *some* fans complain that the widescreen version covers up some of Trash's nudity, I would suggest that if nudity is what they seek, they should search out more adult oriented fare.
"The Return of the Living Dead" simply couldn't look any better than this until MGM/FOX puts out an HD-DVD or Blu-Ray release.
The film is once again presented in mono and stereo and is the exact same mix used on the previous DVD. It does it's job in delivering the basics but never the less lacks punch. With a film filled with great punk rock music and otherwise atmospheric sound effects, a 5.1 surround sound mix would finally open up the soundfield to what the movie truly requires. Please take note that the audio mix is the altered track created by O'Bannon for the 2002 DVD with fading in/out of songs in certain scenes, deepening of some zombie voices, etc. Fans hoping that the original theatrical soundmix would be included will be disappointed. Spanish and French language tracks are also included.
First, the DVD's menu (unlike the '02 release which featured only a static shot on the cover art and no sound) is animated, showing clips of the film spattered with blood and The Cramps "Surfing Dead" playing on an edited loop. Big improvement.
There are two audio commentaries, one including director Dan O'Bannon and production designer William Stout that was included on the '02 release (and reviewed elsewhere on this site) and the other brings back Stout and joins him with several cast members including Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, Allan Trautman (the "Tar Man" zombie) Linnea Quigley and Don Calfa. This was a fun and occasionally insightful track with a nice selection of on set anecdotes and stories and while I wish they had gotten into more of the behind the scenes issues (such as the "disagreement" between O'Bannon and Clu Gulager) and the alternate ending which Peck only briefly refers to (he seems to remember the most about the film and occasionally surprises the rest of the gang with tidbits here and there) it was still an enjoyable time and the cast gave a nice shout out to the late Mark Venturini (who played Suicide)....enjoyable that is until the DVD's producers got the brilliant idea of hiring a couple of extras to act as zombies breaking into the studio, "killing" Trautman and then constantly interrupting everyone's stories with zombie groans and pitiful "jokes" and one liners. This brought the fun to a grinding halt but thankfully doesn't last terribly long. The zombie commentary should have been buried the second it was thought up. The people who came up with this beyond lame idea clearly didn't have brains to be eaten. Anyway, once those morons took off, the commentary returned to normal and could be enjoyed again. NOTE: Jewel Shepard was there at the studio but ended up not participating in any of the bonus features due to differences she had with the DVD's producers. Keep in mind that nobody on the commentary was paid for their time nor was hair and make-up provided for those that were featured in the documentary. A bit cheap wouldn't you say?
Next up is the documentary "Return of the Living Dead - The Dead Have Risen," a 20 minute feature that included interviews with James Karen, Clu Gulager and the reclusive Thom Matthews along with Randolph, Peck, Quigley, Trautman and Calfa. While some of the bits are repeated in the commentary, most of it is fresh especially the comments made by those who didn't join in on the commentary (Karen doesn't like commentaries, feels they ruin the "magic" of the film by revealing every secret and trick.) Clearly everybody has a great deal of affection for the film, especially Gulager who calls it "a work of art." I was pleased to see so many behind the scenes production stills used in the featurette. While there apparently is absolutely no video footage on set, the pictures still provide us with a glimpse at what went on including an on set visit by actor Jason Robards who stopped by to visit his friend James Karen.
"The Decade of Darkness" runs for about 23 minutes and discusses the horror films of the 1980s (most of the clips shown and discussed are owned by MGM naturally) and while "Return of the Living Dead" is included, it does not center on it which makes it's inclusion somewhat baffling. Regardless, it IS a nice documentary with interviews featuring directors such as Joe Dante, John Landis and Stuart Gordon though it's quality is brought down somewhat by the Queen of cheese, Elvira.
Being brought back from the grave of 2002 is "Designing the Dead" and for those of you who own the previous DVD know, it features O'Bannon and Stout on camera discussing the making of the film, pre-production, how it got made, etc. It runs for about 13 minutes and for the sake of brevity, it's a quality featurette (though short) that fans should check out if they haven't already. For more thoughts, please read my review of the '02 DVD elsewhere on this site.
The DVD's producers seemed stuck on this idea of doing goofy things with zombies and the "Zombie subtitle stream" continues the idiocy. Basically it works like this, when ever you hear a zombie make a groan or noise, a subtitle pops up saying "ARRRGH!!! GRRRR!" Brillaint. There is also an easter egg (though a rotten one) on the second page of the special features menu. Press the up arrow key on your remote and an image of a brain will be highlighted above the tombstone. Click on it and it will take you to a hidden page that says the following "We zombies feel that we were horribly misquoted in the so called zombie subtitle stream. We're not just mindless creatures of the night. To see what we really think, please choose the 'Zombie Thoughts' option." This is an alternate take on the zombie subtitle stream but instead of spealling out groans and grunts of the undead, we'll see things like when the cadaver zombie is screaming, the subtitle says "Let me out of this damn freezer...right now!" Plus other lame jokes similar to what the zombie actors said on the commentary track. In other words, it's really fucking stupid.
A quick note about the packaging. As you can see at the top of the page, MGM/FOX is not using the original artwork but a new and far more generic cover which makes the film look like a cheap direct-to-video release. It comes in a slip-cover and just like the '02 release, it GLOWS IN THE DARK!
The special features are rounded out with two theatrical trailers for "The Return of the Living Dead" as well as trailers for both "Jeepers Creepers" movies (huh?) and a promotion for other MGM horror titles.
While the collector's edition DVD of "The Return of the Living Dead" is not the end all and be all fans have been wanting, it's still a step up from the previous release. Rounding up the special features from the first disc (minus the TV spots and Stout's conceptual art) and adding them to a new commentary and two new documentaries, there is plenty here for fans to enjoy. There are some major errors that bring the package down a bit (all that idiotic zombie crap from the voice over extras interrupting the cast commentary and zombie subtitles) and the complete lack of deleted scenes and alternate takes as well as the original opening and ending of the film are sure to dampen enthusiasm (though I'm sure that gives MGM reason enough to release yet another DVD of the movie.) Fans still clamor for the film's original theatrical audio mix to be included as well so perhaps MGM can get it right the third time around.
Dan O'Bannon was not involved with this DVD release due to legal issues involving payment and/or royalties from the first disc so there was absolutely no chance of seeing the much hoped for director's cut. Maybe one day when MGM stops acting like New Line Cinema insisting "The Return of the Living Dead" has never made a profit (so why go through the expense of releasing a SECOND DVD if they feel they won't make any money from it? Hollywood has a strange way of counting their money it seems.) So on one hand it's hard to recommend this new DVD without regret but on the other look at those who DID jump in (virtually everyone except Miguel Nunez Jr. who, for whatever reason, refuses to take part in anything ROTLD related and of course Jewel Shepard who wanted to join but MGM was too cheap to pay and John Philbin who, I believe, was in Hawaii at the time and couldn't make it) for FREE. They weren't paid but wanted to do this for us, the fans and that says a lot about them and ultimately, I think we should pay them back by buying this collector's edition and hearing what they have to say.
My rating (out of *****)
Video: *** and a half
Audio: ** and a half
Special features: ****
LEGAL NOTICE All images copyright 2007 MGM/FOX Home Entertainment. Written text copyright 2007 Michael Allred