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Part 2: The DVD

It has been roughly a decade since "The Return of the Living Dead" was available to purchase on any home video format in the U.S., and when Orion Pictures went bankrupt, the film's rights were up in the air.
Thankfully, MGM came along and bought Orion's film library. However it would take a year and a half before it was released to DVD. The film's wonderful and dedicated fan base baraged MGM with letters, e-mails, and phone calls to let them know the film should be done right. The studio has answered with a fantastic DVD release that should please the "ROTLD" followers.

Video Quality

The DVD presents the film in 4x3 open matte (NOT pan & scan), and 1.78 anamorphic widescreen. It should be noted that the original aspect ratio was 1.85 but director Dan O'Bannon felt there was no difference between the two visually and went with 1.78.
This was my first time seeing the film in widescreen, and it truly makes a difference. We can finally see the properly framed composition, and how well everything was placed inside of it. The full frame version shows some things that are NOT supposed to be seen, for example, when we see the first zombie asking for "more paramedics," look at his droops down a bit, and you can see the actor's REAL skin! The matting of the widescreen version effectively covers that mistake up. After all these years of seeing the full screen treatment, "The Return of the Living Dead" finally looks like a movie. The widescreen version is certainly the way to go.

MGM has done a fairly good job in the transfer as nicks, scratches, dirt, etc are virtually non-existant. The picture is consistently sharp, colors well rendered (check out Trash's bright red hair!) and is overall a decent presentation. (NOTE: A color corrected print, which was supervised by O'Bannon, was not used for the DVD.)
However, one must remember that this was a low budget film from the 80's, and unfortunately there is grain throughout the disc. While it is not overly distracting, it can be noticeable in the darker shots. The scene where Burt and Spider are making their escape from the cemetary in the police car is a prime example. However that shot is fairly brief, so one needs not worry. Even some recent, big budget films show some grain in brand new DVD's. For a 17 year old movie, it still looks damn good.

Audio Quality

The DVD is presented in digital mono, which is the preference of the director (who noted that if it was good enough for Stanley Kubrick, it was good enough for him.)
The sound is clear and dialogue clean, I noticed no hissing or other defects. Since this is mono, you should not expect a full, pounding soundtrack blasting through your home theater system but regardless of that, it is serviceable. If there had been more time to prepare the disc, a 5.1 re-mix might have been done, and such a mix would've given the film a fuller soundscape, especially with that punk rock score.

As has been noted on my web site, the DVD contains an all new soundmix, created by O'Bannon. These changes have caused a stir with some fans so allow me to explain them fully.

The original film was not entirely how O'Bannon wanted it to look or sound, and several decisions were forced on Dan by the film's producers. Let's take a look at some of the things that were changed:
The voice of 'Tarman' – In the original film, not only was his voice too high, it often changed pitch whenever he spoke! This was not Dan's intention. Now 'Tarman' has a deep, guttural voice that remains constant throughout the film. The "send more cops" zombie also had his voice lowered to accurately represent someone whose been dead for 100+ years.
The film's score has also been altered. One song, "Dead Beat Dance," which played near the beginning of the film as we are introduced to the punk kids driving in Suicide's car, has been removed due to legal clearances. Sadly, this is not uncommon in Hollywood. Every time a movie is released on a new format, every song has to be cleared by it's respective copyright owners. Legal problems regarding DVD releases are what has caused year's worth of delays for such films as Saturday Night Fever and Grease. The song which has replaced "Dead Beat Dance" is strangely uncredited.
Next, Frank's suicide – In the original, "Burn the Flames" played over the entire scene. The problem here was that the producers felt that Frank's death scream would be too "disturbing" for audiences, and ordered the song to be played loudly throughout. The thing is (as O'Bannon states on the commentary track), that "disturbing" is what he *liked* about that scene, and to drown out Frank's scream robbed it of it's impact. The song is still in that scene but is faded out as Frank gets into the crematorium.
One other song, "Take a Walk" has been changed. This song was probably the biggest offender in terms of making the actor's dialogue very hard to hear (the producers amped up the music through the whole movie, regardless of it's affect on the performances.) Now, the song does not begin until after the punk kids run out of the UNEEDA warehouse.
All of the other songs remain as they were without alteration.
Most of the other changes are very subtle, and unless you are extraordinarily familiar with every sound from the film, you won't even notice it. (Hint: After Burt and the gang cut up the corpse at UNEEDA but before the bonesaw is brought out, listen to the corpse's body flopping on the floor in the background.)

Special Features

The primary feature on the DVD (and one that I strongly encouraged O'Bannon to do) is a feature length, screen specific audio commentary track by Dan, and production designer William Stout.
Dan begins (and ends) with a humorous impression of the MGM lion ("Dan, behave yourself!") The two are still good friends after all these years and it shows.
This is a great example of how a commentary should be. It's filled with not only "how we did that scene" explanations but also behind-the-sceens anecdotes, joking exchanges, etc. They also express their disappointment with certain aspects of the film, notably Stout's disgust with the "party time" skeleton.
Informative and fun, fans should really enjoy listening to these two men recount their experiences in making the film, I know I did.

Up next is a brief (a little over 13 minutes long) featurette called "Designing the Dead" presented in full screen.

Again it features both O'Bannon and Stout in interview-like settings – Dan begins talking about how the film came to be, Stout goes into detail about his zombie designs while showing off his artwork. It's quite a bit of fun to watch but because of it's short running time, it leaves you wanting more and MORE. Perhaps we'll see a full length "making of" documentary in the future?

Also of interest is a gallery of Stout's conceptual zombie designs which show incredible talent with his inspirations coming from the old EC comics and the like.

Rounding out the features are 10 TV spots presented in full screen, running a tad over 5 minutes long. They are all very similar to one another with only occasional minor differences.

Finally, 2 theatrical trailers are included. The first is G rated, running about a minute long, the second is R rated (for language) and is almost 3 minutes in length...both are presented in widescreen.

An alternate audio track in Spanish is available. Subtites include English, Spanish and French.

The DVD cover uses the original U.S art, and as an added bonus, it glows in the dark.

Final Thoughts

After an incredibly long wait, MGM has not only given us our favorite film but has added some lovely bonus material to savor. While this is not the fully loaded "special edition" some of us had hoped for, it is still a great package, and has proven to be worth the wait.

Remember, IF the DVD sells and makes an impression upon the suits at MGM Home Video, there will be a "director's cut"! According to O'Bannon, he would insert into the film the original opening AND ending that he wanted from the beginning (which the producer's did not OK.) We may also see additional material that has previously only been seen in the legendary "workprint" as part of a 'deleted scenes' feature (there is additional/different dialogue, alternate angles, etc) as well as a "gag reel" and yes, a more robust "making of" documentary featuring cast members like James Karen who told me they'd love to participate in one. Heck, O'Bannon might be tempted into remixing the sound into DD 5.1, who knows? The only way this will happen is if you buy the current DVD (available now) because if it fails to sell well enough, there's no way MGM will fork out the kind of money such a re-issue like this would cost.

Regardless if a "director's cut" never happens, we will still have this remarkable film in all it's digital glory on the sturdy DVD format. A highly recommended purchase if there ever was one!

Rating (out of ***** stars)

Video Quality: ***
Audio Quality: **½
Special Features: ***½
Packaging: ****
Overall: ****


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