Blu Reviewed: Scream Factory's The Return of the Living Dead

The definitive release of Dan O'Bannon's horror/comedy classic hits store shelves next Tuesday – and it belongs in every cult film fan's collection. Here's Chris Jordan's in-depth review of the disc.

Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead is a zombie film like no other. It strikes a near-perfect balance of chills and humor, it pioneers the postmodern genre satire more than a decade before Scream, and it features a kick-ass early-80s punk soundtrack with a line-up that nearly rivals The Decline of Western Civilization. It is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the best, most original horror films of its decade, outdoing most of its competitors while at the same time hilariously sending them up. Yet despite its rightfully iconic status and passionate cult following, The Return of the Living Dead has always struggled with home video distribution – and has usually lost that struggle. The problem is that soundtrack: a very authentic time-capsule of the early years of punk rock that includes The Cramps, T.S.O.L., The Damned, 45 Grave, and half a dozen others. As with so much 1980s and '90s media that based its sound design around licensed songs, ROTLD soon found itself in a complicated and expensive tangle of music rights that first kept it out of print for many years, and then saw it released on DVD and blu-ray with large chunks of its soundtrack swapped out for cheaper replacements. A significant percentage of the film's fandom (myself included) consider MGM's music-swapped disc releases totally unacceptable, and would insist that the original HBO/Thorn-EMI VHS release was the only way to experience the film, as it was the only version that had its soundtrack intact.

But now that is all changing: Scream Factory, those patron saints of genre cinema, have at last rescued The Return of the Living Dead from the apathy of MGM, and have given us exactly the sort of collector's edition that its fans have been longing for. Not only is it the first American release since the 1980s to include the original music and sound design (well, almost – there is just one small change that proved legally unavoidable, but it's no dealbreaker), it is also a jaw-droppingly spectacular package in every other way. Boasting a stunning new remaster which blows the MGM blu-ray out of the water, and an insane quantity of special features including FOUR commentaries, eight featurettes and interviews, a full-length documentary, and a workprint rough-cut of the film, this is more than we ever would have dared to hope for. Not only is this effortlessly the best horror release of 2016 so far, it may be one of the best special editions of any horror film ever. It hits store shelves on Tuesday July 19th, and if you're a horror fan you'll want to be there to get your copy as soon as possible. Scream Factory is easily giving Batman V. Superman a run for its money as next week's most exciting blu-ray release.

Let's break down how the disc performs:

The Video:

"This is where we locked up that jerk who
wouldn't pay for the music rights for
the MGM discs."
As they do whenever possible, Scream Factory has created a brand-new 2K remaster of the original interpositive, rather than relying on MGM's pretty soft and lazy existing HD master. Even if you've already watched the film on the MGM blu-ray, you've never seen it look this clean and spectacular. The detail is incredibly sharp in a way the old disc wasn't: you can clearly see every bead of sweat on the actors' faces, and you can finally read the bottom row of the eye chart on the wall in Frank's office, every bit of graffiti in the graveyard, and all the text on the punks' patches. The film grain comes across very clearly and naturally, faithfully capturing the experience of watching the film on 35mm. The EC Comics-inspired color palette looks more awesome than ever. Since my previous preferred viewing method for The Return of the Living Dead was the HBO/Thorn-EMI VHS tape (to preserve the intended audio experience), seeing it this way was a revelation, and I found myself catching small details for the first time.

Speaking of small details, it's nice to see how well the film's makeup and creature effects hold up: while HD can be very unkind to low-budget special effects, the work done on most of these zombies is still seriously impressive. Tar-Man and the half-corpse still stand up as two of cinema's creepiest-looking ghouls; a testament to how much O'Bannon's team achieved on a fairly modest budget. There certainly are low-budget flaws visible here and there throughout the production, but nothing made distracting by the HD facelift. There is no visible damage or wear to the picture, though; in fact, I did not notice any flaws at all in Scream Factory's presentation. It's one of best transfers I've seen from them. I do not think that a modern remaster of a 30-year-old film could look any more perfect than this, and I thank Scream Factory for the love that they've shown this movie in their restoration.

The Audio:

Scream Factory has said ever since the disc was announced that their goal was to make The Return of the Living Dead sound exactly as it did in theaters, in all the ways that the various MGM DVDs and blu-rays did not. With one small exception, I would say they were entirely successful. While the MGM discs were notorious for their meddling with the soundtrack, there were also a few other bizarre changes, like the re-dubbing of the Tar-Man zombie's voice by a different actor. Scream Factory has corrected all those changes, going back to the 35mm release's audio track to make sure that the sound design – including Tar-Man's voice – is exactly as it should be. They offer a couple different options for the audio on the disc: the default is a 100%-true-to-the-theatrical-release mono 2.0 mix, though there's also a new 5.1 surround mix as well. Since I do not have a surround sound set-up I cannot judge the 5.1 mix, but I am perfectly happy to stick with the mono 2.0, as that is how the original sound design was engineered. Their remaster of the audio sounds great: the dialogue is very clean (except where the modest-budgeted nature of the shoot caused certain lines to be a little muffled – though no one can fix that now), the sound effects really pop, the music sounds excellent, and it is all mixed together brilliantly. Yes, the mono format has its inherent limitations, but that's just how it was recorded and mixed to begin with; Scream Factory has cleaned it up wonderfully, and it sounds as great as it possibly can while still keeping the authenticity they wanted.

The Breakfast Club: Class of 1984

Then there's the matter of the music: in all but one small case, the soundtrack is exactly as it was in theaters and on that original HBO/Thorn-EMI VHS. The punk songs used in The Return of the Living Dead aren't just background music: they make up the entire score to key scenes, and are one of the most defining aspects of the film's personality. To take away any of the music is to fundamentally change what the film is. That is exactly what MGM did, by replacing T.S.O.L.'s Nothing For You in the scene that introduces the story's punk characters, by drastically minimizing the use of Take A Walk by Tall Boys in one key chase sequence, and through other smaller changes as well. By finally securing the necessary music rights and putting all the right songs back in all the right places, Scream Factory has restored the film's musical backbone, a huge part of what makes it so original. However, they had to give fans one piece of disappointing news: despite their best efforts, one song – Deadbeat Dance by The Damned – proved impossible to secure the rights to. As far as I'm concerned this really isn't that huge a deal, though, since it is also the movie's oldest music-rights headache: as far back as the film's first VHS reissue in 1991, the studio found itself unable to reach a deal with The Damned's record label, so they instead brought the film's soundtrack producer back in to pick a suitable replacement by another early-1980s punk band. That's what we get once again on this blu-ray: not The Damned track that was originally there, but at least a period-appropriate and tonally-consistent song chosen by the producer who assembled the original soundtrack in the first place. Also considering the context of the song – it's playing in Suicide's car during a dialogue scene, and is strictly background music beneath a conversation – it is a perfectly forgivable change, given the circumstances. We're never going to see an American release with Deadbeat Dance back in it, so we honestly should just get over it and enjoy what an otherwise perfect package this restoration of the audio track is. Allowing for the replacement of that one song, and the natural limitations of the film's original mono sound mix, Scream Factory again hits it out of the park in terms of audio quality.

The Special Features:

"I need to be tied up so I don't spend all
my money on Scream Factory pre-orders!"
Get ready, because this is where the disc really makes a powerful impression. The amount of special features included on this two-disc set is absolutely staggering; I cannot think of another release that has both this volume and this quality in its delving behind the scenes. Scream Factory has ported over all the extras from the various MGM discs as well as including the individually-released full-length documentary, More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead, and they have also produced a whole bunch of new features exclusive to this release. All in all there are four audio commentaries, six featurettes in addition to the full-length doc, sit-down interviews with Dan O'Bannon and John Russo, and the first ever legal release of the often-bootlegged Return of the Living Dead workprint rough-cut. I don't think any other features could possibly be created to go any further in-depth. While the ported-over features and the More Brains! documentary will be nothing new to serious fans of the film, let's take a closer look at the new features that Scream Factory produced for this edition.

To start out with, there are two new audio commentaries: one features actors Thom Matthews (Freddy) and John Philbin (Chuck) as well as special effects artist Tony Gardner, and the other features film historians and “professional fans” Gary Smart (director of More Brains! and co-author of The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead) and Chris Griffiths (director of the Fright Night documentary You're So Cool, Brewster, and the Hellraiser documentary Leviathan). The actor and effects artist commentary is great: fast-paced and fun, with just the right combination of really interesting information conveyed in a very entertaining way. All three of the people involved worked on ROTLD as one of their first projects at the beginning of their careers, and it clearly had a big impact on their lives, allowing them to remember the production vividly and fondly. The three wax philosophical about the creativity, spontaneity, and in-the-moment energy that low-budget filmmaking inspires, and share fun stories about the comraderie they had as a cast, and which scenes were improvised due to this friendly acting environment. We find out which cast members were actual punks and which ones were preppy kids who had to learn to act hardcore (it's pretty much the opposite of what you'd expect), and we get the inside scoop about the volatile clashes between Dan O'Bannon and actor Clu Gulager. The other new commentary by the historians and fans is interesting, and provides some cool trivia (like how this was almost a Tobe Hooper film, until it conflicted with the production of Lifeforce), but being that the two guys didn't actually work on the film, I wound up enjoying the on-the-set stories from Matthews, Philbin, and Gardner quite a bit more. Add in the two older tracks – one with Dan O'Bannon, and one with production designer William Stout and actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Allan Trautman, and Beverly Randolph – and you have all the commentaries that any fan could want, and probably more than most have time to listen to.

"Mooooore Extras!"
Then there's the new featurettes: principally, two half-hour documentaries about the visual effects and the soundtrack. Both are quite in-depth, and extremely interesting. The featurette about the visual effects shows a very different side of the production than the fondly-remembered actor's commentary: it tells the tale of a very contentious and difficult shoot which saw grand visions clash with limited budgets, and saw one lead effects artist get fired halfway through after a series of clashes with Dan O'Bannon. Put together, these two perspectives on the production paint a very complex portrait of the late O'Bannon as an eccentric and sometimes very abrasive visionary who fostered improvisation and spontaneity among his actors, but was often unbending when it came to his very specific ideas for the film's aesthetic. The featurette about the movie's music is fascinating in a whole different way, chronicling the saga of how O'Bannon, in his desire to give the film a genuinely punk rock attitude, approached L.A.-based Enigma Records to channel the soul of the city's punk scene into the soundtrack. It deals with the large overlap between horror fandom and punk rock, and connects the film's cultural context to what was happening in independent music at that time. Fans of The Decline of Western Civilization will really enjoy seeing how it revisits that same scene, a couple years later. Members of pretty much every band on the soundtrack are interviewed, as well as other L.A. punks like The Circle Jerks' Greg Hetson, who champions both The Return of the Living Dead and Repo Man as having brought underground punk into the mainstream. Besides those two longer featurettes, there is also a brief tour of the locations used in the film. Not to mention the wealth of older featurettes and interviews from the MGM discs, and the two-hour More Brains! documentary.

The other very cool new inclusion in the Scream Factory set is the early workprint cut of the film, presented here legally for the first time. Bootlegs of the workprint have circulated for years, in various stages of poor quality as tapes were copied over and over, and eventually digitized through decidedly non-professional means. The version presented here is, relatively speaking, probably the best-quality that I've seen... but it's still a very smudgy VHS copy that was probably a couple duplications away from 1st-generation (it even starts with a text screen explaining that it looks pretty rough, but they dug around and it's the best they could find). Even in such quality, though, it is pretty interesting for fans to see: it's a bit over twenty minutes longer than the theatrical cut, and all of that time consists of small additions of dialogue here and there. None of the added dialogue changes the overall film, but it's nice for fans to see little extra bits of the characters we all know so well, as occasionally they do cast a scene in a slightly different light. It's important to note that this isn't some lost director's cut: O'Bannon had final-cut control over the film, so all the extra material here is stuff that he elected to remove, either for pacing or narrative reasons. As such, it gives some insights into his creative process as an editor, as we get to see how he streamlined the film into a finished product. Also interesting is that the workprint has an alternate epilogue; an entirely different voiceover from the one in the theatrical cut, which leaves things on a decidedly different note. It probably isn't something you'll watch more than once, but it's definitely worth a look, and I'm glad they included it. If nothing else, it's a great cherry on top of this almost ridiculously large mountain of special features. Scream Factory really pulled out all the stops on this one.

Overall, this collector's edition package of The Return of the Living Dead is absolutely stunning. I highly doubt that the transfer could look or sound any more excellent than it does; Scream Factory's restoration is as close to flawless as anyone could possibly get. In terms of special features, the release is equally stunning. With over twelve hours of extras in every form imaginable, they have left no stone unturned in giving us every detail they can about the production of this film. The features succeed resoundingly both in terms of information and entertainment, and fans will really enjoy the experience. I think it's safe to say that this is the most thorough, extensive release for a single film that Scream Factory has ever done, aside from maybe the three-disc limited edition of Nightbreed. Even more than that, this has got to be one of the most thorough and extensive collector's editions ever given to any genre film; it outranks most Criterion discs in terms of how much is crammed in. I would be shocked if anything can surpass this as the best horror blu-ray of 2016. It's a must-own.

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Total Score:

- Christopher S. Jordan