The zombies in George A Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD were real. The filmmakers changed the end of their film to show the undead on their way to taking over the world: the truth is, the US army got them under control and contained them in airtight canisters. However, a "fuck up" resulted in the canisters getting lost in transit – and winding up in storage, in the basement of Pittsburgh’s Uneeda Medical Supplies warehouse.
Up until the eve of Independence Day in 1984, the zombies had been kept successfully hidden away. But then rookie Freddie (Thom Matthews) asked seasoned caretaker Bert (James Karen) what the weirdest thing he’d ever seen was – and Bert decided to take his protégé on a tour of Uneeda’s basement …
The green gas leaking from a canister split open by Bert’s playful slap; his and Freddie’s subsequent unwitting degeneration into fever, rigor mortis and then full brain-lusting zombiedom; Freddie’s oblivious punk pals, led by frustrated intellect Suicide (Mark Venturini), who unwisely choose the neighbouring cemetery as a place to party while waiting for their mate to finish his first day of work; cremator Ernie’s (Don Calfa) efforts to burn the re-animated body parts from the warehouse, resulting in their ashes falling down in the night’s rain and onto the nearby graves … all stuff I’d wager the vast majority of SGM readers are most familiar with.
For that reason, the film needs little more in the way of introduction.
Although, how could I not mention Bert’s climb into the furnace while "Burn the Flames" croons on the soundtrack? Or Trash’s (Linnea Quigley) graveyard dance, complete with a shaven haven misguidedly enforced by the pube-fearing MPAA?
Suffice it to say, this film – a genuine cult classic - has stood the test of time as a near-perfect slice of pure trashy entertainment. From the spirited performances (especially the older members of the cast, including a wonderfully sleazy turn from Clu Culager as warehouse owner Frank), through the superbly fitting punk rock soundtrack – The Cramps, The Tall Boys etc – and right down to the deftly handled balance of those two notoriously hard-to-get-right bedfellows, horror and humour. There’s very little not to like. Apart from, that is, the disappointingly compromised finale (an unfortunate budgetary necessity).
THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD made quite a splash on UK shores during its mid-80s release. A successful theatrical run was no doubt bolstered by front-page exposure in the likes of Sounds magazine, while the subsequent video release proved to be its real making. Be it the fantastic cover art provided by Graham Humphries (sadly not reproduced on any domestic release since), the fact that the film didn’t suffer censorial cuts like its same-year zombie cousins RE-ANIMATOR and DAY OF THE DEAD, or perhaps because fans initially felt let down by Romero’s third living dead instalment: Dan O’Bannon’s film was the most successful of all three.
It seems fitting then that it should be the UK who produce what stands as near to a definitive edition of the film as one could reasonably hope for.
Second Sight’s blu-ray presents the film uncut in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (those with the inclination can check online for confirmation from official sources – this IS the film’s intended aspect ratio).
Boasting a 1080p HD presentation, the transfer offers strong colours – vivid but not overly boosted – and a texture of light moving grain throughout that helps validate, along with the increased detail on offer, the restraint of the DNR employed.
It’s a while since I owned the US blu-ray disc so a back-to-back comparison isn’t possible, and my memory of that disc isn’t that great. But this does, to me, seem to be a definite step up: it’s the best I’ve ever seen the film look. Blacks hold up well with minimal issues of compression, flesh tones are natural looking … Minor specks during the opening titles sequence shouldn’t prove too distracting for viewers; nor should the occasional, source-natural softness.
Audio-wise? Well, this proves to be one of this release’s real coups. First off, PCM stereo 2.0 and DTS 5.1 mixes in the more widely available domestic audio track are nicely robust. No issues with them.
But it’s the inclusion of the film’s ORIGINAL theatrical audio track (withheld from release for years due to copyright issues), in a clear and consistent, clean PCM dual mono 2.0 mix, that will have the fans creaming. A little quieter (by a fraction) than the alternate track, admittedly, but it’s here and it sounds good. And who doesn’t want to hear The Damned playing in their rightful place during the film?
A visually arresting animated main menu page opens the disc, with The Cramps’ "Surfing Dead" playing over the nicely red-hued images. From there, pop-up menus include a scene-selection menu allowing access to the film via 24 chapters.
Extras begin with the brilliant 2-hour documentary "More Brains!". I’ve reviewed the US DVD release of this in some depth elsewhere on this site, so I’m reticent to repeat old ground here. However, it should go without saying that this is as fantastic an extra feature as a fan could hope for.
All surviving cast and crew members are up for well-edited and entertaining interviews, offering a superb mix of amusement and fascinating facts about the film’s genesis, shoot and legacy. Despite the sad lack of contribution from the late O’Bannon, it makes a perfect accompaniment to the main feature.
O’Bannon does feature in some of the extra footage also included as bonus features here. Essentially, all the extras that featured on the MORE BRAINS! DVD are included here … deleted footage, additional interviews, short featurettes on the sequels; it’s all good stuff (again, check the Reviews section on this site for more info on these extras).
If you want new extras, Second Sight are good enough to furnish us with three exclusive featurettes looking at aspects of the production that perhaps haven’t been given the attention they deserved in the past.
First up is "The Origins of the Living Dead", a 16-minute chat with John A Russo on what inspired him to write NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and how RETURN later came to fruition.
Then we get "FX of the Living Dead". Unsurprisingly, this offers a 21-minute reveal into the special effects concepts of RETURN. The likes of production designer William Stout and FX artist Bill Munns talk, interspersed with archive photographs and original storyboards, making this an engrossing watch.
As enjoyable as those two new featurettes are, however, my favourite is the 19-minute "Party Time". This explores the music of RETURN, and specifically 45 Grave’s sterling contribution. Dinah Cancer still looks good, a purple-haired MILF, while the old photos and stills from magazines are priceless. Great stuff.
Finally we get two original trailers for the film, both of which make for superb viewing. The first is 16x9, while the latter is window-boxed at 1.33:1.
Not included for review but also well worth a mention is the fact that the set comes in Steelbook packaging, and also features an exclusive new comic book.
Okay, so this release lacks the O’Bannon audio commentary from MGM’s US release. Hardcore fans may want to keep hold of that copy for completion. Either way, this release is utterly essential.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight Films|
|see main review|