Blending humor and horror proved irresistible, with “Fright Night” becoming the year’s biggest horror hit.
The second Freddy Krueger installment, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” divided fans but was a hit anyway. George A. Romero’s “Day of the Dead” also opened, once again presenting zombies as a grim reminder of both humanities’ ultimate fate and a symbol of our inability to cope with death.
Then along comes “The Return of the Living Dead,” a welcome response to decades of deadly serious zombie films. The directorial debut of “Alien” and “Lifeforce” screenwriter Dan O’Bannon begins with a title card telling us everything we’re about to see is true. It planted a big smile on my face that lasted throughout the brisk 90 minutes.
Like “The Twilight Zone” or an especially icky issue of EC Comic’s “Tales From the Crypt,” it begins with a great opener. We meet two workers at a chemical factory. The older, more experienced one is Frank (character actor extraordinaire James Karen). He works alongside the youthful Freddy (Thom Matthews).
FAST FACT: Actor James Karen toiled for years as the avuncular spokesman for Pathmark supermarkets.
A casual conversation leads to a startling claim: the events of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” weren’t fictional. Frank reveals that, despite a few embellishments, that movie was a true story.
And “there’s this thing in the basement you gotta see”.
To reveal more would spoil the fun, as the story is a thin set-up for the gruesome events that follow. It’s worth noting that “The Return of the Living Dead” is strikingly similar to “Re-Animator” (released the same year). Both depict corpses coming back to life, have a distinctly comic tone that never winks at the audience and are determined to be as outrageous and boundary pushing as possible.
O’Bannon’s film is fun, gross and gleefully gratuitous.
If the cast didn’t play this deadly serious, it wouldn’t have worked. B-movie pros Karen and Clu Gulager approach the material with a straight face. Their work is both sincere and intentionally hilarious.
Matthews, who later starred in and stole the sixth “Friday the 13th” sequel, makes a great match for Karen. That’s particularly true as they ponder whether the toxic chemicals they’ve been exposed to is tied to their weird complexion.
O’Bannon’s movie portrays a group of punk rock teens, has punk rock music on the soundtrack and, like “Repo Man,” exudes the take-it-or-leave-it anarchy and posturing of that music genre.
The film works as a grisly comedy. As a cinematic extension of a movement (“You think this is a costume? This a way of life!”), it’s defiant attitude feels authentic. The characters eschew conformity, and so does the movie.
It practically gives a middle finger to censorship every chance it gets.
Few horror films organically stretched the boundaries of the R-rating as much as this one. The blending of comedy and gore reaches “South Park” levels of grotesque hilarity.
Leave it to The Scream Factory to release a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray that will leave fans of the film exhilarated and exhausted by the amount of extras. It took me days to get through all the goodies on “The Return Of The Living Dead [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray].”
Of the four commentaries, I enjoyed the one from the cast and crew the most. Only the Zapruder film has had so many individuals discuss a single movie!
Also recommended are the “Zombie Subtitles,” in which we now know what the brain-munching fiends are actually saying. Such hidden gems include “I’m reborn, muddy and naked!” and “You’re all mine, come to momma…yum yum, so good!”
Sean Clark’s always enjoyable “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” covers the film’s locations. Clark notes how the film’s naked graveyard dance sequence was shot in a woodsy area that is now a tight suburban neighborhood. “Party Time: The Music of the Dead” provides engaging interviews with the punk band members who contributed to the soundtrack.
Multiple behind the scenes documentaries reveal two consistent revelations: the cast had fun but O’Bannon was no picnic to work for. In the fact, “The F/X of the Dead” spends as much time explaining the wild creature effects as it does recounting how and why O’Bannon fired his original effects artist.
The best extras are the interviews with the late O’Bannon. His crusty but unguarded demeanor always makes for great sound bites. He acknowledges he was difficult to work for but expresses pride in the end result.
Bill Philputt produced the exceptional documentary “Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Lgeacy” and “His Name is Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th.” Included here is Philputt’s documentary, “More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead.” The feature reassembles the surviving filmmakers and cast for funny, tell-all anecdotes.
I recognized Philputt’s approach immediately: colorful animated transitional segments and the actors reading the introductions of the characters from the screenplay. Few horror filmmaker enthusiasts craft behind the scenes documentaries as skillfully as Philputt.
There’s also TV and theatrical trailers, photos and another documentary, “The Decade of Darkness,” which focuses on ’80s horror films (but only on MGM releases, like “Child’s Play.”). Some of the extras are carried over from a 2002 release. Many are fresh for this release.
Possibly the strangest addition included is the work print: minus the soundtrack, some sound effects and looking like a worn out VHS tape left in the sun too long. It’s such a fascinating artifact, revealing the movie in its barest, most unfinished form, I wound up watching the entire thing.
Zombie movies can be heavy handed in their subtext, grim in their tone and overwhelming in their bloodletting. “The Return Of The Living Dead [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” douses its audience with blood but does so with a fiendish smile and a playful reverence to the genre.
All together, now … “Brrrrraaaaaiiiinnnnsssss!”