“Do You Wanna Party?”
Back in 1985 I really detested zombie movies. I mean, really, really hated them. . They’re just undead cannibals, and people eating people has never been a fascinating horror trope for me. Today I’ve mellowed enough where I can like a zombie movie if the plot and characters strike me just the right way, but back then when I was sixteen zombie movies were nothing to get exited about. Up until then George Romero’s trilogy (Night, Dawn and Day) were the big boys on the block and his Day Of The Dead was hit theaters just a mere month before Dan O’Bannon’s redefining of the zombie sub-genre was about to strike us all upside the head.
Having a look at Fangoria’s index it appears this movie was talked about and covered to various degrees in quite few issues starting with #27, #29, #36, #40, #44, #48, #50, and #51. I didn’t know about it until issue #40. I remember reading the article but not caring anything about the movie. Then came the commercial. Still nothing, though did like the “Partytime” song. My only concrete memory of having to state my distaste for zombie flicks to anyone came when I was sleeping over Gerry’s (my best friend at the time) house, and I remember we and his brother, Tony, we walking to the next room, and I think I said something like ‘there weren’t any good movies coming out I wanted to see,’ and Tony said, “Don’t you wanna see Return Of The Living Dead?” and he started singing the “Partytime” song. I replied, “Are you kidding ?! I hate zombie movies.” I still can’t remember where we were walking to, only that this conversation happened on the way, and he was behind me, and I never felt so adamant about stating my hate for something. Strange how we remember such trivial memories sometimes.
Now we cut to roughly a year later when one night Return Of The Living Dead is scheduled to be on cable. I can’t tell you why I decided to watch it. Maybe, it was out of sheer curiosity, or maybe I heard on the grape vine in school it was good. I certainly cannot remember if Gerry went and saw it. He might have. There were times when he saw movies without inviting me, but at any rate there I was that night about to watch a zombie movie and what stunned me about it was that it was a black comedy. I never knew that. I think that actually helped in winning me over. After that night Return Of The Living Dead became my very first zombie movie I enjoyed! I’ve seen Romero’s zombie trilogy since then and sadly I’m still not a fan of his trilogy. Though I love Tom Savini’s 1990 remake. But Dan O’Bannon’s flick just hit me in all the right ways from beginning to end.
Speaking of beginnings let’s talk about the movie itself now, which transpires over one Friday night in July. The 3rd of July to be exact! The start of Independence Day weekend! But the festivities can’t begin just yet because it’s late Friday afternoon and there’s a new employee starting work at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky. The kid’s name is Freddy (Thom Matthews) and Frank (James Karen), the manager, is about to show him the ropes, how they fill their orders and what the warehouse sells. The owner of the company, Burt Wilson (Clu Gulager) is there too, introducing himself before he heads home. Looks like Freddy and Frank have the late shift. Sadly as the years went on I related more and more to this flick because when you don’t have any employable skills you generally end up doing warehouse work and that’s been my bread and butter for most of my life. But I’ve never filled orders for a medical supply company. That would have been fun, I think. During the course of this night Freddy asks Frank what’s the weirdest thing he’s seen working here, and Frank gives him an answer he definitely wasn’t expecting.
Good ol’ Frank tells him about these canisters that were mistakenly sent to them decades ago. He tells him about the Darrow Chemical Company’s creation of 245 Trioxin, and what this chemical accidentally did to the bodies in a morgue and that the Amy covered it all up, but a typical Army fuck sent three of those canisters to Burt’s company by accident and he’s had them stored in the basement ever since. Yeah, but what the fuck’s in them? Dead bodies! Dead bodies that weren’t so dead when some of that trioxin shit got into their systems! He also mentions Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968) was based on this little known incident of “cadaver walking,” but Romero rearranged all the facts so his movie looks nothing like what “really” happened. He then asks if he wants to have a look at them.
If they just left well enough alone everyone would be alive to enjoy the company barbecue Burt and Frank were planning on attending, but in their defense, if someone told me all that and offered to show me some dead bodies that used to be not so dead, yeah, I’d would have jumped at the chance too to have a look. And so the end of the world begins . . .
Freddy’s friends, Tina (Beverly Randolph), Spider (Miguel Núñez), Casey (Jewel Shepard), Chuck (John Philbin), Scuz (Brian Peck), Suicide (Mark Venturini) and Trash (Linnea Quigley), decide to wait for him to get off work before they all go and hang out. Incidentally Tina is Fred’s girlfriend. Across the street from the medical supply warehouse is the Resurrection Funeral Home, attached to that is Resurrection Cemetery and it’s the cemetery where they decide to kill time (pun intended).
The environment plays such a big role and it’s so expertly filmed you come away feeling the summer heat of the deep South (filmed in L.A. however). For a majority of the time most of the actors are covered in sweat and the film conveys that perfectly. The Thing (1982) is another great example of the environment being a major force. If I watch that one I’ll actually end up “feeling” the cold.
Down in the basement the inevitable is about to happen. Frank slaps the side of one of the canisters to show Freddy how sturdy they are and out shoots the trioxin gas. Both men are rendered unconscious, the corpse inside is freed and the gas seeps into the rest of the building reanimating the only cadaver they have in stock in the freezer. Once they regain consciousness Frank puts in a call to Burt informing him of their fuck up, which brings him down to the building. The main problem they have is contending with the dead guy in the freezer who now wants out!
“Get the bonesaw.”
This is where we get introduced to our next character crucial to this cult classic—Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa). He’s the mortician at the Resurrection Funeral Home and thank God he was working late this night, for Burt needs a big favor from him. They need him to dispose of the pieces of the dead guy from their freezer, pieces that are still moving! Whaaaat?! Romero redefined zombies with his movies and in his world they’re shamblers that crave human flesh, and anyone who dies is automatically returned to life as an undead cannibal. In O’Bannon’s world zombies are only made from exposure to the 245 trioxin. Soak a dead body in, gas it with the shit, and—voila!—a zombie is born! And these zombies don’t shamble around, they can run as fast as any live human can run. They also don’t crave human flesh, only human brains. Apparently the eating of a human brain relives them of the constant pain of being dead. It hurts to be dead. Who knew. And you can’t kill these zombies by shooting them in the head. Every ounce of dead tissue is alive, so knock off their head and the body keeps going, chop them up into pieces and those pieces keep wriggling. The only thing that can really kill them is fire, and Burt wants Ernie to burn up the dead guy pieces in his crematorium, which is what happens, but there’s a terrible side effect none of these characters could have foreseen. The burning of a trioxin infused body—that smoky residue that comes out of the Funeral Home’s chimney goes up into the clouds and when it rains it rains trioxin. Get the visual here? Trioxin is now raining down on Resurrection Cemetery and there are a bunch of kids still partying in it. The shit is going to escalate quickly here, my friends.
This when our two sets of characters finally join up. Running for their lives (Trash doesn’t make it, but good news, she comes back as a brain hungry naked zombie. Suicide goes down hard too, and so does Scuz later on) the kids separate in all directions. Spider, Scuz and Tina make it to the Funeral Home where Frank, Freddy, Burt and Ernie are dealing with potential zombies in the making. The blast of gas Freddy and Frank took in the face is now finally affecting them and its turning them into fucking brain-eaters, man! Another plus this movie has on its side is the terrific acting by all involved. Rarely do I see horror movies where fear and terror is confidently emoted, but here when the zombie shit hits the fan and the movie becomes horrific everyone acts convincingly terrified. And especial kudos to Matthews and Karen for their painful portrayal of what it must be like to die a slow, painful trioxin death as rigor mortis sets in.
To be honest I really wasn’t expecting that downbeat ending, but I don’t know any other way it could have ended. In the final act the zombies are now so numerous they’ve broken out of the cemetery and are now affecting the neighborhood, even the police are at a loss as to how to stop them, but Burt thinks calling the number on the side of the canister will help. Unfortunately the Army’s solution is to nuke Louisville, 20 blocks are destroyed, but how fitting is it that we see all that smoke going up into the clouds and coming back to earth in a hellstorm of rain?
It’s a bloody movie, but not Romero living dead bloody. The FX is pretty solid all the way through with the standouts being the now iconic “tarman” zombie that comes out of the canister and the rotted skeletal half woman brain-eater they capture, tie to the table and interrogate.
This movie was the beginning of a franchise. There are to date five sequels in existence and when I heard news of the first one being made I rejoiced, and I naturally assumed any sequel would be about a global pandemic of walking dead dudes, but they didn’t do that. Instead the inept motherfuckers remade the movie. I don’t know how else to describe Return Of The Living Dead Part II (1988). Despite all the cast members being killed off James Karen and Thom Matthews return, but are playing totally different characters. Okay, fine, I would have gotten on board with this, except Dan O’Bannon was not brought back and the movie suffers greatly because of it. I think there’s some connection to the first with the barrels of trioxin found, but that’s it. No mention of Louisville being nuked, or anything. It’s a seriously inferior flick. I haven’t seen it since the late 80s, so memory of particulars may not be spot on.
Now when Brian Yuzna decided he’d try his hand at making a third entry I got a little more optimistic and even though the only connection to the first flick is still the Army and the trioxin Return Of The Living Dead 3 (1993) is a solid sequel that focuses on two teenage lovers, one of them killed and then resurrected by the trioxin, and the horrible events that transpire. It’s a more contained flick.
I won’t even go into the vastly inferior (aka pieces of shit) Return Of The Living Dead: Necropolis (2005) and Return Of The Living Dead: Rave To The Grave (2005) made back-to-back. Again, I believe, the trioxin and the Army are the only linking material. I remember seeing both of these on the SyFy channel around the time they were made and cringing at how awful they were. I suppose it’s only matter of time now before someone adds either another sequel to the franchise or remakes it. I’m not opposed to either as long as quality is the order of the day.
Scream Factory’s (Shout!Factory’s genre sub-label) new blu (streeting July 19th; buy here on Amazon) is the third solo incarnation The Return Of The Living Dead has gotten here in the U.S. MGM are the owners and they first released it on DVD in 2002, followed by a special Edition DVD in 2007, then finally a blu-ray/DVD combo in 2010. It’s made appearances, I believe, in a couple of MGM sets over the years as well. Overseas Second Sight gave collectors what was then the definitive blu-ray, but Scream Factory has one-upped them with their new blu.
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 185:1 high definition widescreen—2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio. 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio—English subtitles only.
I understand MGM remixed the audio before it came to DVD, so the original audio has not been heard in a long time, though Second Sight’s UK release included it. Scream Factory has restored it too, but there was one song they couldn’t get clearance for—”Dead Beat Dance” by The Damned. The 5.1 remix the DVD world is mostly familiar with has been included too. I never acquired Second Sight’s blu so I cannot compare its transfer to Scream’s, but comparing their new 2K remaster to the past two DVDs MGM had out, which I did have, well, there’s no competition. That 2K remaster looks gorgeous! Sweat on faces really stands out now, so do colors!
Extras included . . .
- Audio Commentary With Gary Smart (Co-author Of The Complete History Of The Return Of The Living Dead) And Chris Griffiths (NEW)
- Audio Commentary With Actors Thom Mathews, John Philbin And Make-up Effects Artist Tony Gardner (NEW)
- Audio Commentary With Director Dan O’Bannon And Production Designer William Stout
- Audio Commentary With The Cast And Crew Featuring Production Designer William Stout And Actors Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, Allan Trautman
- The Decade Of Darkness – Featurette On ’80s Horror Films
- Theatrical Trailers
- TV Spots
- Still Gallery – Posters, Lobby Cards, Movie Stills And Behind-The-Scenes Photos
- Still Gallery – Behind-The-Scenes Photos From Special Make-up Effects Artist Kenny Myers’ Personal Collection
- Zombie Subtitles For The Film
- In Their Own Words – The Zombies Speak
- The FX Of The Living Dead With Production Designer William Stout, FX Make-up Artists William Munns, Tony Gardner, Kenny Myers And Craig Caton-Largnet, Visual Effects Artists Bret Mixon And Gene Warren Jr. And Actor Brian Peck (Expanded Version) (30 minutes) (NEW)
- Party Time: The Music Of The Return Of The Living Dead With Music Consultants Budd Carr And Steve Pross And Soundtrack Artists Dinah Cancer (45 Grave), Chris D (The Flesh Eaters), Roky Erickson, Karl Moet (SSQ), Joe Wood (T.S.O.L.), Mark Robertson (Tall Boys) Plus Musicians Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) And John Sox (The F.U.’s, Straw Dogs) (Expanded Version) (30 minutes) (NEW)
- HORROR’S HALLOWED GROUNDS – Revisiting The Locations Of The Film
- The Return Of The Living Dead Workprint – Includes 20 minutes Of Additional Footage (In Standard Definition) (NEW)
- More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead – The Definitive Documentary On The Return Of The Living Dead (120 minutes)
- A Conversation With Dan O’Bannon – His Final Interview (28 minutes)
- The Origins Of The Living Dead – An Interview With John A. Russo (16 minutes)
- The Return Of The Living Dead – The Dead Have Risen – Interviews With Cast Members Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Brian Peck, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley And More… (21 minutes)
- Designing The Dead – Interviews With Writer/Director Dan O’Bannon And Production Designer William Stout (15-minutes)
(Note: All the extras from the previous MGM DVDs have been ported over. The Second Sight blu had its own exclusive extras, but they weren’t ported over. In lieu of that Scream created exclusives of their own and those are denoted with a (NEW) next to them).
The workprint was something I was really interested in seeing since they cut out 20 minutes, but it’s visual quality in my opinion is unwatchable. There is a disclaimer Scream added informing the viewer they did look for a high quality print but couldn’t find one. If you can sit through it, more power to ya. I couldn’t.
The second big draw was the documentary More Brains! but it appears not all the doc was ported over. It was a separate production Shout had nothing to do with that came out in 2011. Checking out the extras on Amazon I see all talk of the sequels were left out. Makes sense, I guess. It’s still an excellent doc. On the plus side the core doc (covering the first flick) had now been blued. Buy it standalone and you can only get it as a DVD.
I can’t say for sure if this is the definitive edition of Return Of The Living Dead on blu. It feels like it, at least here in the U.S.