From writer and director Dan O'Bannon, Return of the Living Dead remains one of the best zombie features that perfectly balances comedy and horror while also paying tribute to Romero's Dead films but leaps forward to do its own thing as a wildly entertaining and bonkers gorefest. Courtesy of Scream Factory, the cult horror comedy lumbers and sprints to 4K Ultra HD with a surprisingly outstanding Dolby Vision video but ports over the same trio of DTS-HD MA tracks and a treasure trove of bonus features. Overall, the three-disc UHD package makes for a Highly Recommended addition to the 4K horror collection.
Twenty years before Shaun of the Dead made audiences laugh at the sight of reanimated corpses, Return of the Living Dead paid tribute to the zombie horror craze created by George A. Romero's Dead films. The title alone is a loving salute to the original drive-in feature, and the production initially began as an adaptation of John A. Russo's book. Early on, filmmakers even acknowledge their inspiration, both as a "tip of the hat" to the seminal 1968 zombie classic and to cleverly address the apparent reference. That scene is a chat between Freddy (Thom Matthews) and his supervisor Frank (James Karen) wanting to scare the living poop out of the new guy. While finishing his first day on the job at the Uneeda medical supply where he works with cadavers, Frank tells the gullible kid that Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story about the 245-Trioxin gas leak in a hospital in Pittsburgh. In fact, they have one of the corpses in the basement, and he shows it to him when they are suddenly exposed to the gas themselves.
In the hands of director Dan O'Bannon, the mind behind Alien and Total Recall, the movie does more than simply swoon over Romero's films. In his directorial debut, O'Bannon pummels audiences with copious amounts of hilarity and slapstick, as well as buckets of gore and bloody carnage. He also gives genre fans sentient zombies that can talk, hunt as a pack and sprint at full speed. The only way to kill the corpses is to chop them up into little pieces and cremate the suckers. That is if you have an embalmer for a friend with an available crematorium. That, or just napalm the city and call it a day. Either way works, really. But rather than merely chalking this up as a horror comedy, this very awesome 80s gem of my youth is really all horror, full of some great freaky moments. Simply think of it as a bloodcurdling zombie feature with a twisted and ghoulish sense of humor — pathological even as the graphic violence seems endlessly hilarious.
As a first-time helmer, O'Bannon doesn't do anything that stands out visually. However, he's efficient and effective, and his talents really lay in the storytelling. His best moments behind the camera — as fans are sure to agree — are with Tarman (Allan Trautman) using a winch to break Tina (Beverly Randolph) out of a locker. Personally, I can't get enough of the cemetery scene. No, not the one with Trash (Linnea Quigley) dancing on top of a crypt. The one with the corpses rising from their graves as 45 Grave's "Partytime" suddenly blasts through the speakers. And the little person zombie is a great, bellyaching highlight. In the end, Return of the Living Dead is one of the best send-ups to Romero's Dead films ever devised, and it continues to generate laughs today.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Scream Factory brings Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead to 4K Ultra HD as a three-disc Collector's Edition combo pack. The Region Free, UHD100 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region A locked, BD50 copy on a center spindle while a second Region A locked, BD50 disc containing the rest of the bonus features sits on the opposing panel. All three discs are housed inside the standard black keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. At startup, the disc goes straight to a menu screen with the usual selection along the bottom of the screen and the top right side shows full-motion clips while music playing in the background.
The dead return to the living and swarm Ultra HD with a surprisingly outstanding and fantastic looking HEVC H.265 encode that was struck from a brand-new remaster of the original 35mm camera negatives. Granted, the picture quality won't immediately impress most casual viewers due to it looking a tad on the softer side, which is more the result of the film stock used and the original cinematography than any issues with the encoding. Nevertheless, this native 4K transfer offers a noticeable and very much welcomed uptick from its Blu-ray predecessor with several scenes looking sharp and highly detailed. Fine lines and objects reveal excellent textural definition, especially in the several close-ups of the oozing special effects of the walking dead. We can plainly make out every nook and cranny of Ernie's mortuary and the nearby cemetery.
The Dolby Vision HDR presentation also showcases an improved contrast balance and brighter, cleaner whites throughout, allowing for great clarity of the random items all over the warehouse and the silly pictures hanging on the mortuary walls. Specular highlights supply a crisp, radiant glow from the various light sources and a tight, narrow sparkle on the juicy, gory body parts. However, one area of very minor complaint would be the black levels, which are also an improvement, but there are a few instances of the finer details engulfed by the shadows, most notably when Tarman sees the gang of punks and says his infamous line. Thankfully, it's egregious enough to run the video's enjoyment, but it's worth noting nonetheless. Compared to its HD SDR counterpart, the overall palette is more vibrant and energetic with fuller, more sumptuous primaries and better, more spirited variation in the secondary hues, and facial complexions appear healthier with lifelike textures and a rosy-peachiness in the cast.
All in all, the colorful picture provides the grisly horror visuals with a warmer appeal that better suits the film's fun, comedic side, energizing the several action sequences with humor while the gore also looks grislier and gooier. Awash in a thin and consistent layer of natural film grain, the 1.85:1 image comes with an attractive film-like quality, making this cult zombie favorite the best it has ever looked on any home video format. (Dolby Vision HDR Video Rating: 88/100)
The dead sprint to 4K home theaters with the same three DTS-HD MA options as its Blu-ray predecessor: the original 2.0 mono soundtrack, a remastered 2.0 stereo version and a 5.1 surround upmix. As mentioned in that review, the original mono track is the overall winner, displaying a fuller and broader soundstage. In spite of being restrained to the center, imaging exhibits a better sense of presence with excellent detailing in the mid-range, providing every manic action sequence and the music with great clarity and a great deal of warmth. Low bass is accurate and responsive with appreciable weight during certain songs and scenes. For a more in-depth and thorough take on the audio quality, you can read our review of the 2016 Collector's Blu-ray Edition HERE. (Audio Rating: 82/100)
For this UHD edition, Scream Factory ports over the same treasure trove of bonus features as their 2016 Collector's Blu-ray release and spread across the two accompanying BD discs.
Blu-ray Disc One
Blu-ray Disc Two
Return of the Living Dead is one of the best zombie features balancing a perfect mix of comedy and horror. With Dan O'Bannon's rewrites and direction, the movie pays tribute to Romero's Dead films for starting the genre craze, but suddenly leaps forward to do its own thing as a wild and crazy gorefest. Courtesy of Scream Factory, the cult horror comedy lumbers and sprints to 4K Ultra HD with a surprisingly outstanding Dolby Vision HDR presentation that offers a notable improvement over its Blu-ray predecessors. Porting over the same trio of DTS-HD MA soundtracks and a treasure trove of bonus features, the three-disc UHD package is the best the zombie favorite has ever looked on any format and makes for a Highly Recommended addition to the 4K horror collection.
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