It’s hard to believe that the same year George A. Romero released Day of the Dead, the ultra-gory, ultra-bleak conclusion of the trilogy he began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, writer/director Dan O’Bannon was spinning Romero’s original classic into a totally new direction with The Return of the Living Dead. Whereas Romero’s film is dark and sober, Return is pure punk rock anarchy—a horror comedy that successfully manages to be equal parts horror and comedy while introducing one of the most significant elements into the zombie mythos since Romero first made them flesh-eaters 17 years earlier.

The film’s ingenious premise—which was “meta” before being meta was really a thing—is that the events of the original Night of the Living Dead really did take place and were covered up, with the zombies locked into airtight drums and left in the basement of a medical supply facility. Two hapless employees, Freddy and Frank (Thom Mathews of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives and the great James Karen), accidentally open one of the sealed containers, releasing a gas that reanimates the dead all over Louisville. When Freddy’s friends—a gang of punks and his straight-laced girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph)—arrive at the mortuary where Freddy and Frank brought one of the living dead to be destroyed, all hell breaks loose.

Having written scripts for Dark Star, Dead and Buried, and, most famously, Alien, Dan O’Bannon had a long history with genre films before making his directorial debut with The Return of the Living Dead (taking over directing duties from Tobe Hooper, who instead went off to make Lifeforce, written by—that’s right—Dan O’Bannon). He approaches the material with lunatic energy, reframing the once lumbering living dead into monsters that run and talk and hunger for braaaains.

Yes, The Return of the Living Dead is the film that introduces the concept of zombies eating brains, as explained in a particularly haunting scene in which a decomposed corpse is deposed and informs our heroes that consuming brains eases the pain of being dead. That’s just one memorable set piece and one memorable zombie in a movie full of them, whether it’s Yellow Man, Tarman, or a zombified Linnea Quigley. O’Bannon understands how horror movies work, deftly balancing big laughs with genuine horror. It’s a tonal mix that rarely works, but his decision to pivot away from the straightforward scares of Romero’s trilogy is what gives the film its own completely unique identity. Had this been just another Night of the Living Dead rip-off, there’s little chance we’d still be talking about it more than 30 years later.

Beyond the brilliant gags and gallows humor (there are few better lines in the history of horror than “send more cops…”), what gives The Return of the Living Dead such a lasting legacy is its characters. James Karen is the movie’s MVP, scoring many of the biggest laughs but also a surprising amount of pathos in his final moments—further evidence that for all of its absurdity and memorable gore, there is a beating heart at the movie’s center that gets the audience invested in the people trapped within this insane situation. The future Tommy Jarvis, Thom Mathews is sweet and stupid. Clu Gulager and Don Calfa are appropriately and hilariously befuddled, while the actors playing the punks each find a way to distinguish themselves either by being very funny (Mark Venturini), very likable (Miguel Nunez), or very naked (Linnea Quigley). There’s not a wasted role in the movie.

Despite having been previously released on both a special edition DVD and Blu-ray from MGM, Scream Factory’s new two-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Return of the Living Dead is quite nearly the definitive version fans have been waiting for. In addition to a gorgeous new 2K scan presented in 1080p HD, this new disc offers two audio options: the altered track presented on the previous MGM release (which mucks around with some of the voices and the audio) and, new to this version, the original theatrical audio that restores nearly everything to the way it was intended. There is, however, one exception; Scream Factory was unable to clear the rights for The Damned’s “Dead Beat Dance”, so that’s still altered from the theatrical release. The rest is as it should be.

It’s the collection of supplemental material that really makes this release of Return of the Living Dead so special. There are four— count them, four—audio commentaries, two of which come from previous releases and two that are new to this edition. Besides the commentary from O’Bannon and production designer William Stout, as well as a cast and crew track featuring Staut and stars Linnea Quigley, Don Calfa, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph, and Allan Trautman, there is a new commentary from actors Thom Mathews and John Philbin with makeup effects designer Tony Gardner, as well as a “fan” commentary from Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead author Gary Smart and Chris Griffiths, director of the documentary, You're So Cool, Brewster! The Story of Fright Night. Scream Factory has also included a “work print” version of the film, which contains almost half an hour of new material. The presentation isn’t great—it’s a full-frame transfer that looks to be sourced from an old VHS—but the fact that it’s included at all is to Scream Factory’s credit in making this the most complete edition of Return of the Living Dead that they could produce.

As if seven hours of commentaries and an alternate version of the feature isn’t enough, the second disc contains the feature-length documentary, More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead, previously available as a standalone release. Most of the surviving major participants are interviewed and cover the production from its origins as a script by John A. Russo to its completion. The interviews are surprisingly candid, with everyone being pretty open regarding controversies with the original effects designer (who was eventually let go) and their combative relationships with director O’Bannon and co-star Jewel Shepard.

Also included on the second disc are new featurettes on the music and the makeup effects, plus archival interviews with O’Bannon, Stout, Russo, members of the cast, and extras who played zombies. Previous extras ported over to this release include a featurette on ’80s horror movies, still galleries, trailers, and TV spots. A new installment of Sean Clark’s Horror’s Hallowed Grounds can be found on the second disc, in which Clark visits shooting locations from the movie.

A classic of the zombie genre and a truly influential horror comedy, The Return of the Living Dead does the unthinkable: it spins off George Romero’s untouchable trilogy and comes out with something wholly original and endlessly entertaining. There’s no way this movie should work, much less work as well as it does. It’s a movie with laughs. A movie with heart. A movie with braaaaains.

Movie Score: 4/5,  Disc Score: 4.5/5

  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on, and, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.