The Even More Essential Return Of the Living Dead (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Update: 3/29/16 - 6/24/16: Wow, Scream Factory has just released their fully loaded 2-blu-ray... definitive(?) release of Return Of the Living Dead, with all new features, a new transfer and more! And just to make things that little much more interesting, I've also gone back and added the original 2002 MGM DVD, which is interesting because it has an open matte fullscreen version. But mostly the big new thing is comparing Scream Factory's and Second Sight's blus.

Now let's talk Return Of the Living Dead. There are a bunch of Return of the Living Dead DVDs out there, but you can really boil it down to just a pair of essential discs. Even if you're serious about owning all of the special features and alternate versions, these are the only two releases you'll ever need. That exact pair has changed since wrote the first version of this post, but it still comes down to two releases.
Return Of the Living Dead is definitely in the running for best zombie film of all time. Dan O'Bannon brings a ton of wit and humor to the Romero-style zombie film, but it still works on a completely earnest, genuine horror level as well. In Return, the original Night Of the Living Dead film was based on a true story, and a pair of night shift employees at a medical supply warehouse have a couple of the zombie corpses in barrelled up in the basement. Of course, they wind up setting them loose, as well as reanimating all the bodies in a nearby cemetery where a gang of punk rockers - including Linnea Quigley in the role of a lifetime - are partying down.

This is just one of those situations where everything clicks. It's got a great cast, diverse cast headed by Clu Gulager which clearly benefited from an extended period of rehearsal before filming. Of course there's O'Bannon's clever writing, and thankfully this is one of his films where he really had the budget to see his vision all the way through (as opposed to Bleeders, where you really have to struggle to find the qualities of his material). It's got a great 80s rock soundtrack and top of the line special effects. It's a blast.
So Return Of the Living Dead's been released on DVD several times, including as part of a recalled 4-film set, because of some copyright issue with the movie Frogs. But that's a superfluous release anyway. MGM first put Return out on DVD in 2002, on a pretty respectable special edition flipper disc. It was widescreen on side A, had a director's commentary and a cool making of featurette, and even threw in an open-matte fullscreen version on the B-side. The only bummer of it was that a lot of the audio had been changed compared to the old Image laserdisc, from the effects on zombie voices (yes, they speak here; Return is the film that started the notion that zombies call out for "braaaaiiinnnss") to songs that couldn't be cleared. They released it again 2007, with the same transfer but all new extras, and that's one of the discs I'm holding up as essential here today. You could just as easily go with the HD blu-ray edition released as a combo pack in 2010 and repackaged as a single blu in 2011. But the reason I'm recommending the DVD is because it's basically just for the extras, so you might as well save a few bucks. Because to really get the full experience, you're going to have to import the definitive presentation of the film, Second Sight's 2012 blu-ray, which among good other things, finally reinstates the original audio track!

And of course, now we also have Scream's 2016 blu-ray. I remember before Scream even announced this disc, and people were just discussing the possibility of them putting out Scream in the USA. People were saying that, after Second Sight's definitive release with the original audio and all, Scream wouldn't be left with anything to add to the discussion unless they somehow dug up the old workprint version of the film. Well, Scream has dug up the old workprint version of the film. Check out movie-censorship.com for a detailed breakdown, but in short it has many instances of additional dialogue, alternate takes and even a different ending. Furthermore, they've also created an all-new transfer with a fresh 2k scan of the interpositive. And they've... mostly restored the original audio like Second Sight did. They couldn't clear one song, so like Second Sight, they have both audio tracks - the original and the revised - but Scream's original track isn't 100% restored, but it mostly is. So, okay, let's look at how all these varying transfers stack up.
1) MGM 2002 widescreen DVD 2) MGM 2002 fullscreen DVD 3) MGM 2007 DVD
4) Second Sight 2012 blu-ray 5) Scream Factory 2016 2k blu-ray 6) Scream Factory 2016 workprint blu-ray
[Note: there's no #6 in this first set of screenshots, because the
workprint doesn't include the close-up shots of the canister zombie.]
So you'll see there's not a vast difference between the Second Sight and all the MGMs. Return's always had roughly the same HD master since MGM's initial DVD, so in terms of transfer, it barely matters which edition you get. They're all sightly letterboxed to 1.85:1, anamorphic, non-interlaced, good looking editions, although the 2002 DVD's a bit more saturated and framed a sliver lower. Well, Second Sight's blu also has a super skinny sliver of extra vertical information on the top and bottom. The only really important distinction, of course, is that the blu-rays are in high definition, so they have better compression and clarity. So you do get that nice HD bump with the blus, there's absolutely no question of upscaling or anything like that. But otherwise, just in terms of what you see as the film plays, it doesn't matter which of the older editions you get.

But Scream blu does look noticeably different. It's pretty much the only shot in the first set of photos to stand out, because of the richer colors. You can see that in the second set of shots and throughout the movie, too. The colors are deeper, while the picture's a bit darker in some scenes and brighter in others... generally I'd describe it as a bit more intense and vibrant. And yes, the new 2k scan does yield a little more clarity.
Second Sight 2012 blu-ray left, Scream Factory 2016 blu-ray right
Grain really stands out here, where it got a little lost on the Second Sight blu. But more importantly, lines are more clearly defined and subtle detail is picked up. Looking at this close-up selection here, Casey's jewelry has a hazy, soft focus look on the older blu compared to Scream Factory's new transfer on the right. It's not as huge a difference as some discs we've looked at in the past - you're not going to suddenly see additional zombies in the background of shots or anything - but we do have a stronger image here.

Oh and meanwhile, both the 2002 DVD and the 2016 workprint are fullscreen. The 2002 DVD is open matte, so while it's in the incorrect aspect ratio, at least it's only guilty of showing you extra picture on the top and bottom, rather than losing anything on the sides. The same can't be said for the workprint, which is missing picture on all four sides, so can't be said to be a proper open matte transfer. But you don't watch the workprint version for the picture quality - it's also clearly duped from video tape, super soft and saturated, missing detail (the checkers have been erased off Chuck's jacket!) and I could go on. It's an Nth generation videotape dub that's just included for archival purposes, so we can see all the differences between it and the final edit.

What you hear, on the other hand, is a different story. Now, the DVDs just have your standard 2.0 stereo and mono tracks (plus French and Spanish dubs and optional English and Spanish subtitles), but Second Sight's blu-ray has a DTS 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 of the revised audio, and of course, it has an LPCM 2.0 track of the original, unedited audio as well. Disappointingly, however, it doesn't have subtitles. Scream Factory's about the same, with a DTS 5.1 and DTS 2.0 of the revised track, plus a DTS 2.0 of the mostly original audio. Scream Factory does also bring back English subtitles.
So, Second Sight's and Scream Factory's blu-rays are competing to be the definitive release of the film, with Second Sight still ahead in the audio department, but Scream leading in picture quality. But there are also a ton of great extras now that need to be taken into account. Now, the great thing about the 2007 DVD (and the 2010 blu-ray) from MGM, is that it includes all the extras from the original special edition as well as adding a bunch of new stuff. And the original extras are some of the most essential, because they were made while Dan O'Bannon could still participate. So he provides a solid, informative audio commentary track with production designer William Stout, and they both also appear on-camera in a good (and not too repetitive) featurette called Designing the Dead. These are great to have, and can never be replicated, so we want to hang on to those.

Then, MGM added a bunch of new stuff to their later editions, some of which is kind of silly and disposable. But there's some really good, value-adding content as well, so it only makes sense to go for the 2007 instead of the 2002. Firstly, there's the slightly controversial audio commentary. Stout returns, this time with cast members Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Beverly Randolph and Allan Trautman, who played the infamous Tarman. There's a weird little gimmick, where the sound of zombies enters the track, to supposedly remove cast members from the commentary when their characters are killed off on-screen, which the cast doesn't really cooperate with. You can't be mad at MGM for trying to add some fun to the proceedings, but it is kind of a dopey idea. Overall, it group is feels a little low on enthusiasm, but it's still worth the listen.

Still glowing nicely in 2016.
MGM also adds some other silly stuff, like an additional subtitle track that adds commentary by the zombie characters, and an easter egg for a second subtitle track, that supposedly shows their real thoughts. Again, it's not really giving you much, but it's at least nice to see someone at MGM trying to get into the spirit of things. More worthwhile, though, is a new featurette called Return of the Living Dead: The Dead Have Risen, which is an excellent and upbeat 20 minute piece with the cast giving on-camera interviews about their experiences on the film. And there's another featurette which comes from further out of left field, called The Decade of Darkness. It isn't really about Return Of the Living Dead, but just 80s horror in general. But it has some fun interviews with people like Stuart Gordon, John Landis, Joe Dante and Elvira, so you won't want to pass over it. It includes two trailers as well, and comes with a fold-out insert with detailed notes and a glow-in-the-dark slip cover, which is probably the neatest of this DVD's gimmicks.
Unfortunately, the Second Sight blu-ray doesn't have any of that. It doesn't have the original O'Bannon and Stout extras or the newer MGM ones. None of it. Well, except for the trailers. It has those. But it also has a nice collection of other stuff, that both rivals and compliments even the fuller MGM collection.

It's biggest weak point is that it doesn't feature any audio commentaries. That does make it feel a little incomplete. But on the other hand, it has the most comprehensive look at the film yet, the feature length (2-hour) documentary More Brains. This doc interviews everybody minus O'Bannon (except for a little vintage footage, which was nice) and covers everything about this film. Now, More Brains had already been released on a United States DVD as a stand-alone film in 2011, and that DVD had a lot of extras. Like with Best Worst Movie, I was initially worried those extras - essentially special features for a special feature - might be left out, but no, they're all here. And they're excellent, so that was really important. For one thing, it included 30-minute additional documentaries about Return Of the Living Dead 2 and Return of the Living Dead 3. There's a substantial, nearly 30-minute vintage interview with Dan O'Bannon, 15 minutes worth of additional interview footage/ deleted scenes from the doc, a cool feature visiting Return's original filming locations and extended interviews from the doc, with more anecdotes. Plus there's a silly Return Of the Living Dead in 3 Minutes piece and a newly filmed music video for one of the songs, which are more forgettable, but what the heck.

And Second Sight also put together some cool new stuff of their own. They've created three new featurettes, roughly 20 minutes each. One is an interview with John Russo about the original Night Of the Living Dead and the legacy of "Living Dead" films including Return. The second is about the film's soundtrack, including the head of the label and lead singer of one of the bands. That might be the only thing More Brains barely touched on, so it's a great inclusion. And finally, the third one is on the special effects, talking to Bill Munns, William Stout and Tony Gardner, including a lot of concept drawings and behind-the-scenes stills. And there's even more of those to be found in Second Sight's 20-page booklet. And their release is available in a limited edition steelbook [pictured at the top of this post] or standard case [right].
Speaking of limited editions, we've really got to dig into Scream Factory's new release, because they've essentially released this in three different sets. There's the standard version you can get from Amazon or anywhere, which includes the 2-disc set with reversible artwork and the Tarman slipcover [pictured above, left] shrinkwrapped inside. If you order it from Shout Factory directly, you also get the Tarman 18"x24" poster [pictured left, on the right-hand side]. BUT, you could also have pre-ordered the "Deluxe Limited Edition" direct from Shout, which includes both slipcovers [above] and both posters [left]. I personally was hoping they would have made one slip cover a hair bigger than the other, so you could slip one over the other, as opposed to having to store one separately. But that's not what they've done. The case can only wear one at a time, and the other one is shipped flat. Anyway, the Deluxe was limited to 1000 copies and has long since sold out, so if you want that now, you'll have to check EBay or bargain with another collector. There is no difference in disc content, however, in any of these versions. They all have the same extras and everything; the only distinctions are in posters and slipcovers.

So now let's get to the more important stuff, the actual features on the disc. Scream Factory has a whole second blu-ray disc just filled with extras, so there's a lot. First of all, everything from MGM is back in the picture. All the extras from the original DVD, including the commentary and featurettes, plus the newer commentary from MGM's reissues. It even has the silly "what the zombies are saying" subtitle track and alternate easter egg "what the zombies are thinking" track. So you can pretty much chuck your MGM discs now.
Scream also has a lot of what was on the Second Sight blu, including the complete More Brains doc, the O'Bannon interview, the Russo interview, the soundtrack featurette and the special effects featurette. But it's also missing some of the other features, like the More Brains deleted scenes, two half-hour segments on RotLD 2 & 3, the location featurette, the music video and the Return Of the Living Dead in 3 Minutes. It makes up for that, though, with some new, original special features. Of course there's the workprint, which we've discussed a little already. It runs an hour and forty-nine minutes, without any credits. It also features another terrific episode of Horror's Hallowed Grounds, where they explore the filming locations of the movie... so this sort of makes up for the loss of location featurette on Second Sight's blu, though both obviously would have been ideal. Scream Factory also includes two more, all new, audio commentaries: one by Gary Smart, who wrote a book on this movie, and one by actors Thom Mathews, John Philbin and effects artist Tony Gardner. And finally, Scream has added some additional TV spots and two stills galleries.

So, just to be clear, since it gets pretty confusing with each disc sharing some extras and keeping others exclusive, here's a color coded list of which blu-rays have which extras:
  • Audio commentary with Dan O'Bannon and William Stout 
  • Audio commentary with Stout, Dan Calfa, Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Allan Trautman and Beverly Randolph
  • Decade Of Darkness featurette
  • The Dead Have Risen featurette
  • Designing the Dead featurette
  • Zombies talking subtitle track
  • Zombies thinking subtitle track
  • Audio commentary with Thom Mathews, John Philbin and Tony Gardner 
  • Audio commentary with Gary Smart and moderator Chris Griffiths
  • The workprint
  • Horror's Hallowed Grounds
  • Stills galleries
  • TV spots
  • Trailers
  • More Brains feature-length documentary
  • The FX Of the Living Dead featurette
  • Party Time featurette
  • Dan O'Bannon interview
  • John A. Russo interview
  • More Brains deleted scenes
  • They Won’t Stay Dead, RotLD 2 doc
  • Love Beyond the Grave, RotLD 3 doc
  • Resurrected Settings featurette
  • Return of the Living Dead In 3 Minutes
  • Stacey Q music video
Blue = Scream Factory exclusive, Red = Second Sight exclusive, Purple = Second Sight & Scream Factory, Dark blue = MGM & Scream, Dark Purple = on all three
So, in short, the Scream Factory blu pretty much invalidates the MGM. But Second Sight and Scream both have a bunch of exclusive stuff, so you've got some tougher decisions there.
So wow, yeah. Scream Factory really brought the heat. Their new scan tops the old ones (which were all pretty equivalent), and they recovered at least almost all of the original audio track. Plus, they're the first to give us the workprint, all of MGM's extras (though I'll miss their glow-in-the dark slip), and a solid little batch of new ones. But, still, Second Sight is the only disc with 100% of the original audio, and it has a nice collection of unique extras, too. I imagine most fans will wind up going with the Scream set, with hardcore fans opting for both the Scream and Second Sight. They really compiled the most satisfying single package. So that's what I'm doing, personally, with the Second Sight blu just serving to plug the little holes. Of course, it's not impossible, or even all that unlikely, that another region will be able to license both the new 2k scan and the complete original audio down the road. Could we see an ultimate, perfectly definitive edition down the road, maybe from Australia, Germany or Japan? I wouldn't be surprised, but even then, they might not be able to get all these amazing extras, so we might always wind up with more than one Return Of the Living Dead release in our collections. But that's alright, because it's truly one of the great 80s horror films, so a double-dip is pretty reasonable.

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