Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: ‘More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead’

George Romero revolutionized the zombie flick with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. While transplanting zombies from Caribbean voodoo rituals to Middle America and transforming them from the brain-dead pawns of some nefarious witch doctor into a relentless mob of cannibals, Romero’s film also helped build the Midnight Movie phenomenon of the ‘70s. With 1978’s Dawn of the Dead he sharpened the political implications of his first film, almost making the zombie movie a respectable form of social satire. By the time he made the righteously anti-military Day of the Dead in 1985, finger waving threatened to devour the essential purpose of all zombie movies: a fun, scary time watching zombies eat people.

Almost exactly a month after the release of Day of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead co-screenwriter John Russo and Alien-writer Dan O’Bannon launched their own mutant sequel to Romero’s 1968 film. With its gore, comic booky zombie effects and color palette, groovy cast of misfits, ripping punk soundtrack, and wacko jokes (“Send more paramedics!”), The Return of the Living Dead set the zombie movie back to rights. Although it still secreted the anti-military, anti-chemical waste messages we’d come to expect from post-voodoo zombie movies, The Return of the Living Dead is above all else a chum-bucket overflowing with fun. A frothing cult following was inevitable, and 26 years down the road, fans are still rabid enough over The Return to warrant Bill Philputt’s new feature-length documentary, More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead.

All major surviving personnel are on board to talk honesty and affectionately about a film shoot that could be grueling helmed by a director who hadn’t quite refined his bedside manner yet. Beverly Randolph (Tina) recalls her first meeting with O’Bannon amidst his collection of handguns and porno and making a quick getaway. She discusses a cruel stunt in which the director did not warn her of a broken step in order to get a genuine reaction when she fell through it and was genuinely injured. Clu Gulager (Burt) talks about how he regularly clashed with O’Bannon, although he denies chasing the director with a bat even though every other cast member recalls seeing him do it. Everyone has fairly unkind things to say about the work of special effects artist William Munns, a good sport who appears in this doc even though he probably knew he wouldn’t exactly be praised in it. But for the most part, everyone seems to really love each other (well, except for Jewel “Casey” Shepard, who seems to revel in her outsider status). The cast and crew even have nice things to say about the late-O’Bannon despite his sadistic rep. The director’s final interview is included as an extra on this DVD, and his sweetness, honesty, and genuine affection for the movie’s fans is completely disarming.

Philputt made More Brains! with just as much love as O’Bannon’s cast and crew made The Return of the Living Dead. Crash Cunningham’s amazing E.C.-style artwork illustrates the more fanciful comments hilariously. Brian Peck (Scuz) does a terrific job as narrator. The DVD’s extras are all top-notch, including the aforementioned interview with O’Bannon, which rounds out the main documentary with greater details about the film’s soundtrack and a different perspective of all the rumors to which he’s been subjected since ‘85. There are also excellent featurettes on the two Return of the Living Dead sequels and some fascinating deleted scenes from the main documentary. Production designer William Stout’s disturbing story about researching crematoriums with O’Bannon is worth the price of admission alone!

Get More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead at Amazon.com here.
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