Shadowvision: “RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD”
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
Aside from the experimental nature of Shadowvision, revisiting modern films in black-and-white can also present a fascinating hypothetical. Similar to the examination of PSYCHO II, this column allows the in-color sequels and remakes of black-and-white films to be viewed through a visually canonical color palette, adding a new dimension to the experience all together. And in specific cases, when the rest of the film doesn’t match up aesthetically, there’s an even more fascinating angle to the picture, even if it’s far beyond its intended presentation.
Before delving into RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD in black-and-white, a brief history lesson is required. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was developed by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD co-writer/editor John A. Russo and ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon as a direct sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, since the latter’s copyright claim to titles referring to “THE LIVING DEAD” fell to Russo. Despite the film being based on a novel from Russo which tied it further into the original mythos, O’Bannon essentially ran with a page-one rewrite. thus creating a film much more referential and satirical in nature.
Firstly, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD in black-and-white needs a little technical tinkering before jumping in. As per the film’s availability, you’ll likely be watching the altered Region 1 disc of RETURN, featuring a different soundtrack and vocal treatment for the “tarman” zombie (though if you can watch the original print seen on the 2012 UK release, more power to you). In terms of contrast, you’ll have to raise the levels about 25% higher, as to make up for the heavy grey during the exterior sequences, even though the lighting organically does much of the work for you. In doing so, you shouldn’t have to increase the brightness at all and the film will still look great in black-and-white.
That said, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is certainly fascinating in black-and-white, considering how traditional the film is in its horror as opposed to how subversive it is in its comedy. There’s a pulsating creepiness that precedes each shocking or terrorizing moment, which makes the black-and-white element all the more eerie and deserved. Coincidentally, this also makes the film more fun in its presentation, almost as if the film were playing as a lost “lifestyle danger” or “radiation scare” film fron the ’50s. In fact, if there’s anything that’s recognizably close to Romero’s original film, it would be in O’Bannon’s pacing and the rhythm of the dialogue scenes, even if they’re less tied to allegory and sociopolitical criticism as in NIGHT.
Visually however, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD never had the striking imagery or experimental camera angles of Romero’s NIGHT, outside something like the very creepy “homeless man attack.” As a result, the black-and-white is never too striking in the film, even if it does feel befitting of the subject matter. Since ROTLD feels so industrial and urban, whilst also being somewhat contained, the black-and-white translation even contributes to the films’ punk rock edge by presenting the subversive elements in the genre’s original visual parameters.
But there is admittedly a certain tonal loss in stripping RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD of its original color scheme. Whereas some aspects are given a curious spin, such as the colorful punk protagonists more resembling ’50s and ’60s films “greaser”-types, the bluish hue of the night is gone which ruins the fun, cartoonish nature of the visuals. Furthermore, the design of the zombies are also somewhat muted to a conventional pale-grey, which makes the film feel more generic during the zombie swarm sequences, even if O’Bannon’s strong writing is there to save the day.
Tony Gardner’s stunning special FX look just as good in black-and-white however. While the color of the zombies is now mostly gone, every gooey and disgusting detail feels all the more realistic when taken out of Jules Brenner’s slick and understated color palette. In fact, the “tarman” zombie actually looks genuinely frightening, as opposed to its goofier color counterpart, especially when paired with Allan Troutman’s unique physicality. And once Frank and Freddy start turning into the undead themselves, their transformation feels all the more natural, as their pale skin pops in each proceeding frame.
Still, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD never truly gels to the black-and-white experience, as there are too many culturally incompatible aesthetics. First, there’s the energetic punk rock soundtrack, which keeps the film from hitting classically nostalgic notes despite the efforts of the B-movie-inspired original instrumental score by Matt Clifford and Francis Haines. Second, outside of James Karen and Thom Matthews, the ensemble cast play their humor so dry and tied to O’Bannon’s dialogue that the film never goes into the paranoid or truly frightening territory that Romero established with the performances in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. And Dan O’Bannon’s direction is so entrusted in his crew and cast that the monochrome presentation never truly offers insight into O’Bannon’s visual or narrative influences.
While examining RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD in black-and-white was a worthwhile and interesting experiment, the experience doesn’t hold a candle to O’Bannon’s intended presentation. Between Brenner’s cinematography, Gardner’s SFX and O’Bannon’s visually-driven direction, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD works like a well-oiled machine in its original state. While certain aspects are punched-up in black and white, they off-set that otherwise perfect balance. And even if RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD could consider itself a sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, even in title alone, the two are so far from one another that it would take much more than black-and-white to tie them together.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: No.