The current issue of Rue Morgue has a retrospective look at Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, just ahead of yet another DVD release (September 11). Over the course of the interview with O’Bannon, interviewer Dave Alexander asks the director how much he had to do with the new release. This is his response:
“None. It was a surprise, a shock, to me when I was informed they were putting out what they call a ‘director’s edition.’ It runs something like twenety minutes more than the version I shot. The film I shot and edited was 88 minutes. I hear they’re putting out a 117-minute version. Once this thing comes out, I’ll take a look at it […] and if they have tampered with it in a way that in my opinion hurts the film, then I will publicly abrogate it.”
Now, I haven’t had a chance to check out the disc myself, but from I’ve been able to glean, O’Bannon’s fears have not been realized – the film is not reportedly now running almost two hours. So we’ve had a near escape. But this brings me to today’s topic – the endless fiddling with movies, dropping in another scene here and there, or adding a whole swack more, for no good reason.
I suppose the rationale behind the obvious commercial impulse that drives this tinkering is the premise that if people really liked a movie, they’ll LOVE a whole lot more of it. This is well and good if we’re dealing with the likes of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films, whose theatrical releases were clearly truncated, and are much more satisfying in their extended versions – versions whose existence Jackson discussed at the time of the theatrical runs. But other such moves are far more counterproductive. Editing is not the same thing as censorship; it is an integral part of the creative process. It is patent nonsense to suggest that every exposed bit of film should be included in the final version of a film (there’s a reason we call them “cuts”). At 88 minutes, ROTLD is just right – a tight, fun, fast-moving horror comedy. At 117 minutes, it would have been hopelessly bloated. Its plot is not Citizen Kane’s, and there is no way it would have supported such a running length. Any comedy that ticks over the 90 minute mark is asking for trouble, seriously risking the draggy middle.
A couple of other troubling examples. A few years back, Alien was re-released theatrically, in a version that, fortunately, was not explicitly referred to as the “director’s cut.” Though Ridley Scott did agree the futz around a bit, putting some scenes in and taking others out, he was clear that the original version was the director’s cut, and the re-release’s inserted scenes, though interesting, almost invariably proved him right. The more notable ones – a shot of the Alien dangling over Brett a few minutes before it actually attacks, and Ripley’s flight from the ship being interrupted by her discovery of a cocooned Dallas and Brett – either reduced the suspense or hurt the pace of their respective scenes.
And then there’s the Grindhouse situation. Next week, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof hits the stores in a stand-alone release. As I said when I talked about Grindhouse’s theatrical release, this is a serious mistake. Is there anyone other than Tarantino himself who really wants to hear more endless blathering by characters who are increasingly less like human beings, and more like endlessly cloned variations of the director himself? His effort slammed the fun of Grindhouse to a halt (until it finally redeemed itself somewhat with its car chase finale), so how can even more be anything other than more of a grind.
Every so often, we get a glimpse of the unintended consequences of our beloved format.