Japanese Title: Return My Gohan!!
Original Release Date: July 15, 1989
English Release Date: December 17, 1997 (Pioneer/Ocean Productions), May 31, 2005 (Funimation)
Directed by: Daisuke Nishio
Screenplay by: Takao Koyama
Running Time: 42 minutes
For the very fist Dragon Ball Z movie I feel like we need to do a little house-keeping before we get into it. When Pioneer tried to bring Dragon Ball Z to North America, they contracted Ocean Productions to dub the first 100 or so episodes as well as the first three movies. As a result of many re-runs on Cartoon Network, English speaking fans are likely pretty familiar with the first three films: Dead Zone, The World’s Strongest, and Tree of Might. The original dubs were edited and contained some odd choices in terms of translation, though Ocean at least hired quality talent. They held the rights to the films long after Funimation started dubbing the episodes Ocean never tackled, and once the rights expired Funimation went back and re-dubbed the first three films with their own cast that fans are now likely more familiar with. In doing so, they also inserted a new soundtrack that was okay, at least it didn’t utilize a bunch of awful licensed music like their dub of the OVAs, but I’m sure it was frustrating for fans of the Japanese dub. When Funimation re-mastered and re-released all of the movies in 2011 they wisely restored the Japanese soundtrack (though oddly they went with their generic butt-rock opening theme instead of “Cha-la Head Cha-la” for the English dub with Japanese BGM. If you want the original opening music you have to watch the full Japanese audio) while still including the US soundtrack for people who wanted it. There’s also the option to listen to the Japanese audio with subtitles, something that’s pretty much a given these days, but once upon a time was not a guaranteed feature.
Dead Zone, or Return My Gohan!!, is basically set before the events of Dragon Ball Z. If not for the fact that Master Roshi and co. are unaware of the existence of Gohan to start DBZ then this film could be shoe-horned into the canon. It features the villain Garlic Jr. (Chuck Huber), and if you’re wondering who Garlic Sr. is and concerned you may have forgotten about him – don’t worry, he’s never existed in Dragon Ball. The film was originally released theatrically in Japan right after the conclusion of the Raditz conflict, and grossed around 9 million USD. I don’t know if that performance was viewed as positive or not, but for comparison 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies is estimated to have grossed around 5 million, so it would seem this was pretty solid. Especially considering that Dead Zone is largely animated in the same manner as the anime series. There’s little in the way of extra flourishes, instead it just looks like Toei utilized their full budget and best team so it looks like one of the ‘A’ episodes of Dragon Ball Z. Stylistically, it also fits right-in with the style of the early episodes of the series with more curved lines and rounded musculature on the characters as opposed to the later, more straight-line heavy look of the series that’s likely the defining style of the show these days.
Dead Zone has a cold open, a trend for the films, and starts on Piccolo (Christopher Sabat) quietly training on his own before he’s accosted by some shady characters. They mention Kami and it’s obvious they want to eliminate not just Piccolo but also the Earth’s guardian. Unknown to them, apparently, is that both are linked to the Dragon Balls because the characters mention them as well. Piccolo is overwhelmed and apparently left for dead. We’re then taken to Goku’s house where Gohan (Stephanie Nadolny) is quietly studying in the woods nearby. When his mother Chi-Chi (Cynthia Cranz) calls him in, his Grandpa the Ox King (Kyle Hebert) pulls up and Gohan cheerfully greets him. The same shady characters that accosted Piccolo show up. They quickly dispatch the giant Ox King and Chi-Chi and make off with Gohan before Goku (Sean Schemmel) can return from fishing.
Our enemy is revealed to be Garlic Jr. and he has a gang of demonic looking underlings by the names of Ginger (Troy Baker), Nicky (Doug Burks), and Sansho (Eric Dillow). Garlic Jr. is collecting the Dragon Balls so that he may wish for eternal life. He also apparently has a score to settle with both Kami (Christopher Sabat) and Piccolo. The gang has kidnapped Gohan not because they have any interest in the boy, but because his hat bares the four-star Dragon Ball, as it does in the earliest episodes of the show. Garlic Jr. immediately notices the boy has hidden strength and decides to keep him on as a ward of sorts. When Gohan says his daddy Goku will rescue him, the gang is familiar with the name as Goku famously toppled Piccolo in the most recently completed World Martial Arts tournament.
Goku returns home to find his wife and father-in-law incapacitated, but Chi-Chi was able to tell him what happened. Goku then heads for Kame House where Bulma (Tiffany Volmer), Master Roshi (Mike McFarland), and Krillin (Sonny Strait) are hanging out. Goku needs Bulma’s dragon radar so he can track the Dragon Ball on Gohan’s hat to find his location. He retreves it, and Master Roshi gives him a warning to be careful as he takes off on the Flying Nimbus armed with his power pole to save his son. Along the way, he notices the tell-tale dark clouds forming in the sky indicating that all seven Dragon Balls have been united and Shenron, The Eternal Dragon, has been summoned.
Garlic Jr. is able to summon the dragon, and if you think one of the good guys is going to jump in just in time to prevent him from making his wish then you are mistaken. Garlic Jr. is granted immortality, and his path to ruler of the world appears clear. Goku shows up, unimpressed by the diminutive kidnapper and unafraid of his new power, and takes on all of Garlic’s fiends. Kami also arrives to challenge Garlic Jr. himself, the two apparently having a score to settle. Goku is overwhelmed by the multiple opponents, but luckily for him, Krillin apparently had followed him and shows up to help. Even more of a surprise for Goku, Piccolo comes strolling in and he too has an obvious score to settle (at this point in time, Goku and Piccolo are fierce rivals with Piccolo seeking to end Goku’s life) with Garlic Jr. and his gang.
With their combined might, a final showdown is imminent and we also get an explanation from Kami about why Garlic Jr. hates him. Apparently his father, Garlic Sr., was a rival to Kami when he sought the role of Guardian of Earth. Kami was granted the title, having bested Garlic in some sort of a trial, and enraged, Garlic tried to take the title by force. Being some sort of demon ruler, he summoned hordes of fiends to aid him but was beat back by Kami and his predecessor and sealed away for eternity, apparently in the place our film is titled after, The Dead Zone. Garlic Jr., therefore wants to avenge his father’s defeat while also usurping Kami. He transforms and goes from being a small, goblin-like creature to a massive one who towers over Piccolo and Goku. He also has a trump card he can play if things go wrong for he is capable of opening a portal to the Dead Zone that once trapped his dear old dad.
The final 20 minutes or so of this rather brief feature is mostly fighting, and it’s a lot of fun to witness this old style of DBZ combat. This is before Goku could even fly so the action is quick, but there’s none of that cheap “teleporting” combat that can be rather boring to watch. Garlic Jr.’s minions also have this neat ability to basically pull blades out of their anatomy. There’s some nice swordplay and dodging on display, as the action builds. By comparison though, the actual fight between Garlic Jr. and the duo of Piccolo and Goku is quite short. The ending is a bit odd, and it’s actually better explained later in the anime during the Garlic Jr. Saga (Garlic Jr. being the only movie enemy who got to make a jump into the main series as part of some of Toei’s continuity-busting filler), though the general way it unfolds is somewhat expected.
Dead Zone is a perfectly solid way to kick-off the Dragon Ball Z movie franchise. The story almost fits in with the series, and it’s kind of like an alternate way to introduce the character of Gohan and bridge Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. I like how it tries to kind of upend the status quo by having the villain very early in the picture actually make a wish for immortality. It’s one of those wishes that has been teased and will be teased numerous times in the show, but never feels like something that will actually be attained. Garlic Jr. is also fine as a villain, and it’s nice seeing Kami get a chance to do something since he’s mostly a background character in the anime. It’s guilty of relying a little too much on characters just popping in at the right time to help out, which will become overplayed eventually, but with characters capable of moving at the speed of sound it’s not as glaring an issue as it would be for other franchises. There’s also some nice, very Toriyama-like humor, with Gohan and the bad guys. It is impressive how well Toei is able to maintain the tone of the show without input from its author proving that the company does understand the material quite well. Goku is also less of a doofus and it’s kind of refreshing to see him actually get pretty angry when he finds Chi-Chi defeated and his son missing.
Overall, I enjoyed catching up with Dead Zone after not seeing it for many years. Having previously only seen the Ocean version, it was nice to see some scenes restored (like a funny urination joke) and hear that the dub works well. Dead Zone is available on Blu Ray as a two-pack with the second film, The World’s Strongest, or as part of a five-pack on DVD with movies 2-5. I watches this on the remastered DVD, and it definitely shows its age. The picture is grainy and there’s some film burns here and there as well. I find that aged look, as long as it’s done naturally, kind of charming so it doesn’t bother me. I never saw the HD transfer so that might be superior, but the five-pack can probably be had for 20 bucks or cheaper which is hard to beat. If you only ever saw it on Cartoon Network, it’s definitely worth a re-watch.