The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Directed by: Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Mark Venturini
1/2 (out of 4)
The death punk genre which began in the late 1970s has a wide range of influences (Bobby Pickett, Alice Cooper, experimental/glam artists like Bowie and New York Dolls, early industrial, etc). Mixing in the elements of punk, goth rock, and psychobilly results in a soundtrack with an attitude well suited to campy/comedy-horror like Return of the Living Dead. It’s not a “punk” movie (like Repo Man or Suburbia, for example) but it does have punk sensibilities, like a party that gets so far out of control that the only solution is to wreck the whole place and start over. I give major props to Return of the Living Dead for taking its inspirations to the inevitable nihilistic conclusion.
One of the better non-Romero zombie movies out there, Return has an 8 minute pre-titles sequence that makes no attempt to hide its major influence – in fact, it comes right out and tells you about it. Frank (James Karen ) shows Freddy (Thom Mathews from Friday the 13th, Part 6) the ropes at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse, which is filled with various chemicals and cadavers, including split dogs, skeletons, fresh corpses in freezers. Frank tells Freddy a story about how an Army screw-up accidentally shipped containers to their warehouse that were filled with 2-4-5 Trioxin, a chemical that can reanimate the dead. George Romero was privy to this information, but had to take certain liberties with Night of the Living Dead so he wouldn’t get sued. (A nice joke at the very beginning tells us that everything that is about to happen is real). The movie takes a shot at the Army Corp of Engineers, as the tank soon springs a leak, knocking the duo unconscious and releasing the now-reanimated dead bodies into the wild. When our bumbling heroes come to, they panic and call in the boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), who quickly discovers that damaging the brain does nothing, and that even body parts when separated still move and twitch about. (“But it worked in the movie!” pleads Frank). Taking the body parts across the street to the funeral home with a crematorium (convenient!) run by Ernie (Don Calfa), who by the way listens to Panzer rollen in Afrika vor, owns a Walther P38, and has a a picture of Eva Braun, they convince him to burn everything (at first describing the bag contents as “rabid weasels”). Big mistake – the smoke mixes with rain which falls down upon nearby Resurrection Cemetery, bringing all the buried inhabitants to life.
The zombies in Return of the Living Dead run fast (predating 28 Days Later) and they don’t eat people – they eat brains. As one captured female zombie (missing her lower torso) describes – brains make the pain of being dead go away. In the meantime, Frank and Freddy aren’t feeling too well. Paramedics notice that their body temperature is the same as room temperature, they have no pulse, and rigor mortis seems to be setting in. Joined by members of a nearby gang (including Linnea Quigley as “Trash”, who runs around nude for most of the movie), our heroes must try to escape the hordes of hungry zombies and survive the night. It all adds up to a film that manages to perform successfully the difficult task of balancing comedy and horror, and it does this through slapstick, satire, and irony.
By planting its feet in Anytown, USA (Louisville, actually) and featuring protagonists that are either working class or disaffected youth, Return grounds itself in a kind of realism not normally applicable to the zombie genre. The victims in this movie do things that I might have done in such a situation, except nothing ever goes according to plan. Granted, though, that I would have called the number on the side of the Army canister right away – reputations of chemical and medical companies be damned – but I can understand why our warehouse employees might not have. There’s a palpable distrust of the military here (well, it was the Reagan era, after all), and one of the fine ironies of the piece is that Armageddon could have been avoided if they had called the proper authorities sooner. As it happens, the military enacts their fail-safe plan which I don’t believe is completely unrealistic, raising the movie’s value with me for not copping out.
There’s something very disturbing underneath the surface, too. When you’re done snickering at Frankie and Freddy’s incompetent but earnest attempts to put the zombies down, and laughing at zombie requests to “send more cops”, there’s the idea that life after death is nothing but suffering. Romero’s zombies just walk around while letting out the occasional moan. O’Bannon’s undead are just nerve-wracking. It’s also interesting to compare Freddy’s disintegration (ending with the desire to “consume” his girlfriend) with Frank’s solution (which is heartbreaking). The gore and makeup effects, while low budget, are very good here – one particularly nasty zombie is called “Tarman” and he’s suitably icky. The performances are also pretty good across the board, with the standouts being B-movie master Clu Gulager and Don Calfa’s performance as Ernie, which is perfect. Quigley’s “death” monologue and graveyard strip act is either completely gratuitous, or absolutely necessary, depending on how you look at it. Return of the Living Dead forces its death-obsessed punks to look it square in the face, and it wants us to ponder our own mortality while laughing into the abyss. It’s a perfect film for Halloween.
- Bill Gordon
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