Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Return of the Living Dead

By the time The Return of the Living Dead hit theaters in 1985, George Romero had already completed his original zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead).  What more was there to do or say about zombies?  Romero had set the standard for zombie gore (with the assistance of Tom Savini), tackled social commentary, and made some of the coolest depressing horror movies out there.  Who would have the balls to follow up Romero's series?  As it turns out, the co-writer of Night of the Living Dead, John Russo, that's who.  Apparently, he and Romero had argued over how to follow up their cult hit and came up with an interesting compromise; Romero's sequels would be "Blank of the Dead" and Russo's would be "Blank of the Living Dead."  Each series follows its own continuity, but neither contradicts the other; these are two very parallel realities.  Once I figured out who would follow up Romero's Dead pics, the question remained: how?  The answer is "with humor."

On Freddy's (Thom Mathews) first day working for the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse, he is being shown the ropes by Frank (James Karen).  Uneeda's main business comes from shipping corpses, skeletons, and similar dead things across the country.  As part of the natural order of breaking in the new guy, Frank decides to creep Freddy out.  Frank explains that the movie, Night of the Living Dead, is based on true events; the movie changed the facts to not get sued, of course, but the gist remained the same --- the dead were coming back to life.  How does Frank know all this?  Because the military accidentally shipped a barrel of the chemical (245 Trioxin) to Uneeda, and you can see an undead body inside.  Obviously, Freddy will need to see the barrel to believe any of this, so the two go down to the basement to check it out; sure enough, there is a metal barrel with military-looking words on the side, and a skeleton visible through the barrel's window.  So far, so good.  Frank then makes the fatal error of hitting the side of the barrel to demonstrate how sturdy it is, which causes a rupture and Frank and Freddy get hit with a heavy dose of gas.

From this point forward, you really don't need to know the specifics of the plot, but here's the gist.  The gas reanimates the dead, and these zombies don't resemble the classic film zombies.  They can run, speak, think, and you can't kill them by damaging the brain (or cutting off the head, or dismembering them, or...).  Freddy, Frank, and their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), manage to get the sole corpse in their freezer chopped up into little pieces, but the pieces are still writhing and dangerous.  Since Burt is friends with the mortician next door, Ernie (Don Calfa), they take the body parts over and eventually convince Ernie to cremate the SOB.  As soon as the ashes leave the crematorium chimney, though, they react with the clouds above and start an acid rain, which spreads Trioxin throughout the area --- and keep in mind that the area around a mortuary/crematorium is naturally going to be a graveyard.  Yes, there will be zombies a-plenty.
Sexy zombies

The first thing you will notice about The Return of the Living Dead is that it doesn't take itself seriously.  At all.  The characters are all fairly stupid and no one is particularly likable, so you are just waiting to see how each one dies.  And they die, early and often.  That is a far cry from the somber tenseness of George Romero's films, but it works surprisingly well.  This isn't a flat-out comedy with zombies in it, like Shaun of the Dead.  This is a horror movie that wants to revel in gore and special effects, but still have fun doing it.  You don't see movies like this made any more (with the possible exception of Black Sheep), and it was a welcome change from so many of the not-scary-but-not-fun horror movies I've watched this month.
Fact: eyeballs are the last things to rot

Even though they are all second rate actors, I enjoyed the cast of The Return of the Living Dead.  There are no good performances in this movie, but there were a many enjoyable ones.  The featured adults (James Karen, Clu Gulanger, and Don Calfa) weren't terribly exciting, but they served their purpose as authority figures.  Thom Mathews wasn't great, either, but it was fun seeing him slowly transition into a zombie.

It's called "range"
The rest of the cast was made up of young actors in various youthful costumes.  You could lump them all together as "punks," but it's probably more accurate to describe them as "victims of 80s fashion." 
These guys are the reason this movie is so enjoyable.  Each one is a poorly sketched and developed character, and each one is annoying in their own right.  They have names like Suicide, Trash, Spider, and Scuz.  Suicide hates everything, the guy with the leisure suit wants to get laid, and the girl punk, Trash (Linnea Quigley), just wants to party naked.  Seriously, she's naked (aside from her legwarmers) for all but the first few minutes of this movie --- definitely the most full nudity I have seen from any actor in any movie, including some pornos. 
One of only two clothed pictures I could find online
To give you an idea of the level of talent in this film, three of these actors (Mathews, Miguel A. Nunez, Jr., and Mark Venturini) were featured in the Friday the 13th series.  'Nuff said.

The special effects are actually pretty solid for being such a silly movie.  Of course, skeletons rising from the grave is goofy as all hell, and a lot of the recently dead didn't require much makeup, but there are a few awesome standouts. 
There is a lot of gore in this movie.  Bodies get slashed to pieces.  Brains get chewed.  Eyes get blinded by acid.  Fake blood is plentiful.  While certainly not realistic, the quantity and quality of the gore in this zombie movie cannot be knocked.

This is only one of two films directed by Dan O'Bannon, and I think he did a good job with what he was working with.  Of course, he radically rewrote John Russo's original script beyond the point of recognition, so he had complete control over what he had to work with.  Still, O'Bannon created a zombie movie that was markedly different in tone and internal logic from the Romero films.  That, alone, is an accomplishment.  The fact that he made watching people get torn apart genuinely entertaining is just icing on the cake.

If you are a huge fan of Romero's movies, The Return of the Living Dead might annoy you.  Zombies that can speak, plot, and run don't really make much sense.  I get that.  However, I don't care.  This is one of the few zombie movies out there that is jam-packed with action and doesn't take itself seriously.  For what it is --- a fun, utterly disposable horror flick --- it's pretty good.  It even has the distinguished honor of being the first film to feature zombies craving human brains.  Is this a classic?  I don't know if I'd go that far.  Aside from the naked chick and a couple of the zombies, nothing will really stick with you after you finish the movie.  On the other hand, I seriously doubt that this was intended to be a think piece.  Appreciate it for what it is.


  1. I could not agree with you more about the enjoyability of ROTLD, but I think you're "dead" wrong about the performances. If you don't think that James Karen is fuggin' pro after watching this, I question your taste in movies. He nails every single line he's given, absolutely knocks the hide off of them, with just the right amount of over-acting for a movie like this--it really impresses. One of the all time great horror movies. Script is golden, effects, everything...

  2. I'll keep an eye out for Karen's performance the next time I watch this. Sometimes it takes a few viewings to appreciate the actors in horror movies.

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  4. exlibrislarsen is right! Karen is absolutely awesome in this film, he was 100% a pro and had just completed Poltergeist before doing this film. I read that some of the lines they actually made up in rehearsals. To frame this film correctly, you also have to keep in mind the budget this film had, which was really low. It looks like a film that had a much larger budget than it actually had. As far as I know, this was also the very first film with running zombies (Nightmare City had them but they were supposed to be vampires). This film was definitely in a class by itself, it is a classic.