The Return of the Living Dead is heavily steeped with classic 80’s Horror film prerequisites: clueless victims, bad fashion, heavy metal soundtrack, gratuitous nudity, and over-the-top gore – and though these traits also serve to date it a bit, this gem of a flick still stands up as a loving nod to George Romero’s Zombie legacy. It is perhaps among the first to embody the Horror Comedy hybrid so completely. A genre that has since become a norm with films like Shaun Of The Dead (2004) and Slither (2006).
Starting life as a story by former George Romero collaborator and writer John Russo, The Return of the Living Dead was written for screen by Dan O’Bannon – who also helmed the film as Director (reportedly after Tobe Hooper bowed out to make Lifeforce). O’Bannon decided to craft the film with a funnier touch and so a modern Horror classic was born. Dan O’Bannon is a rather iconic Horror/Sci Fi screenwriter, actually. Having penned such classic films as John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), Alien (1979), and Total Recall (1990).
The movie centers around a medical supply company and a mortuary at the end of a long street that leads to – wait for it… a cemetery.
We meet the young Freddy (Thom Mathews) on his first day working at the medical supply company. He’s shown the ropes by Frank (James Karen) who gives Freddy the grand tour of all the oddities like skeletons and half dogs and even a dead body for medical research. The two bond a bit and Frank gets to telling a story about how the classic zombie flick Night of the Living Dead (1968) was based on a true story. Freddy takes some convincing, but Frank explains how some of the story was twisted around. It was all really the result of a chemical the military had developed that reanimated the dead bodies. Frank furthers by revealing that they actually have one of the bodies in the basement in a canister. The result of a delivery mix up that was supposed to conceal the evidence so many years ago.
Naturally, they both go take a look.
It’s a great set-up and I find myself hooked every time I watch this movie. It’s unapologetically over-the-top in parts, plus there’s some truly terrific performances – and some good scares and laughs. James Karen and Thom Mathews make a great comedy team as their characters fall into weirder and weirder situations.
So, back to the basement… Freddy and Frank accidentally open the fore-mentioned zombie canister and are exposed to this weird green gas that makes them sick, but also makes some of the medical supply company’s life-challenged inhabitants, spring back to life. The two suddenly find themselves trying to gain control of a problem that clearly has gotten out of hand. The half dog starts yipping and moving, the body in the freezer suddenly wants out. A bit panicked, they call the boss (played by the incomparable Clu Gulager).
Now we have three grown men bashing and beating once-dead things with little affect. For, how can you kill what’s already dead? Chop it into pieces and all the pieces just keep coming at you.
So, the boss get’s the bright idea to burn “evidence” over at the mortuary. The guys make their way to the mortuary to ask the really big favor from the mortician, Ernie, played by Don Calfa (Foul Play , The Presidio , Weekend At Bernies ). Ernie’s a bit twitchy and quick to draw the gun holstered under his lab coat. Calfa gives a stand-out performance, actually, really getting into his character.
After some serious arm-twisting, Ernie helps them out by burning the remains, which is when the real fun begins. See, by burning the remains, they inadvertently release the strange toxic gas (the same green gas that re-animates the dead) into the air. Being right next to the cemetery and all, well, I don’t need to draw you a picture…
Meanwhile… Freddy’s girlfriend and a gang of her punk rocker friends turn up to meet Freddy when he’s done work. They have some time to kill and being young, brooding and badass, they opt to wait out the time with an impromptu party in the cemetery.
Like in all good zombie flicks, the final conflict has the whole gang of survivors barricading themselves in for one last stand against the waves of flesh-eating undead outside.
And what of these undead?
In recent years there’s been some controversy from horror aficionados over the original Romero-style creepy, slow-moving zombies versus the more recent trend of hyper-crazed, fast-moving zombies – such as the ones in the Resident Evil franchise. Whatever side of the fence you lean, this movie seems to have both. The more bumbling comic moments have the slower kind, but they’ll sprint to their victim when they least expect it as well. One particularly “comic” moment has a zombie devouring a medic in an ambulance, only to stop a moment and ask the radio dispatch to send more medics. Good times.
All in all, The Return of the Living Dead has a classic B-Movie sensibility and is a good bit of fun to watch. It spawned several sequels and continues to influence new generations of Horror filmmakers.