The Return of the Living Dead review
The Return of the Living Dead has become a staple in the horror genre for punkers and zombie fans alike, and its influence has spread in countless ways. It helped to define a new breed of zombie – the brain eater – rather than the shambling mindless dead of George A. Romero’s Living Dead franchise. It fueled many adolescents’ wet dreams thanks to a fully nude Linnea Quigley, albeit with a mold upon her pubis. It ushered a new horror icon into fans’ hearts with Tarman, the melting origin zombie. It also recapitulated the allure of EC Comics-era imagery, from its gothic locales to the humorous signs and decorations found throughout the film. But probably The Return of the Living Dead‘s most important contribution to horror was its interplay of terror, gore, and dark humor – a difficult combination to pull off, but director Dan O’Bannon manages to perfectly encapsulate how those elements go together like zombies and flesh.
The Return of the Living Dead is clearly influenced by the likes of Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s more military-tinged political commentary in both Dawn and Day, but O’Bannon’s film goes further than that. He’s stepping outside the norms of the zombie genre, because besides the rising from the grave and the eating people part, these zombies are completely different. Return‘s zombies seem to retain some semblance of their former human selves, recognizing their identities while fueled by an undying lust for human brains. In an iconic scene, our protagonists interview a woman’s torso, who explains the mechanism behind these walking dead: they feel they’re dead, they feel themselves rot, and only brains can stop the pain.
It’s a gruesome reveal that, despite the comedy, still manages to stick with the viewer. The zombies in O’Bannon’s film are constantly suffering, something that Night of the Living Dead never really mentioned. There’s a morbid science behind Return‘s zombies, especially when the film highlights Freddy (Thom Mathews) and Frank (James Karen) turning into the undead after exposing themselves to the 2-4-5 Trioxin; their change doesn’t happen immediately, nor is it painless, and ultimately the only thing that can end the pain is either a brain buffet or a suicidal conflagration.
Enough about zombie biology, though, because there’s a lot more to praise about Return of the Living Dead. O’Bannon keeps a keen eye on pacing, alternating early on between Freddy and Frank as they accidentally release the zombie virus after messing with an illicit government experiment and Freddy’s punk friends waiting for him to get out of work in the nearby cemetery. This allows Return to make the best of both scenarios. Freddy and Frank are a knock-out team, the Abbott and Costello of the 1980s – Karen in general is at the top of his game, eating up every scene with a shit-eating grin that wins the viewer over immediately.
The same is true for our punks, who fill up every scene they’re in with post-adolescent rebellion. I talked about Quigley’s Trash a little while ago, prancing around naked in just about every scene, but the rest of the group is full of memorable characters like Suicide (Mark Venturini), the hardcore guy who still respects the dead, or Tina (Beverly Randolph), who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd despite dating Freddy. The way Return is structured allows O’Bannon to jump back and forth between the two groups, with Freddy, Frank, and later Burt (Clu Gulager) attempting to sort through the mess they’ve made after meddling with government property and the punks partying it up to popular punk rock of the time. They all come together, too, a meeting of two unlikely cliques that amplifies the humor significantly.
The thing about Return is that it manages to maintain its Grand Guignol style while it jokes about the subject matter and, metacritically, the horror genre itself. The special effects really are solid for the budget, and O’Bannon’s film gets a lot of mileage out of its detailed settings. Combining that with the memorable characters makes for a hilarious time, with Gulager playing it straight and mortician Ernie (Don Calfa) adding odd quirks to the dynamic.
While on the surface The Return of the Living Dead seems like a brainless horror comedy, it is certainly steeped in the anarchy of its punk roots. The film is a clever indictment of government and military ineptitude; its sole military character, Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry), is a miserable mess of a man whose sole purpose is to wait for a call about 2-4-5 Trioxin’s release and then send out a nuke to cover up the whole mess. The film pokes fun at this, obviously, but it’s hard not to read this as a lack of faith in agencies meant to protect the country – who would rather kill everyone involved than deal with the situation before it becomes a national catastrophe.
The Return of the Living Dead isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination; its budget limitations are evident in some scenes, the aforementioned Colonel Glover is strangely absent except for a quick introduction at the beginning of the film, and the inanity of its plot won’t appeal to a certain kind of viewer. But those issues are easy to overlook because O’Bannon’s film is just so damn fun, and it’s important to appreciate how vital the film has been for the horror genre. Its energy and entertainment value never fail to revitalize the audience, and The Return of the Living Dead simply leaves one craving for even more brains.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.