The Return of the Living Dead (1985) Orion/Horror-Comedy RT: 91 minutes Rated R (graphic violence and gore, decaying corpses, language, nudity) Director: Dan O’Bannon Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon Music: Matt Clifford and Francis Haines Cinematography: Jules Brenner Release date: August 16, 1985 (US) Cast: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Miguel Nunez, Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Mark Venturini, Jonathan Terry, Cathleen Cordell, Allan Trautman, Drew Deighan, James Dalesandro. Box Office: $14.2 million (US)
Astrology buffs claim that good things happen when the planets are in perfect alignment. That same concept can be applied to movies. Amazing things happen when everything is in perfect alignment. I cite the horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead as a prime example. Rarely does a movie with so many great elements come together as perfectly as it does in this quasi-sequel/spoof of George A. Romero’s classic zombie flick Night of the Living Dead*. Right off the bat, you have a spoof that openly references its source within the first ten minutes. That’s just one of many cool things about The Return of the Living Dead, written and directed by Dan O’Bannon whose impressive list of credits includes Alien, Dead & Buried, Lifeforce and Total Recall. It also has a cool cast, lots of gory special effects, a soundtrack filled with punk rock and death metal, a good storyline and a perfect mix of scares and laughs. Horror movies don’t get better than this.
The opening titles inform us that The Return of the Living Dead is based on actual events and nothing has been changed to protect the innocent. We then go to a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, KY where Frank (Karen, Poltergeist) is training new employee Freddy (Matthews, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives) on his first day. Looking to impress the kid, Frank tells Freddy that Night of the Living Dead was based on truth and can prove it. The military tried to cover up an experiment gone horribly wrong (it caused reanimation in dead bodies) and barrels containing evidence of it accidentally ended up at the warehouse. They’ve been stored in the basement ever since. Frank accidentally causes one of them to leak the toxic gas 2-4-5 Trioxin and sets in motion a night of the living dead (yep, I said it!).
The gas brings a cadaver back to life and the two bumbling employees call warehouse owner Burt (Gulager, Nightmare on Elm Street 2) for help. They learn a hard lesson in zombie-ology when they discover that destroying the brain doesn’t kill a walking corpse. Neither does cutting off its head. Burt decides to dismember the corpse and take the parts to the mortuary across the street for cremation. Mortuary owner Ernie (Calfa, Weekend at Bernie’s) reluctantly agrees to help them. Naturally, that leads to something even worse. The toxic gas released from the burning of the remains mixes with the rain which causes the residents of a nearby cemetery to rise from their graves.
As is typical of the genre, a group of teens is partying in the cemetery when this happens. They’re friends of Freddy who got bored waiting for him to get off work so they decide to hang out in the cemetery until his shift ends. One of them is his girlfriend Tina (Randolph). The others are Suicide (Venturini, Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning), Spider (Nunez, Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning), Trash (Quigley, Silent Night, Deadly Night), Scuz (Peck, The Last American Virgin), Casey (Shepard, Hollywood Hot Tubs) and Chuck (Philbin, Children of the Corn). When the dead rise, it’s open season on the living!
The Return of the Living Dead is the movie that introduced the idea of zombies eating brains. It’s explained (by a captured half-corpse tied to a table) that it’s the only way to alleviate the pain of being dead. Speaking of which, that’s the state Frank and Freddy are gradually finding themselves in as a result of being exposed to the Trioxin. The paramedics on the scene are baffled that they can’t get a pulse or blood pressure reading, not to mention their body temperatures falling far below normal (70 degrees and falling). It’s Ernie that finally diagnoses them with a case of rigor mortis. It’s touches like this that make The Return of the Living Dead so much bloody fun.
For me, the most important element of a horror flick is gore. Such is the nature of a gorehound. We crave the red stuff as much as the zombies in The Return of the Living Dead crave gray matter. There’s plenty of both here. The zombies literally take bites out of the victims’ skulls and start chowing down. It’s wonderfully squishy and gross. The makeup effects are terrific. The rotting, decaying corpses are realistic looking yet comical. They look like something out of an EC comic book from the 50s. I like that they don’t run. Everybody knows that real zombies don’t run. They’re not supposed to talk either but in the context of The Return of the Living Dead, I’m willing to accept it. Besides, it’s funny to hear them groan “Brains!” and “Send more paramedics.”
O’Bannon understands both the source and the genre inside and out. He makes sure to goof on all the conventions including the stereotypical military guy, Colonel Glover (Terry, Halloween III), who’s been looking for the missing barrels for 15 years. When he finally receives the phone call (on his special line) he’s been waiting for, his calm demeanor as he handles the situation is a riot. Who knew there was a procedure for a zombie outbreak? It’s great! Karen and Matthews are both very good as the witless protagonists; the chemistry between them is strong. Gulager and Calfa are also good as Burt and Ernie which, according to O’Bannon, is NOT a reference to the characters on Sesame Street. He claims it was mere coincidence. I’m not sure I believe it but whatever, it’s still funny.
The soundtrack is a real winner. It includes cuts from The Cramps (“Surfin’ Dead”), The Flesh Eaters (“Eyes Without a Face”), The Damned (“Dead Beat Dance”), SSQ (“Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)) and the theme song “Partytime” by 45 Grave. It gives The Return of the Living Dead an anarchic feel. I like that O’Bannon gives us punk rockers instead of your typical everyday horny half-wit teens. I have to say that Quigley is especially sexy; she gets naked and dances provocatively to “Tonight” in the graveyard before the toxic rain falls. The Return of the Living Dead really is a cool movie. It’s funny and gross, silly and intelligent, scary and goofy. It’s just fun. It’s one of the best horror-comedies of the 80s which truly is a Golden Age of Horror.
*= The Return of the Living Dead opened in theaters a month after Romero’s Day of the Dead, the third movie in his Dead series.