42nd Street Cinema

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

"Send...more...paramedics" Greetings fiends, at last I have returned to the horror blogosphere. Choosing an aptly titled film to discuss, Dan O'Bannon's classic The Return of the Living Dead. I'm hoping there are people who occasionally check my little corner of the net and are still interested in reading my reviews.

Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Jewel Shepard and Linnea Quigley.

Zombies, everybody loves them. The Return of the Living Dead along with Night of the Creeps (1986) and Night of the Comet (1984) is perhaps one of the most fun-filled zombie flicks knocking around.

At the time of writing this review I discovered that although penned and directed by Dan O'Bannon, Return of the Living Dead was originally a book, written in 1977 by John Russo - the co-writer of Romero's seminal undead film Night of the Living Dead (1968). I haven't read the book but according to what I've looked at online, Russo's story wasn't followed and the film is a separate entity.

The plot outline is pretty straight-forward; two bumbling medical supply warehouse workers accidentally crack open a military canister containing a 'frozen' zombie and a chemical known as Trioxin. Located just across from the warehouse is a cemetery, needless to say the chemical makes it into the atmosphere and is rained down onto the nearby graves. The dead begin to rise and an unfortunate group of punk kids find themselves caught up in the ensuing madness.

In all honesty, it's unsurprising that this film gained such a cult following over the years. There are so many unforgettable scenes, hilarious characters and a killer punk-rock soundtrack to boot. I still remember watching this for the very first time when I was much younger and I never quite liked it as much as the Romero set of 'dead' films. However, after a repeated viewing it steadily grew on me and has become a favourite. Though it easily could have been Quigley's notorious graveyard strip scene that eventually swayed me.

I do think my initial dislike was down to the 'speed' of the zombies, petty, I know. It was probably my first exposure to 'fast' zombies and in retrospect, I think my younger self overlooked or simply misunderstood the 'splatstick' humour and just took ROTLD for a 'cheesy old movie'. Not realising how self-aware and tongue-in-cheek it actually is. Unlike the Romero canon, you cannot take this seriously and in all fairness to O'Bannon, he obviously wanted to distance himself from the former's work.

The level of comedic detail maintains the film's overall light-tone; ranging from obvious puns, such as the names given to both the medical supply warehouse 'Uneeda' and local cemetery 'Resurrection Cemetery', to the more subtle in-jokes hidden in the background. One of which can be seen while Frank and Freddy are in the warehouse office, if you look closely in the background there is a sight-test poster which reads "Burt is a slave driver and a cheap son of a bitch who is going bald too haha".

In contrast to this lighthearted tone, there are a handful dark and spooky scenes. One that has remained embedded in my memory is just after the paramedics have evaluated Frank and Freddy's condition, one of the medics climbs into the front of their ambulance, switches on the headlights and illuminates a horde of the living dead. The camera then sharply cuts to a side-view of the cab and before the paramedic has time to think, the passenger door is wrenched open and a zombie leaps in. This scene always manages to get under my skin. I'm not sure why, but it just gives me chills the moment the door is yanked open.

Another scene I picked up on after re-watching is when Ernie (Calfa) and Freddy's girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) are hiding in the crawlspace above the mortuary from *SPOILERS SPOILERS* a now zombified Freddy. Calfa's character pulls out his gun and slowly aims it towards her head. His facial expression speaks volumes of fear, dread and disgust at what he is considering. Ultimately, the ending is considerably bleak too and not to mention a bit of an anticlimax.

I always quite liked the explanation Frank gives to Freddy about the origin of the canisters, notably the reference to NOTLD. As unlike films of today, which can make irritating references to other horror films simply for the sake of name dropping, à la Dead Snow/Død snø (2009), ROTLD manages to get away with linking itself to the Romero classic, without following any of it's traits - i.e. To kill the undead should be removing the head or destroying the brain, however that doesn't work here as the zombies in O'Bannon's picture are virtually unstoppable.

The Return of the Living Dead is a blast, with fantastic and memorable performances from each and every member of the cast. I think if I had to take my pick at who is my favourite character, it would be the short lived character of Suicide (Mark Venturini). His line to Trash (Quigley), "You think this is a fuckin' costume? This is a way of life." cracks me up every single time. His exaggerated line of "What the fuck?", upon discovering the zombie 'tarman' trying to break into a storage closet is an instant classic too and I'm quite surprised it hasn't been turned into an internet meme.

It would make a fantastic Halloween double-bill with Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps or even something like the Stephen King / Romero collaboration Creepshow (1982).


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Linnea Quigley (as the bird was in 1976 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

Nigel M said...

Great review Jim. Love it. Welcome back to blogging,

beedubelhue said...

Welcome back, Sunny Jim!

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Alex B. said...

I remember watching this on VHS for the first time, I think I had just turned fourteen. Yes, the cemetery striptease, and the Suicide dude, also the final nuke - amazing stuff! I think they used jump cuts very effectively, too.

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