December 14, 2010

The Return of the Living Dead (Review)

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Director: Dan O'Bannon

5 / 5 zedheads


In all my conversations with zombie fans, I've yet to meet someone who didn't like The Return of the Living Dead. If by some chance you don't like it, I don't want to hear about it. You must have an acquired brain injury or something. As far as I'm concerned, The Return of the Living Dead is a perfect blend of comedy and zombie action.

What if George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was based on true events, except the zombies were created not by radiation from a satellite but, instead, a chemical called 2-4-5 Trioxin? What if the government covered up the zombie outbreak by packing all the corpses into metal drums? That's the B-movie premise of Return of the Living Dead, based in name only on a book by Night co-writer John Russo. Dan O'Bannon's script, however, gave us one of the best zombie movies ever made.

After being rejected as a mascot for major cigarette and oil companies,
the Tarman finally found work in Hollywood.
In Return, we're introduced to Freddy (Thom Mathews) during his first day on the job at the Uneeda medical supply warehouse. Freddy and his supervisor Ernie (Don Calfa) accidentally open one of these misplaced Trioxin drums, which releases a noxious toxic chemical that reanimates the dead as fast, angry, and intelligent zombies motivated by an painful hunger for brains. When Ernie calls in the boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), to handle the situation, their decision to cremate the bodies sets off a dangerous environmental chemical reaction. The fumes turn to acid rain that falls on a nearby cemetery where Freddy's girlfriend (Beverly Randolph) and her punker pals (notably Trash played by Linnea Quigley and Spider played by Miguel Nunez) are partying. The acid rain raises the dead from their muddy graves, and soon zombies are running through the cemetery and the street, crashing through windows and doors, and luring humans into traps so they can crack open their skulls and eat their delicious brains.

Is it just me, or do the thigh high leg warmers make this picture extra sexy?
Until The Return of the Living Dead, zombies were generally presented in fiction as awkward, generic monsters to be dispatched and disposed of. Mostly, zombies were rigid and bland or, at the most, they were goofy stiffs. The Return of the Living Dead, however, turned the tables and presented zombies as anarchistic antiheroes for a young generation to cheer for. The film's poster, featuring a punk zombie spray painting on a tombstone, connected zombies with an appealing punk philosophy. With their ragged clothes, ugly faces, and rebellious attitudes, the zombies in Return of the Living Dead represented an aesthetic expression of rebellion and anti-establishment violence.
No, this isn't Tombs of the Blind Dead.
While the humans barricade themselves in a mortuary (a place you'd normally expect to find the dead), the dead are free to take over the streets (a place you'd expect to find the living). Because the zombies are quick, have personality, and are so energetically rebellious, the zombies -- zombie Trash, the yellow corpse, the Tarman -- become the stars of the film. Each is a classic zombie in its own right. You either want to kill the zombies or be the zombies, and The Return of the Living Dead  zombies certainly seem to have one hell of a time.
New on VH1: Zombie Rehab
The film swings along to a great soundtrack featuring campy '80s punk tunes by The Cramps, and SSQ. Like the zombies, the songs have become iconic aspects of the film so intertwined with the characters (especially SSQ's "Tonight (Make Love 'Till We Die)" that plays during Trash's glorious nude dance scene). The songs bring to mind scenes from the movie whenever I hear them.
We got dogs here! Get your dogs! Half-off!
I simply love this movie. The characters are fun and colourful. The zombies  are full of personality without losing their essential zombie natures. There's boobs, blood, butts, and brains. It's pretty much a perfect film from start to finish. Maybe it's nostalgia talking, but I feel that Return of the Living Dead has a fun comic book spirit that many modern zombie movies lack. It's pure entertainment, and let's leave it at that.

Stay tuned for the next two weeks as I review even more zombie classics as part of my Christmas countdown: THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE