Starring: Clu Gulgar, James Karen, Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Miguel Nunez
Running Time: 91 minutes
Tagline: “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”
“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.”
Back in 1968, an independent film production out of Pittsburgh made a low-budget fright flick that delivered such a wallop to popular culture that its fingerprints can still be found on popular media decades later and the director’s very name was transformed into descriptive shorthand. You might’ve heard of it; it was this stark, mean little bugaboo of a film called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. To go into the exact whys and hows of what a shock to the system NIGHT was deserves a post all of its own, so we won’t go into that, but you can’t really discuss RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD without mentioning NIGHT because of how much the former film hangs over the latter. After all, RETURN was originally conceived as a direct sequel to NIGHT, based on a novel by NIGHT’s co-writer John Russo, who had won the legal right to create his own follow ups separate from Romero’s sequels. Russo had intended for the film adaptation of RETURN to kick off a franchise all of its own and well, that is what happened, it just did so without Russo.
This came about when ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon became attached to the project as both writer and eventually director, taking over from Tobe Hooper, and he was uncomfortable with how much the source material lifted wholesale from Romero. So, rather than proceed with what he perceived as a pale imitation he through out almost all of Russo’s material and refashioned the project into something of tongue-in-rotting-check tribute to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF DEAD . Now, when you hear the title RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, you don’t think of people caught between a crazed religious cult and a gang of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT-esque thugs with the dead rising to inconvenience everybody, do you? Heck no, what comes to mind is that poster up with the corpses sporting chains and mohawks, “The Surfin’ Dead” by the Cramps, and Linnea Quigley doing a striptease on top of a crypt. Much to Russo’s chagrin, I imagine, it would be O’Bannon’s version that would leave its mark – hungering for brains as a generally accepted Thing That Zombies Do originates here –and much like THE HOWLING, reduce the novel to little more than a footnote. (Amusingly enough, Russo would write the film’s novelization, which means there are two different books titled RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD by the same guy.) Give the film a watch and it’s easy to see why that is. Not only is it just a damn fine horror-comedy in its own right, like all good parodies, as much as it subverts and thumbs its nose at Romero’s blueprint, it understands the through line of his zombie fiction far better than any of his imitators.
We’re not even a few minutes in and RETURN is playing with our expectations. Yes, this is a sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, just not the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD we know. You see, Romero’s film was loosely based on actual events, where the test of a new chemical compound, 245-Trioxin, went awry, returning a morgue full of dead bodies to some semblance of life. The military hushed things up, threatening Romero with a lawsuit if he told what actually occurred, and sealed the reanimated corpses up tight in airtight tanks to be shipped off some undisclosed location. At least, that’s the story Uneeda medical supply warehouse manager Frank (James Karen) spins for Freddy (Thom Matthews), the new stockroom clerk, while closing up shop. How is it that Frank knows all this? Simple; due to what he describes as a “typical army fuck-up,” the tanks containing the corpses were shipped to the wrong address and for the past fourteen years have been sitting off in a corner in the basement of Uneeda Medical Supply. While Frank is showing off the tanks and their grisly contents to the rookie, Freddy asks if there’s any danger of the tanks leaking. Nothing to worry about, Frank assures him, these were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and gives the tank a good solid swat on the side. Cue leak.
Both Frank and Freddy get hit with a face full of 245-Trioxin and from there the gas makes its way into the ventilation system and out into the warehouse proper, where it reanimates anything dead it touches. This includes the butterflies pinned to boards, the split dog corpses used for veterinary schools, and of course, the human cadaver currently locked in the freezer. Realizing that things have going completely south on them, Freddy and Frank decide to call in their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager) for help. After reading Frank the profanity laden riot act for even going near those tanks, Burt decides the best course of action is to dispose everything and everyone keeps their mouths shut. Of course, to do that means letting that cadaver out of the freezer so they can kill it. That shouldn’t be too hard to do. Destroying the zombies’ brains worked in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, right? Well, as Freddy will astutely point out, the movie lied: the first attempt to kill the thing by bashing its skull in doesn’t take; the next results in the three of them having to chase a headless corpse around the warehouse. Whatever 245-Trioxin is, it creates a ghoul that is substantially more durable than anything that came after Ben and company in that farmhouse. Fortunately, Burt remembers that his friend Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa) works in the mortuary at the nearby funeral parlor and has access to a crematorium, which, needless to say, is looking like it would come in pretty handy right about now.
As all of this hilarity is going on, Freddy’s friends find themselves faced with a Friday night with nothing to do. This little group includes punk rockers Spider (Miguel Nunez), Scuzz (Brian Peck), Casey (Jewel Shepard), death-obsessed Trash (Linnea Quigley), and “one spooky motherfucker” Suicide (Mark Venturini), as well as hanger-on Chuck (John Philbin), and Freddy’s girlfriend Tina, who is such a Wholesome Girl Next Door, the type that says “oh fudge!” when frustrated, that I can only assume that she and Freddy have a VALLEY GIRL thing going. Eventually, the group comes to agreement that if anybody knows where the good times are to be had, it’s Freddy. Thing is Freddy doesn’t get off work for a couple of hours and nobody is happy with the idea of sitting outside Uneeda Medical Supply in the summer heat for that long. Scuzz makes the suggestion that they could kill time by fooling around in the nearby cemetery, which unbeknownst to them, happens to be at the back of the same funeral parlor where Freddy, Burt, and Frank are smuggling in the cadaver, now hacked into convenient pieces and stuffed into garbage bags. Burt’s cover story about being saddled with a bunch of rabid weasels that he needs to dispose of doesn’t go over so well, so he has to show Ernie what really is in those bags. Well, nearly getting your foot wrenched off by a still moving severed arm makes a fairly convincing argument. Into the furnace the cadaver goes and for a moment, it looks like the problem is solved. Except Freddy and Frank have been getting progressively more ill since their exposure to the gas and not to spoil things, there’s a reason that when they let that cadaver out of the freezer, it ignored them and went straight for Burt. Second, Tina has wandered over to Uneeda so she can meet up with Freddy when he gets off work and is attacked by a zombie that escaped from the drum that started this whole mess, a particularly nasty revenant that looks like a walking pile of bones and sludge. Finally, yeah, they burned up the cadaver but that smoke, saturated with 245-Trioxin, had to go somewhere. Somewhere, like say, into those passing storm clouds, where it triggers a sudden thunderstorm and torrential downpour, dumping several gallons of instant zombie juice right on the graveyard. Whoops.
With apologies to Uncle George, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD may be my single favorite zombie movie. It’s just so much thoroughly twisted fun, filled to the brim with wonderfully sick jokes and sight gags, a fantastic punk rock soundtrack, and top-notch make up and effects. For my money, you’d have to look to something like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON to find a movie that comes as close to working as effectively as both a comedy and a straight horror movie. And credit for much of what makes it work so magnificently has to go to Dan O’Bannon. Watching this film, you’d have a hard time believing that this was O’Bannon’s first rodeo as a director because he pulls it off with the skill and self-assurance that one expects from a seasoned professional. With help from William Stout’s excellent EC Comics influenced production design, O’Bannon manages the fairly difficult trick of giving the movie a visual look unique from other horror films being made at the time without actually calling attention to that. Furthermore, by giving his cast, a mix of veterans and talented newcomers, a longer than normal rehearsal period, the characters genuinely do come off as people who’ve known each other for years and are as much fun to watching simply hanging out together as they are being pursued by zombies. But as fantastic as his direction is – and it’s a crying shame that he would go on to only direct one more movie in his life: THE RESURRECTED, a fairly decent low budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s THE STRANGE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD – it’s his screenplay where he really shines. Not only is it quotable as all get out (“Ain’t you never been to a funeral?” “I never knew nobody that died!”) but it has all these great moments of the sort of bleak absurdity, horror, and humanity that comes from being trapped together in a situation where you are well and truly screwed. Sometimes all at once: take the scene where a zombified Freddy has Tina and Ernie trapped in an attic. A teenage girl hiding from her boyfriend who is calling to her to let him eat her brains is utterly ridiculous but you can’t deny that both Tina’s sheer terror and Ernie trying to work up the courage to deliver a mercy shot to the hysterical girl before Freddy breaks in comes across as completely believable.
It’s no wonder that O’Bannon “gets” Romero so well; the two men have such a similar world view. Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD before it, being an alpha male type or having the best intentions behind your actions doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make it to RETURN’s final reel and sacrifice and attempts to fix things can easily make things worse. There’s also the fact that while wildly different in execution – RETURN’s ghouls can be every bit as agile, strong and intelligent as a human being, as opposed to Romero’s shambling hordes -- both NIGHT and RETURN understand that what really makes the undead so terrifying is how pathetic they are. With Romero they’re recognizably human society slowly decaying into an identity-less mass while O’Bannon’s are amped up junkies – we learn from a captured one that ingesting brain endorphins is the only relief from the constant pain that comes with their existence as a rotting corpse – whose need for a fix is so all consuming it reduces them to animalistic savages. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Romero influenced zombie film if the whole notion of The Proper Authorities Are Not Your Friend didn’t rear its head at some point, as the military decides to let God sort ‘em out when finally implementing its contingency plan for dealing with a borderline indestructible zombie outbreak, a truly spectacular escalation of NIGHT’s own subversive ending. I mentioned Russo’s novelization of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD earlier and one of the truly baffling additions he made for the novelization was a framing story that casts the whole incident as the result of a conspiracy by Communist sympathizers to destabilize the
(!!) Obviously, it’s generally agreed by
anyone aware of this of what a wrongheaded decision that was because not only does it no damn sense from any logical
standpoint – why exactly don’t these fifth columnists just unleash the gas
themselves instead of leaving the tanks there in hopes that a couple of
knuckleheads will one day accidentally do so – but also illustrates how Russo
didn’t get what Romero was trying to say and O’Bannon did. In Romero’s movies,
the reason that the system fails so badly in fixing the problem is because
systems are inherently broken by design because people created them, people run
them, and people can be some seriously dumb and narrow minded sumbitches when
they put their mind to it. That’s part of the reason why leaving the domino
that started it all a “typical army fuck up” works better; a horrible tragedy
caused by the authorities’ incompetence and exacerbated by their willingness to
implement blunt solutions while showing casual disregard to collateral damage
and long term consequences to cover up their mistake is something I find a load
more believable and terrifying than some elaborate conspiracy waiting in the
shadows. United States
A Little Something Extra:
Oh come on...what else did you think I was going to throw in at the end of this review? This flick has got one of the best soundtracks in 80's horror and arguably, of all time: