“The Return of the Living Dead”
Stars: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa
Story: Rudolph J. Ricci, John Russo and Russ Streiner
Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon
Dir: Dan O’Bannon
Sorry, such an easy go-to for this entry. And if you are familiar with that phrase, it may have been your first introduction to zombies.
You see, in 1985, a highly-publicized horror film hit the screens. The TV spot and trailer featured an incredibly detailed, tar-covered skeleton with huge eyes barking “More, brains!” at the audience.
Obviously, that movie was “The Return of the Living Dead,” one of the best examples of how a horror film can achieve greater heights by capitalizing on a decent cast, simplistic, traditional effects, and a well-written and executed script. “ROTLD” is one of my personal all-time favorites. The film, despite it’s age, has held up incredibly well, and, while many die-hard horror film fans have issues with comedy mixed with their gore, this film is the gold-standard in how to do it right, as comedy and horror may seem like the odd couple, but, in capable hands, can mix like peanut butter and chocolate.
“ROTLD” starts off suggesting the audience should take it seriously, claiming the film was based on true events. Teenager Freddy (Thom Matthews, who would later battle the first appearance of “zombie” Jason Voorhees in “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” as Tommy Jarvis) is getting a tour of a medical supply building (Uneeda Medical Supplies), where he has just landed his first job. Frank (Karen) jokes with Freddy as they tour the facility on July 3, 1984; the boss, Bert (Gulager), has left to start his holiday weekend early. Frank decides to try and spook Freddy with a fantastic tale: That movie, “Night of the Living Dead” was based on a true incident.
As Frank explains, the military in the early 1960s used a chemical (trioxin) to spray on marijuana crops, and, while experimenting with it, they learned it had moderate reanimating effects on corpses, causing them to “jump around, as though they were alive,” Frank explains. According to Frank’s story, George Romero “stole” the idea and the military threatened to sue him if he told the true story, causing a young Romero to change his story around. Frank also tells Freddy that a couple of the containers holding the once reanimated corpses were shipped to Uneeda as a result of a “typical Army fuck-up.”
Frank takes Freddy into the basement, shows him the metal containers, and smacks the container holding one of the corpses, spewing a spray of the trioxin into Frank’s and Freddy’s faces, cueing the opening credits and a montage of what the trioxin can do.
Yes, all of what happened above happens in the film’s first seven minutes.
Cut to a serene scene several states away where a haggard military general comes home to his wife, checks into a computer console in his bedroom and then explains heatedly to his wife that they may never find the canisters they — the military — are actively searching.
The audience is introduced to Freddy’s friends, a group of jobless rag-tags that appear to be a mix of ’80s punk rocker, hipster and square (the square being Freddy’s seemingly token horror film virgin girlfriend, Tina). The group decides to party in the nearby cemetery, the appropriately named “Resurrection Cemetery,” to await the end of Freddy’s first shift at Uneeda. So, Tina, Trash, Suicide and the rest drink, play loud punkish music, strip and dance on graves (well, only Trash, played by scream queen Linnea Quigley) to pass the time.
Meanwhile, Frank and Freddy have called Bert back to work to survey the situation. Bert returns to find a container busted open, a cadaver screaming in the freezer, and Frank and Freddy getting increasingly more ill from the fumes they breathed. Thankfully, his mortician friend, Ernie (Get it? Bert and Ernie?) is next door working late in the morgue. And Ernie has access to a crematorium. So, chopping up the screaming cadaver (and a few other reanimated medical props) and burning them seem to be a way for Bert to save his business and contain the situation.
But, as the audience learned in the opening credit montage, those trioxin fumes have a way of escaping — and a convenient rainstorm brings those trioxin chemicals right back down to earth, and into the nearby cemetery, unleashing an assload of zombies from the grave.
Now, let’s discuss the zombies: They are fast, they talk, they are smart, and they only want brains. Well, there is a reason they only want brains. And I am not going to spoil this gem any further. Just go to Netflix and get it right now.
Just a couple notes before I wrap this one up: As I mentioned, the zombies run, and, yes, they move like track runners. They even trick their prey to bring their brains to them. So, my friends, I think the running-zombie debate should have begun 25 years ago, not in the last decade. Also, this film was written with the help of John Russo, a longtime Romero collaborator, and Dan O’Bannon, who is better known for his script for the stellar “Alien.” O’Bannon also shares directing duties with “ROTLD.”
If you are in the mood to be entertained, look no further than this excellent, funny and all out fun flick.
Romero Rules Followed: I give this one a pass for referencing Romero while making the zombies badass and fast; 4/5
Gore factor: Squirting arteries and munching brains are aplenty here.
Zombies or Wannabees? No hesitation: Zombies
Classic, fine, or waste of time: Top-10 of all time classic (I would even make a great argument for top five).
Additional comments: This movie still works as a blast of zombie-fueled entertainment. Plenty of gore, witty dialogue, great performances (James Karen and Don Calfa are particular stand-outs), and respect for source material make this a must have, not only to view, but to add to your collection and recommend to friends.
If you don’t enjoy this one, there is something wrong with your brains.