|In Short:||Vastly underrated zombie comedy.|
|ZOMBIE:||Send… more… paramedics.|
In the dark of the night… something strange is going on. Something strange indeed. The film opens with a blurb about the events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations. Can you imagine reading that and not knowing if it’s true or not? Thinking to yourself, when the heck did this happen? You don’t want to ask your buddy next to you because you’re afraid you might look like an idiot. Let me ease your discomfort. The events portrayed in this film are as real as the true events portrayed in Fargo.
With a tagline that reads: “They’re back from the grave and they're ready to party”, one can easily deduce that The Return of the Living Dead isn’t out to terrify or set any new kind of standards in the genre. It’s a fun-filled flick with great characters, great special effects and talking zombies. How many films have you seen that actually have talking zombies?
When two employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release some deadly toxic gas into the air, it causes the dead to rise and go on a killing, brain-eating rampage. The script was originally written as a sequel to the godfather of all zombie films, Night of the Living Dead, but was later changed to a more humorous tone. It was actually written around the same time as Romero was writing Dawn of the Dead, but those changes delayed it for nearly a decade.
Return of the Living Dead takes a few liberties with the rules of the genre. Usually a blow to the head will take a zombie down, but here it’s not the case. In a hilarious scene we have a corpse that comes back to life, only to be struck in the head moments later with a pickaxe. That doesn’t stop him, so it’s decided to remove the head from the body. He keeps moving about headless, so they chop him up and incinerate him in a crematorium. The excuse they give the guy running the crematorium? Rabid weasels. This film is a rare commodity as it manages to perfectly blend dark humor with bloody gore.
It’s also rare in a horror film to have a batch of characters that you actually like and root for. Here we have not only one, but several characters that are hilarious and interesting. James Karen plays the hysterical medical warehouse manager, one of the guys responsible for the deadly gas being released. Don Calfa plays a mortician with delight and has excellent chemistry with both Karen and Clu Gulager, who plays Burt, the owner of the medical warehouse. Everyone in the cast manages to work well off each other and pull together fighting off the crazed zombies.
As mentioned before, the film puts a bit of its own spin on the zombie genre. Not only does decapitating them not stop them, but they are fast. 28 Days Later fast, and smart to boot. After eating a paramedic, one zombie grabs the radio and calls in for more. The make-up and special effects on these zombies are still, to this day, some of the best I’ve seen. Two stand out zombie characters are of course the Tar-Man (he’s the one trapped in the barrel and who gets released) and a female zombie with no torso. She manages to explain to the humans that it hurts being dead and they must eat brains in order to ease the pain. I actually like that explanation.
The film is pure 80’s camp nostalgia. Any fan of 80’s movies will surely love this one. The fashion, music, filmmaking style… all scream the decade. Matt Clifford gives us an upbeat score with just the right amount of cheese to make it sound punk/horror/comedic all in one. I’m listening to it right now as I write this review. The soundtrack matches the characters, as half of them are punk rock teens looking for a place to party and deciding to do so in a cemetery. It’s a logical choice.
If the name Dan O’Bannon sounds familiar to you, it might be because he co-wrote two films some people might have seen: Ridley Scott’s Alien and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, hear of them? O’Bannon unfortunately died in 2009, leaving us with only two films he directed. I wish he had his hand in the horror genre a bit more because he was very talented.
The film managed to spawn a few sequels, though I would advise everyone to simply steer clear of those and stick with the original. That’s the case with most films in a series and it holds true for this one. The Return of the Living Dead is pure hilarity and deserves more attention. Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead revived the genre, but they owe a lot of their magic to this flick. I’d call it underrated, but everyone who sees it loves it. So let me say that it needs to find a bigger audience.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the film doesn’t try to be terrifying or set new standards in the genre, yet it does exactly that. Several zombie films of today -- 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, Zombieland -- all have fast moving zombies, and the zombie effects here -- especially the blood and the gore -- are terrifying. All accomplished on a small budget, many accolades must go to Dan O’Bannon for creating a thrilling zombie comedy before the zombie comedy genre became popular.
The film is unique, absurd and I love it. And perhaps I forgot to mention the explosive ending?
-- Matthew Layden