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The Return of the Living Dead Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The Return of the Living Dead Review

    “You did what? You opened it? You stupid moron! You idiot! What's the matter with you Frank? Haven't I already told you never to even go near those goddamn tanks?!!!”

    MGM's back-catalogue cavalcade continues with The Return Of The Living Dead, 1985's twisted, death-punk, gate-crashing zombie black comedy that flung two generations of protagonists together and pitted them against a horror-horde of brain-guzzling dead-heads and began something of third official bite out of the genre's throat. We'd had the initial flurry of flesh-eating zombies with George Romero's immortal Night of The Living Dead and then Jorge Grau's far scarier The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (see BD review). Then Romero re-entered the fray with the epic Dawn Of The Dead, which opened the floodgates to a veritable tidal wave of offal from Italy from the likes of Lucio Fulci. Now, fast approaching the mid-eighties, and with special FX having taken a giant leap forwards, courtesy of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, a new breed of gore-technicians, all weaned on Tom Savini, Tom Burman and Dick Smith, and writers, with self-awareness and a mass of filmic references to fall back on and reinterpret, were about to stake their claim on a genre that, fittingly enough, refused to lay down and die.

    But the best of this new crop of post-modernist offerings would also tend to seek humour alongside the horror, lending the stories therein a brighter and more cavalier form. And none was more cavalier than Return Of The Living Dead, directed and co-written by Dan O' Bannon and adapted from a treatment by John Russo.

    “I thought you said if we destroyed the brain, it'd die!”

    “It worked in the movie!”

    “Well, it ain't working now, Frank!”

    Russo was the co-creator of Night Of Living Dead with George Romero, and he had always wanted to pursue the story despite some differences of opinion with the film's cult director. But he was able to retain the right to use the title “Living Dead” and he then spent several years concocting newer takes and variations of the form he and George first imagined as Night Of Anubis. He even wrote an altogether different story under the title Return Of The Living Dead, which was a direct follow-on to the original 1968 screenplay. Here, though, he joins forces with another acclaimed genre screenwriter who had been slightly burned by the industry, the often brittle and bitter Dan O’ Bannon. O’Bannon had started his career alongside John Carpenter, when the two of them took their student SF comedy Dark Star to the big screen and gained themselves some cult accolades. O’ Bannon even appeared in the film as hippy astronaut Pinback, who gets in serious lumber with their space-hopper/beach-ball alien pet. He would go on to supply the basic story and a couple of drafts for Ridley Scott’s Alien, although his pitch would allegedly be hijacked and credit for the film would also go, rather erroneously, to Walter Hill and David Giler. In retaliation, O’ Bannon would scribe Dead & Buried for Gary Sherman (see BD review) alongside another of Alien's creators, Ron Shusett, and this would lead to something of an upswing for him, giving him the impetus to helm this 80’s cult favourite as well as writing Blue Thunder for John Badham (have a look at the BD review for this too), Lifeforce for Tobe Hooper (can't wait to review this on BD please!), Invaders From Mars (also for Hooper) and Total Recall for Paul Verhoeven. A strange and idiosyncratic man, he nevertheless had the knack for concocting films of pure entertainment and had a clear affinity with horror and sci-fi. Sadly, he passed away in 2009.

    But what Dan O’ Bannon did to revolutionise and spike some hip mayhem into the rotting old mix was create a madcap, punked-up, cartoonic zom-com that enjoyed all the basic trappings of the genre – graveyard upheavals, beleaguered survivors barricading themselves in isolated places, characters succumbing to the ghoulish plague and turning on their friends etc – but he was savvy enough to add a few newfangled tweaks and to slyly acknowledge the film that had started the whole cannibal zombie boom going in the first place. By positing that what happened in Night Of The Living Dead was based on actual events that the military and since covered up and suppressed, he was able to pay his respects, twist the original concept around a little so as not to actually tread on anybody's toes, and start the decomposing ball rolling again in a fresh new direction and an altogether different style. He and Russo even approached George Romero to offer him an executive producing role, but received no reply. Romero was busy with the third chapter in his own celebrated Dead series. But with a genre that so readily devoured and then regurgitated itself over and over again, O' Bannon and co. were really on safe (burial) ground, despite the idea of a hush-hush military toxin having the side-effect of reanimating dead bodies and giving them a hideous craving for fresh brains to stave off “the pain of being dead”, as one returnee puts it when quizzed on the rather antisocial behaviour of the dead, baring something of a superficial resemblance to Romero's zombies-in-disguise flick, The Crazies (BD's for the original and the remake reviewed separately, folks!).

    Commencing like many a short story or one-off chiller-thriller episode, Return sees young Freddy Travis (Thom Matthews) on his first day working at the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse – an Aladdin's Cave of surgical appliances, experimental cadavers and skeletons, prosthetic limbs and anatomical oddities. And just like Ben Stiller's on-his-uppers character finding a major secret on his shift in Night At The Museum, Freddy learns from old-hand, Frank (James Karen) that there is something pretty darn creepy down in the basement. It seems that the military hid the cannisters containing the undead from their little, ahem, accident back in the sixties, down there … with instructions that they should never, ever be opened or spoken of. Well, you just know what is going to happen next, don't you? Unable to resist showing-off in front of the new boy, Frank foolishly slaps one of the grim looking kegs and the darn seal breaks, showering the pair of them with the pesky gas that the army had created. His very boast is what sets off the rebirth of the dead and transforms the borough into a war zone. When the pair come to they make the hideous discovery that the stiffs in the joint have woken up and, worst yet, what had been entombed in the tub has now escaped. In desperation, they call the boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), and the proverbial really hits the fan when the three of them attempt to undo the damage and literally all hell breaks loose. With Freddy's gang and girlfriend partying over in the cemetery across the street and some serious rumblings taking place below ground, it is going to take more than just a heavy rainstorm to clean up the ensuing bloodbath. Especially when that rainstorm is rather unhelpfully laced with more of that evil toxin.

    “It's weird. These people seem to say they've been waiting for this to happen. Apparently, they've got some sort of contingency plan to deal with it.”

    Oh, and you can really trust the Government, can't you, Burt?

    Comic-book, episodic and totally unfocussed, Return Of The Living Dead is also a complete hoot. Short and sharp and wholly determined to entertain, O' Bannon's knee-jerk, non-stop screenplay is both economic and extremely funny. It wastes absolutely no time in cutting to the chase and, against such otherwise formulaic odds, it actually establishes and develops its characters. Veteran actor, and star of a thousand TV shows, Clu Gulager, is terrific as Burt Wilson, the long-suffering and continually exasperated proprietor of the medical storehouse. Quick with an axe and quicker with a put-down, Gulager gives it his all in response to his character's predicament. His efforts to win over his old friend, Ernie (Don Calfa) the mortician working late in his mortuary in the middle of the cemetery, are charmingly schoolboy-like. After chopping up a renegade cadaver and finding, to their amplified terror, that even the individual parts remain aggressively alive, they have the inspired notion of Ernie cremating them. In return for this unorthodox procedure, Ernie insists that Burt owes him a big favour in one of many strangely Hawksian elements. But, anyway, Ernie and Burt, eh? Sesame Street or what? Apparently, O' Bannon had absolutely no idea of the comical connection, but it becomes just another one of those lovably goofy treasures in a film that is literally bulging with in-jokes, conscious or not.

    James Karen, though, is outstanding as the poor Frank Nellow and possibly steals the show during the first half of the film. Another familiar genre face, especially after his nefarious turn as the headstone-moving town-planner in Poltergeist and his US Marine commander in the remake of Invaders From Mars, Karen stakes a claim on Return with a performance that starts off over-the-top and just climbs higher from there. Once the gas hits him, Frank and Freddy begin to suffer from some rather suspicious and frightening side-effects. Whether screaming, crying or retching Karen is simply hysterical. His reactions to the ghastly things that they are forced to confront must have been a rare treat for an actor to breathe life into. Just listen to his tormented whimpering as he holds down a corpse as its head is sawn away from its body. His sweat-caked and frantic indecision during a couple of quirky encounters actually has you on the edge of your seat. And look how “into it” he is when foaming at the mouth and convulsing on the floor of the chapel. Some of this stuff is insane, but he is truly giving it one hundred and ten percent! But it is important to note that he is a powerful and intelligent enough performer to then be able to reel it all back in again for a later scene of unexpected poignancy. Karen would be back in 1988's Return Of The Living Dead Part II, albeit as a different character and to much lesser effect.

    And then there's Dan Calfa to complete the trio of goons.

    There's more than a few clues pointing towards a possible Nazi heritage for Calfa's awesome mortician, Ernie Kaltenbrunner. Not only does he have obvious Dr. Mengler stylings, but there is a picture of Eva Braun on the wall of his embalming room, a First World War German pickelhaube acting as a message-sticker on his desk, as well a satirical image of Goebbels breathing down Hitler's neck over a poker hand, and he is also armed with his trusty German Walther P38. Calfa has a ball with this role. Hair dyed alarmingly silver-grey, the orgiastic star of “10” becomes the most unlikely hero of the gaggle of survivors. Calfa's wacky bug-eyes are forced to work overtime when Burt and his steadily zombifying buddies arrive with some highly suspicious wriggling bags that they want him to burn, and some rather dubious explanations as to why. The actor is a master at terrific facial improvisation, his twitches very cartoonic, jittery and over-the-top. In fact, just watching all these guys together and ad-libbing through their most chaotic scenes is a joy. But Calfa ensures that Ernie is always a step ahead of his confederates. Well … maybe just half a step. He walks the perfect tightrope between deadly serious and uproarious farce. When Tina is reduced to a quivering wreck as a potential escape is cut off - “They left us!” - he is brilliantly earnest in his forceful reply, “They had to!” And I love the way he cottons-on to what is happening to Freddy and his voice becomes soft and suffused with doctorly concern … yet we can just about detect a smattering of that potential Nazi delight in what he sees around him. But it's that face every time and his pure improvisation – man, he just kills me.

    “Listen, there's a bunch of people from the cemetery who are stark, staring, mad, and they'll kill you and eat you if they catch you. It's like a disease. It's like rabies, only faster, a lot faster. That's why you've got to come and get us out of here now... right now!

    Look at the gang of boppers they have to join forces with, though. You’ve got Suicide, the death-metal punk of leather and attitude, and pierced left, right and centre, his showpiece bling a thick metal chain going from his ear to his lip. “What’ya think this is, a f*ckin' costume? It’s a way of life!” he informs Trash (cult scream-queen Linnea Quigley in one of her many, many sleazy horror roles, but certainly one of her most memorable), the gang’s punk-chic whore-witch with bright pink hair and a tendency to walk around completely naked. Shades of Mathilda May's space-vampiress in the O' Bannon scripted Lifeforce, there! These two cats clearly belong together. Then you’ve got Scuz (Brian Peck, who went out and got himself a fresh Mohawk haircut to help him land the part), who is also clearly part of the same radical fashion set as Suicide and Trash. But the crew then seems to branch out into what must be the only multi-ethnic, musically-diverse, open-house street-gang in LA. Jacked-up ponce Chuck (surfin' dude, John Philbin) geeks-away his time beneath one of those kill-on-sight floppy wedges, sucking-up to fuzzy Cyndi Lauper punkette Casey (Jewel Shepard, who went on to a successful stint as a writer on Premier). Familiar TV face Miguel A. Nunez Jnr.'s hip and athletic Spider struts about beneath a ghastly afro-mullet, saddled with an O' Bannon-prescribed trouser-truncheon bulging underneath his combats, and looks, for all the world, like a black Jeff Goldblum And whilst meathead high-school drop-out Freddy (Thom Matthews) plays at getting a job and, ahem, bettering himself at the medical depository, his fluffy pop-tart girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph), bedecked in the worst of the decade’s “cute” clobber, hangs out with them and banters with apple-pie sentimentality (“Oh fudge!”) whilst they encourage Trash in “taking off her clothes … again!” Huh? What’s a nice, ostensibly virginal mall-rat like her doing with this bunch of head-bangers? No-one in the gang even stops to question this wacky set-up. So … perhaps we shouldn’t either. O’Bannon is clearly just up for a laugh, his culture references lost amid the blood, the mud and the rain. As funny and well-portrayed as this mob are, they are still not a patch on their older compatriots, who simply rule every scene they are in. But then not even James Karen or Don Calfa could possibly compete with Quigley when she reveals her fantasy to Spider and then cavorts in-the-buff atop a big stone tomb!

    “One question, Frank ... this guy screaming in here... are you sure it's a dead cadaver?”

    “Why don't you open the door and find out?”

    Jules Brenner's cinematography is a melange of elaborate tricks – crane-shots, extended trackings with invisible cuts, and even the famed reverse-zoom – but he also takes O' Bannon's aesthetic on-board and shoots lots of group masters, which is, of course, perfect for comedy and impov – which this film abounds in. The visual style is often broad and somewhat static – just the actors doing their thing with no cutaways or closeups. In the cast and crew commentary, they make reference to this being a John Ford style, and this is actually quite correct. Being a contemporary and friend of John Carpenter – whose love for Westerns in legendary – is pretty much of an indication that O' Bannon knew exactly what was he doing and was, therefore, deliberately emulating this same laid-back ensemble approach of Ford's, which somehow makes the action all the more lavishly theatrical. And, funnily enough, there is also a final shot that is very reminiscent of Ford's pivotal scene in Stagecoach when John Carradine puts the gun to a maiden's head to save her from a similarly far worse situation. If you think about it, the constant attacks on the arriving paramedics and policemen - “Send … more … cops!” - is also a play on the Indians raiding the wagon-train.

    But what makes this film, as well as Stuart Gordon's excellent Re-Animator, really stand out from the zombie crowd is the all-too readily apparent vibrancy and lurid appeal of the infamous EC Comics, which would frequently boast gratuitously colour-drenched tableau of Grand Guignol, and a massively detailed approach to some of the undead. In Return, the Tar-man and the half-zombie, especially, are definite nods to titles like Tales From The Crypt and The Vault Of Horror, even going so far as to reference the great “Dead” artist Bernie (Swamp Thing) Wrightson. William Stout is very much the man to thank for all this redolence. His production design – he created the fabulous sets (most notably the Resurrection Cemetery with headstones bought from Universal's golden age of horror, the crematorium, the props and, especially, the look of the living dead, themselves – is simply wonderful. Having cut his teeth on the two Conan movies and been influenced and mentored by another highly acclaimed designer and illustrator, Ron Cobb from Star Wars and Alien fame, he brought a sort of anything-goes attitude to the production. The various comics that we see the characters of Scuz and some missile-toting soldier-boy reading are all created by Stout, as well. And since Dan O' Bannon was a terrific artist in his own right, the two of them found that they were working almost intuitively with one another. And with makeup effects engineered by the fresh talent of Tony Gardner (The Blob remake, Nightbreed, Army Of Darkness) were excellent, doubly so considering that he had rethink and design some of the concept is that a prior effects-man had bungled before being ousted. Whilst the “yellow-man” and the split-dog look a little too rubbery in some shots, his infamous half-zombie and the gelatinous Tar-man are absolutely splendid creations.

    More brains!”

    Mumbling haunted epithets about the plight of being dead after a slice of punk-brain has temporarily assuaged her infernal hunger, the half-corpse is strapped to an autopsy table and filmed in such a way that we can't help but admire the fantastic construction of its rotten green flesh-stippled bones, its spectral blue, unblinking eyes and crazy purplish hair, and, most icky of all, the dribbles of fluid issuing from a severed spinal cord that flops around like a bony tail. Awesome. But the piece-de-resistance is surely the Tar-man, as Spider christens the wretched, slop-bodied gloop-fiend that rises from those accursed toxic vats. Using stick-thin actor Allan Trautman (isn't his dad a Colonel in the Special Forces?) to suit-up in the bone 'n' jelly costume, this enthusiastic and cunning corpse moves like an eel on legs, his body contorting so ridiculously with each gangly step that you'd swear his top half is coming adrift from his lower half. David Emge's zombified Steven from Dawn Of The Dead is my favourite ever member of the living dead, but this guy is very possibly slipping 'n' sliding his way into second place.

    “Are you saying we're dead?

    “Obviously I didn't mean you were really dead. Dead people don't move around and talk ...”

    Wanna bet?

    The film went up against Romero’s own third entry in his Dead saga, Day Of The Dead, and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, providing gore-hungry audiences with a terrific fix of zombie-mayhem that year. Unsurprisingly, both the genre send-ups did considerably better at the box office than the serious one, providing all the thrills and chills and makeup effects that gore-hounds craved, but adding the sweetener of broad comedy and satire to the stew of grue. No-one is going to state that either of these two light-hearted blood-spillers are better than Romero’s bleak, apocalyptic vision, but they are both infinitely more fun to watch. The in-jokes are fun to spot too. From Will Stout's cameos and the message on the sight-chart to the names on the door of the crematorium furnace (Hill and Giler, if you hadn't spotted them!) and the inscriptions on the tombstones (R. Butler, S. O' Hara, Archibald Leach and Frances Gumm!) - the film enjoys a little warped inner-life of its own.

    Looking back on Return Of The Living Dead, it seems tailor-made for cult status. In fact, it is actually hard to believe that the cast and crew weren't immediately conscious of such a desire as they were making it. Everyone loves a zombie film. Re-Animator was a subversive and dark delight. Raimi's supernatural undead are durable icons too. We are all fans of Romero's cycle – pre Diary Of The Dead, of course – and we naturally adore the grunge of Fulci's gut-flingers, don't we? But there was something in Dan O' Bannon's curious little panto-shocker that struck a chord in audiences almost straight away. The characters were so different. We had the antisocial, that we were forced to bond with, and we had a trio of duffers who acted like The Three Stooges, bumbling and scrapping their way through it all, aware, from the get-go that they are the ones responsible for the whole damn mess. And the living dead? Well, these guys could run – and this was almost two decades before 28 Days Later thought it had rewritten the rules – plus they could use the radio to call for deliveries. It had copious and thoroughly gratuitous nudity. It had a fabulous soundtrack that included The Cramps and the unforgettable moment of Trash's mud-bath resurrection to the tune of “Make Love 'til We Die”. It had a couple of totally bewildered paramedics scratching their heads when it appeared that their active and talking patients were actually stone-cold dead. And it had a little stumpy zombie scuttling after his next victim in one of the genre's oddest-ever attacks. It was the Rocky Horror of the zombie boom!

    Return Of The Living Dead was, and still is, giddily gruesome fun that now seems to be deliberately mocking the era in which it was made. Which, of course, makes it sort of timeless. The sequels were, by and large, rubbish, but unlike that eerie half-corpse, this one still has legs.

    Very highly recommended.