The Return of the Living Dead, the cult splatter outing written and directed by Dan O’Bannon (who is probably best known as the screen writer behind such infamous horror and sci-fi titles as Alien, Dead and Buried and Total Recall), is so mad in every way, that you can’t help but find the whole grotesquebusiness a total hoot. Widely considered to be amongst the best of the zombie films which saturated the horror market in the wake of George A. Romero’s infamous schlock-fests, The Return of the Living Dead is much more palatable, despite some marvellously gruesome effects, due to its tongue-in-cheek approach to its guts and gore subject.
Frank (James Karen) is showing his new assistant Freddy (Thom Matthews) the run of the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse, and explaining how things work. In the basement they come across some barrels of toxic waste, belonging to a military experiement, which have inexplicably ended up being stored at the warehouse. Whilst looking at the barrels they accidentally open one releasing a noxious gas which re-animates one of the corpses kept at the warehouse to supply hospitals and universities for their research experiements. In desperation, and with the help of Uneeda’s owner Burt Wilson (Clu Gulager), Frank and Freddy manage to dismember the corpse then take the parts to a local funeral parlour, where the mortician Ernie (Don Calfa) agrees to help them incinerate the remains in the crematorium. Unbeknownst to them the ashes of the body are disperesed in the smoke from the crematorium’s chimneys over a neighbouring cemetry, where a group of Freddy’s friends are having an impromptu rave-up whilst waiting for him to finish his shift. As the contaminated smoke settles it has a bizarre effect on the graveyard’s dead inhabitants, heralding a night of unforgettable terror for Freddy and his friends.
What a frenzied and grisly delight The Return of the Living Dead is. Eschewing the more serious approach (if the subject of re-animated, flesh eating corpses could ever be taken seriously) of other entries in this popular sub-section of horror, this film wins because everything about it is so over-the-top. Though the effects are toe curlingly realistic (the infamous scene in which you hear one unfortunate victim’s skull crunch as a zombie chows on his grey matter being particularly memorable), it is all with done with such a humourous approach that you never feel nauseated or scared – just mildly queasy and shocked.
The whole production is memoarbaly atmospheric – in particualr the graveyard setting where the ground spews forth its reanimated corpses during the storm lashed climax – whilst the survivor’s manic attempts to escape the bone crunching zombie hoardes as they are besieged in the funeral parlour only adds the the film’s overall air of surreality. Horror and 1980’s kitsch aside, the other aspect which makes the film stand out is its witty and clever dialogue. Take for instance the scene where the appropriately named ‘Trash’, a nympho punk played with gleeful abandon by ‘B’ movie queen, Linnea Quigley, foretells her own demise when she describes to one of her friends how she like to die by being stripped naked and eaten alive by old men – her wish later being granted as she is cornered by the zombies in the graveyard. Scenes like this, along with the zombie’s enterprising method of enticing more unsuspecting victims to what fast becomes a graveyard masacre, soften what could otherwise have resulted in an unpleasant gore-fest.
By the end of Return of The Living Dead you will shouting, along with the zombies themselves, for more brains in what, though by no means a classic, is definitely one of the most fun entries in an often overpopulated and done-to-death area of horror.
Director: Dan O’Bannon
Stars: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa
Runtime: 91 min