31 Screams in October, Vol. 4, #20: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Posted: October 21, 2018 in Movie Review

20. Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Director: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Mark Venturini, Jonathan Terry

For every Steve Jobs, there is a Steve Wozniak. John Russo is the Steve Wozniak of the zombie genre. Before 1968, zombies tended to be the undead servants of a voodoo priest. Sometimes, they weren’t even dead. “Night of the Living Dead,” co-written by Romero and Russo, changed all that, turning zombies into the flesh-eating re-animated corpses we know them as today. What if when Steve Wozniak left Apple, Inc. he’d formed his own separate and unique home computer company, and what if that company was still highly regarded today? Armed with the rights to the “Living Dead” part of NOTLD’s title, John Russo gave the world a comedic take on the modern zombie with 1985’s “The Return of the Living Dead,” and it’s just as good now as it was then.

The movie takes place in Louisville, Kentucky where, at a medical supply warehouse, a worker named Frank (James Karen) makes the mistake of showing off to the new kid, Freddy (Thom Mathews). It seems that there are a bunch of drum barrels left behind by the military in the basement of the warehouse. Frank accidentally cracks the seal on one of them, which appears to contain a body. The opened barrel releases a rather potent (and toxic) gas that knocks the two men out. When they come to, they find that the body inside the barrel has disappeared and a similar stiff stored in a meat locker has mysteriously come to life. An experience such as this would be enough to send anyone over the edge, but it only gets worse. Seems the undead cadaver can’t be stopped by having its head (nor any other part of the body) cut off. Only fire seems to work. This gives Frank and Freddy’s boss, Burt (the always reliable Clu Gulager) the idea to take the pieces to the crematorium to be reduced to ashes.

There are a couple of subplots going on at the same time. There’s a military official, Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry) who is keeping tabs on the whole situation. He knows damn well what’s in those barrels, and stands ready to implement the proper procedure should they be located. Additionally, there’s a group of punk rockers out riding around who are going to pick up Freddy after he gets off work. Among this group of around a half-dozen is horror veteran Linnea Quigley, who disrobes within moments of her introduction. The punks also have among them Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), who seems somehow out of place amongst this crowd.

It’s established that the zombies in this movie are compelled to seek out the brains of their warm-bodied victims. Also unlike most zombies, the undead in “The Return of the Living Dead” can talk, and not just using short phrases either. One torso which our protagonists secure to a table explains in detail the whole reason for the brain-eating thing. As all of this has been going on, Frank and Freddy’s condition has been growing steadily (and comically) worse. By the time Tina and Spider (Miguel A. Núñez, Jr.) join the others, Frank and Freddy are both pretty much dead already. All around them outside the crematorium, bodies are piling up. This is due to the zombies’ ability to call in emergencies so that ambulances and police cars will continue to arrive on the scene and provide them with fresh brains to munch on. From the way the movie ends, you wouldn’t think there’d be room for any sequels, let alone four. But, like George Romero’s “Dead” series, they all remain unrelated to one another except for the final two.

For a comedy, “The Return of the Living Dead” has some pretty decent gore, earning its R-rating. It is also aided by a great cast, particularly Clu Gulager who makes every horror movie he’s in that much better. “The Return of the Living Dead” is also well-remembered for its punk-rock soundtrack which really helps set the mood and makes this thing the fun thrill ride that it is. The choice in director had something to do with it, too. Dan O’Bannon (who also wrote the screenplay based on John Russo’s original story) is a fairly important name in both the horror and science-fiction genres. His greatest achievement is writing the screenplay for what I consider to be the greatest horror movie ever made, 1979’s “Alien.” His work on “The Return of the Living Dead” isn’t too shabby, either.

When I was a kid, my idea of what a zombie is was influenced by this movie. The concept of the brain-eating zombies permeated pop culture during the late 80s, to the point where they were almost as widely recognizable as the icons of the slasher films. However, I did not know of their origin at the time. For some insane reason, I have somehow managed to see every single one of the “Return of the Living Dead” sequels before I ever got the chance to see this one! (I’ve owned a DVD copy of the second film for years.) It didn’t really matter since, as previously noted, none of those movies connect back to this one in anything more than a superficial capacity. Now that I have seen it, I’m able to better appreciate this movie’s contributions to and its place within the zombie genre.

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