By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Linnea Quigley, Clu Gulager, Don Calfa
Directed by Dan O’Bannon
Written by Dan O’Bannon, Rudy Ricci, John A. Russo, Russell Streiner
Produced by Cinema 84, Fox Films
I’m always on the lookout for movies that would fit within a subgenre I like to call “cemetery horror.” Films that invoke the same creepy crawly sense of dread I would get as a kid when I walked by a cemetery at night; the fear that the soil would start shifting, that I’d hear a moan before something grabbed my ankle and pulled me under. So far, I’ve managed to assemble a small slew of films that do just that for me, some with more camp and some with less: The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Re-Animator, Dead and Buried, Night of the Demons, and the like. But today, I may have just found the crown jewel, a horror comedy that manages to walk the line between hilarious and suspenseful, combining all of my favorite elements of horror into one gory, nihilistic joke: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD opens up on Freddy (Thom Matthews) and Frank (James Karen) at UNEEDA medical supply as they’re winding down for the day, getting ready to go home for their fourth of July weekend. Ever the inquisitive intern, Freddy starts asking Frank about the weirdest shit he’s seen while working at UNEEDA, and Frank, wanting to scare the kid, tells him a little ghost story. A long time ago, the military accidentally reanimated a group of cadavers, spilling a chemical meant to treat marijuana on them; not knowing what to do with the bodies, they sent them to the chemical’s manufacturer for disposal. Or they meant to, anyway, because they accidentally sent the bodies to UNEEDA. Frank goes to show Freddy the bodies, encased in steel drums; when Freddy asks if there are any leaks, Frank slaps one of the canisters in an attempt to demonstrate the durability of American steelwork. Naturally, it doesn’t hold. And as UNEEDA’s head Burt (Clu Gulager) scrambles to cover up dumb and dumber’s mistake, Freddy’s friends are waiting for him outside, partying in the cemetery. Of course, everything goes wrong for them very, very quickly.
“RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is campy, brutal, nihilistic, and the most fun I’ve had with a film in years.”
This movie is a masterpiece from start to finish; it’s campy, gory, over the top, reworks the zombie mythos to deliver something new and original, takes it’s premise to the most insane places possible, and brings rewarding character work to the table that lends itself to some truly devastating moments. And what’s more, it’s smart as hell: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD consciously riffs off the tradition of zombie films that came before it, nullifying the number one rule of zombie survival films and providing a compelling reason for why zombies eat brains that (to be frank) I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. Decapitation doesn’t work and neither does dismemberment; acid only slightly damages the corpses and burning them does nothing more than make the problem exponentially worse, with the reanimation agent aerosolizing and spreading over bigger and bigger areas. Moreover, the zombies themselves are intelligent: they can speak, imitate the voices of the once living, use tools to eliminate obstacles, and formulate complex plans. One of the most terrifying scenes in the film involves a chase scene where the thing in the tank comes for one of our main characters, she barricades herself in a locker, and the thing takes a winch and starts cranking, ripping the door off just as her friends arrive to save her. These zombies don’t mess around.
But aside from consciously riffing off it’s predecessors, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD has plenty to say about the ethics of corporations, the incompetence of the government, and the place of the next generation as it gets inevitably caught in the consequences of the two. Freddy and his friends are rebellious to a cartoonish extent, even for an 80’s film: Trash (played by Linnea Quigley) is a perfect example of this, giving extensive monologues about what it would feel like to die before stripping and dancing provocatively on top of a stone sarcophagus. The film pokes fun at them gently, but recognizes that they are merely trying to differentiate themselves while living in a world that (at it’s core) does not care about them and is even actively working against them. None of them ask to be caught in any of the film’s events, and yet all of them are subjected to horror after horror at the hands of UNEEDA and (later) the military. Indeed, the villains here aren’t really the living dead, but UNEEDA and the military themselves. Burt has the opportunity early on to phone the military when the first canister ruptures, but instead tries to cover it up and makes the problem exponentially worse: his idea to burn the living corpse in the crematorium only aerosolizes the chemical and brings the whole cemetery to life. It’s only when things get irredeemably bad that he calls the military, who responds… (I have to avoid spoilers) in a similar fashion. Which again, only perpetuates the problem and makes things even worse. Maybe RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is a fable about the consequences subsequent generations will face as the apparatuses that are supposed to protect them fail and attempt to shove those failures under the rug; maybe it’s an expression of disillusionment, a total lack of faith in those systems and a warning that our world (as it is) is fundamentally broken. A gory, cheesy, dance-with-the-devil slice of nihilism that strikes a tone between terrifying and laugh-out-loud funny.
Personally, I really enjoyed this movie. In a way that, to be frank, I haven’t enjoyed anything else in a long time. This film is up there for me with the Evil Dead films, with Re-Animator, with Hellraiser and The Thing. It is a classic, one of my new favorite horror films of all time, and I strongly recommend it. I’m giving it a 10 out of 10. If you’ve seen it, revisit it; but if you’re like me, and you haven’t been exposed to this film before, give it a shot: it’s exactly what you’ve been looking for.