“The Return of the Living Dead” (1985)
Studio: Orion Pictures
Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Linnea Quigley
Directed by: Dan O’Bannon
Running Time: 91 min.
Synopsis: The living dead attack a group of people by an old cemetery.
I have always been a huge fan of zombie films ever since I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on Halloween in 1987. Since I saw Night, I searched high and low for other zombie films, which include the sequels to Night. Around late 1988 or early ’89 I finally got to see a film I was waiting to watch for a while at that time. The film was the cult classic zombie movie, The Return of the Living Dead. Once I saw the film I was very pleased and it became one of my favorite zombie films of all time. I also liked the connection with this film and Night, which some call Return an unofficially sequel or spin-off to the Romero film. Return of the Living Dead has a great history and an even greater following in present day.
The film starts off at a medical supply warehouse and a young man named Freddy (Thom Mathews) is starting his first day there. As his veteran co-worker, Frank (James Karen) shows him the ropes, Freddy asks him what is the strangest thing he seen come in this place? Frank then asks him if he ever seen the movie, Night of the Living Dead and then Frank explains that it was based on a true story, but the movie changed things around. What really happened was some corpses at an army lab came back to life due to some radiation leak. The army was able to keep it contained and also contained the corpses by putting them in steal barrels. The army accidentally sent the corpses to the warehouse and they have been in their basement ever since. Frank decides to show Freddy the barrels with the corpses in them. When Freddy ask if these barrels leak, Frank shows off and says this is made by the army and is stronger than anything and bangs the barrel hard to prove it is tough, but then gas sprays out and exposes Freddy and Frank to it.
What happens after that is the corpse from the barrel gets out and everything that is dead in the warehouse comes back to life, including a cadaver they had in the freezer for a medical school. Frank and Freddy are able to keep things under control for the moment, but then they call the boss, Burt (Clu Gulager) to help them clean up the mess. Burt of course is upset with the two, but knows he has to take care of this. They try to kill the cadaver by destroying the brain like they did in the movie, but it doesn’t work. What they decided to do is burn all the dead things they have to ash. They do that with the help of Burt’s friend Ernie (Don Calfa) who runs a funeral home next door by the cemetery. They burn the dead in an incinerator to ash, but the smoke from the dead that comes out their chimney causes it to rain and the rain pours into the cemetery ground, which causes the dead to rise from the grave and terrorize the small town.
There is a lot to like about Return of the Living Dead and two of the main reasons are the excellent and entertaining story and the very talented cast of characters. There is never a dull moment in the story and it keeps moving at a good pace till beginning to end. The cast is great and a good group of actors play all their parts well. It is also a good mix of veteran actors and newcomers and all them shine. The soundtrack is another key element to the film. Both the musical score and the punk rock soundtrack set the mood of the film throughout. Plus the zombies themselves are major standouts. The make-up effects and the people playing the living dead make these zombies entertaining and terrifying at the same time.
Return is not your typical zombie movie. It does still capture the traditional elements of a modern day zombie film, but it adds its own style to it by changing up the zombie. The living dead in this film are fast moving, they can talk, they eat only brains instead of just human flesh (eating brains make the pain go away from being dead), and shooting them in the head doesn’t stop them. You have to burn them up into ash until nothing is left of them to destroy. Now this film doesn’t just throw out all the zombie rules without giving an explanation. In the film the characters know in the movies, especially Night of the Living Dead, that you have to destroy the brain to kill the living dead and that the zombies eat the flesh of the living. In the movie they find out that the movie rules don’t apply and they find out all the new rules or real rules of the living dead on the spot.
The film was based on a novel by the co-writer of Night, John Russo. After Russo and Romero parted ways after Night was made, Russo retained the rights to the Living Dead name while Romero could make sequels on his own to Night, just without using Living in the title. Russo also wrote a film version of his novel with other Night alumni’s Russ Streiner and Rudy Ricci. The three made a deal with producer Tom Fox to get the film made and to have Tobe Hooper to direct. Hooper backed out to make the film Lifeforce and they brought in Alien writer Dan O’Bannon to rework the script and direct the film as well.
Most people call this film a horror/comedy film. I usually dislike all horror/comedies, but this film is an exception. I also don’t really consider it a horror/comedy. It does have some humor or comic relief here and there, but to me most horror/comedies try to make or force situations to be funny or over the top and some of the actors almost seem to go out of character and act goofy in the film for comedy sake. This film does not do that. The tone is always serious and the actors in this film never break their character to pull off a funny stunt. There are just a bunch of one-liners in the film, which every type of film has.
The cast in this film is amazing and one of the best ensemble casts in a horror film or in any film for that matter. You have some great veteran actors such as James Karen (Hercules in New York, The China Syndrome, and Poltergeist), Clu Gulager (The Last Picture Show, Into the Night, and A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2), and Don Calfa (10 and Weekend at Bernie’s) and then you have some current stars at the time that were featured in many different horror films. Some of those actors are Thom Mathews (Friday the 13th Pat VI: Jason Lives and Return of the Living Dead Part II), Miguel A. Nunez Jr. (Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning and Action Jackson), Jewel Shepard (Zapped, My Tutor, and Hollywood Hot Tubs 1 and 2), and Linnea Quigley (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Night of the Demons, and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama). Quigley was one of the most famous scream queens in the 1980’s. I heard about her before I saw Return when I read about Quigley in Fangoria magazine. I believe Return was the first movie I saw her in. Who can forget the nude dance she did in the cemetery.
One final note about the film is a funny one. When I first saw the film I never noticed that Gulager and Calfa’s characters are named Burt and Ernie like the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie. I didn’t pick up on this until years later after I first saw the film. If you have never seen The Return of the Living Dead go out and get the DVD. It is a must see and a must have for any horror fan. It is probably the best zombie film of the 1980’s and one of the best zombie movies of all time.