Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Return of the Living Dead

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s pick is a 1985 movie which looked at Romero’s serious approach to metaphorical zombie stories and said, “Screw it. Let’s have some fun!”

The 1985 splatter-spoof Return of the Living Dead beat Shaun of the Dead to the zombie horror-comedy punch by 20 years and did the whole zombies-that-run thing well before 28 Days Later. Yet, it’s hardly some forgotten gem which doesn’t get the respect it deserves for being the first to do certain things. Quite the contrary. Return of the Living Dead is a bonafide cult classic which spawned four sequels. When, at the start of the 2010s, Hollywood decided to start making expansive documentaries devoted entirely to long-running horror franchises, Return of the Living Dead was the third one up after Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th.

Yet, until last night I’d never actually seen Return of the Living Dead.

My gut reaction to what I saw: It’s hard not to love any movie which comes with the tagline “They’re back from the grave and ready to party.”

The set-up: When Frank (James Karen), the foreman of a medical supply warehouse, gives new trainee Freddy (Friday the 13th Part VI’s Thom Matthews) a tour of the facility, they accidentally tap open a military canister containing a mysterious corpse and deadly toxin which knocks them unconscious. They awake to discover the various cadavers and body parts in the warehouse are now alive. With the assistance of the frugal warehouse owner Burt (Clu Gulager), they try to neutralize the threat by following everything they saw in Night of the Living Dead.

None of it works, of course, because Night of the Living Dead is just a movie. As Frank explains:

Thus, Return of the Living Dead takes place in an alternate continuity where Night of the Living Dead exists but is just a movie corrupted by a military cover-up effort to distract the public from a genuine zombie outbreak which happened at Pittsburg, Pennyslvania VA in 1969.

So, when Frank, Freddy and Burt – who, it should be noted, have an enjoyable chemistry together – bring an axe down on a zombie’s brain only for it to then continue writhing on the ground in agony, clearly not stopped by the old Romero trick for defeating zombies, they realize they have no idea what to do. Their solution – to simply incinerate the newly animated corpses and body parts – makes things so much worse. The burning bodies release a chemical into the sky which comes back down as an acid rain and brings forth an army of zombies from the nearby cemetery.

Soon enough, Frank, Feddy, Burt, a mortician named Ernie (Don Calfa), and a handful of Freddy’s punk rock/new wave-ish friends shelter in place and try to understand what the heck is happening. Spoiler: most of them don’t make it.

This one’s death is especially bloody. The crew all wore raincoats while filming the scene, like they were in the front row of a Gallagher show.

Let’s back up to add some historical context here.

In the summer of 1985, audiences were presented with two very different versions of a zombie movie. One was slow, depressing, and looking to say something profound about society’s tendency to collapse. The other was fast, fun, and looking to say nothing about the world at all. It just wanted to entertain you. Not surprisingly, audiences overwhelmingly preferred the latter option.

The films: George Romero’s Day of the Dead and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead. The former flopped; the latter tripled Day’s box office.

Never before had Romero, the godfather of the zombie movie, been challenged so directly like that. He made social message movies – be it about race, consumerism, or the downfall of society – that just happened to feature the dead hunting the living. And where George leads, the rest of the zombie movies follow.

Not Return of the Living Dead, though. It breaks all of Romero’s rules. There’s no larger meaning to any of it. The zombies move fast, occasionally talk, and are only interested in eating brains, not human flesh, a first for the zombie subgenre. And there’s gratuitous nudity. Lots of it, albeit all from the same girl over and over again.

To think, it all started with a screenplay written by one of Romero’s old buddies.

After the success of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Romero and his co-screenwriter John Russo parted ways. George was allowed to make any future zombie movies he wanted, but John maintained the rights to any title featuring the phrase “Living Dead.” The same year George released Dawn of the Dead John published a similarly serious-minded novel called Return of the Living Dead. By 1984, George was prepping Day of the Dead, and John had adapted his book into a script and lined up a producer (John Fox) and director (Tobe Hooper) to bring it to the screen.

Then they hired Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon to polish the script and everything changed.

As O’Bannon explained in Designing the Dead, “The fundamental decision was this: George Romero was making a series of serious movies about the living dead. I don’t want to walk on his toes any deeper than I have to. I’m going to do it as a comedy.”

So, he did a page one rewrite. When Hooper backed out to make Lifeforce instead, Fox asked O’Bannon if he’d direct, unaware that directing was always O’Bannon’s dream. Screenwriting was simply the thing that took off first. Return of the Living Dead was his debut behind the camera, and he recruited various practical effects and makeup wizards to deliver the gore while he delivered the jokes.

O’Bannon’s only other directing credit is for 1991’s little-seen Lovecraft adaptation The Resurrected.

And O’Bannon’s approach to the material was to embrace not just genre deconstruction but also utter shamelessness. Have Linnea Quigley strip naked atop a crypt for no real reason and then stay mostly naked for the rest of the movie. Pump buckets of blood into the death scenes. Hire a local amputee to play a legless zombie who uses just his knees to chase after Ernie. When James Karen and Thom Matthews go so over-the-top that even mid-90s Jim Carrey would probably tell them to dial it back, don’t say a word. Instead, just let them do their thing because it all adds to the party vibe of the movie.

That might be the best way to describe Return of the Living Dead: it feels like a party movie, something tailor-made for the VHS viewing parties of the time as well as today’s various anniversary and repertory theater screenings. You cheer when one of the zombies gets on an EMS dispatch and mumbles “Send more paramedics.” You laugh at Burt’s odd lack of serious concern for the real shit they’re all in. Generally, you revel in the reminder that zombie movies can just be pure fun.

That’s not to say Return of the Living Dead is all laughs. Some of the scares are played completely straight, and a mid-movie revelation of why the zombies eat brains (“to stop the pain”) is a sobering bit of drama. They are in agony and the only cure is human brains.

It’s a gracenote like that which elevates Return of the Living Dead into a zombie comedy that is a cut above just about e everything else.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far: 

Tomorrow: A very different kind of zombie movie: Train to Busan

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12 comments

  1. I watched this years ago. Mainly because I naively thought it was a straight sequel to night of the living dead. The fact that it wasnt didnt bother me. It had enough linkage and Dawn and Day didnt feel connected to Night or each other any. yes it is more about boobs and gore but so was everything in the 80s. It isnt a bad film but there is less social commentary or analogies to consumerism and other cultures than George’s films. Anyone criticl needs to remember George also did Land of the Dead and Diary of the dead. The former was more tongue and cheek towards ROTLD and the latter just a mess.

    1. “It isnt a bad film but there is less social commentary or analogies to consumerism and other cultures than George’s films. Anyone criticl needs to remember…”

      There isn’t just less social commentary – there’s none whatsoever. It’s a movie about zombie movies, really, and it’s the first I know of to ever do that (counterpoint: Bava’s Demons takes it even further and just has a zombie outbreak take place at a theater showing a zombie movie). Romero established the formula, and Return of the Living Dead goes in a completely different direction. I was pointing that out in the review not to be critical of either approach, more to identify what made ROTLD so unique in its day.

      “Mainly because I naively thought it was a straight sequel to night of the living dead. The fact that it wasnt didnt bother me. It had enough linkage and Dawn and Day didnt feel connected to Night or each other any”

      I think that’s how a lot of people got sucked into ROTLD. It’s weird to think of the differing continuities, with Night of the Living Dead spawning the barely connected Dawn and Day films but also the entirely different ROTLD.

      1. Ahem..wait until Halloween H40 or whatever it is called comes out. Or even the Highlander franchise. How many timelines and rejigs to continuity did those sequels have? Mcloud grows old and builds a shield to protect the planet, no he doesn’t he dies so the other mcloud can kill another immortal. Wait wasn’t the Kurgen the last? Nope there were a couple under some rocks under the natural history museum. But what about his cousin Duncan? There were only two left when the Kurgen got to Connor. Yep he was keeping his head down until Endgame. Ok so they are aliens right? Well depends on which cut you saw of the second movie. Sure ok I see… well I guess eventually they all ended each other..Well erm there is a TV movie called Highlander the Source where one of them discovers the source and urm becomes godlike? Arghh this storyline is crazy. At least they still chop each others heads off..yeah that is consistent. What? The cartoon series?? What about it??

      2. Sadly, I followed all of that, having watched all of the Highlander movies and TV show episodes, up until you got to The Source and animated series.

        Yeahhhhhh…..those films were never big budget nor did they always make complete sense, but The Source is just SyFy Original Movie-level bad and confusing. Plus, I’ve never even seen the animated show.

      3. the cartoon. Oh thats easy to explain Quinton Mccloud. Yes dont cross check that. I know I type sloppy but its definately Quinton and Ramirez are the stars and nstead of decapitation they just touch swords. Kind of like tag rugby for kids compared to real rugby.

      4. “I know I type sloppy but its definitely Quinton and Ramirez are the stars and instead of decapitation they just touch swords. Kind of like tag rugby for kids compared to real rugby.”

        I’d say that all sounds preposterous, but Rambo and Dumb and Dumber got their own cartoon shows as well. So, a Higherlander cartoon where they touch swords instead of decapitating sounds totally plausible.

  2. I loved this movie. I love horror/comedies in general, and this is definitely one of my favorites!

    I watched the doc for this, and I became a huge fan of Linnea Quigley after I read several of her interviews.

    Sometimes it just depends on the timing for a movie to be a hit. It took at least a decade or two for movies like Bladerunner, and The Thing to become cult hits. And sometimes you release a movie at the right time, when the public’s headspace is in a certain way, and a movie is a hit, right off the bat. I think that’s what happened here.

    The 80s saw the release of a ton of horror/comedies. I would call it a golden era for it, because that just where our minds were at at the time.

    1. I’d say you’re right about the horror comedy boom of the 80s. The genre was ready for a kick in the pants. Plus, the success of Gremlins/creation of the PG-13 rating sort of incentivized a softer approach.

      Not that Return of the Living Dead did that completely, of course, not with all that blood and Linnea Quigley nudity. But, still it’s definitely more comedy than usual for a zombie movie at that time.

      I haven’t seen the documentary yet. I have also yet to see all of the sequels. Oddly, back in the day I saw Return of the Living Dead 2 at a babysitter’s multiple times, but I never saw the first or later films in the franchise, at least until now. ROTLD 2, in my memory, is even more of a comedy than the first one and kind of jumps on that Monster Squad/Goonies/Critters/The Gate kid horror bandwagon by focusing mostly on kid characters. The big bad, if I recall, is the zombified version of the local bully. Plus, Thom Matthews and James Karen are in it again playing different characters, and they have a meta moment where they say something like “I feel like we’ve been here before” or “Something about this seems awfully familiar.” That scene obviously made no sense to me back in the day since I hadn’t seen ROTLD 1.

      “Sometimes it just depends on the timing for a movie to be a hit. It took at least a decade or two for movies like Bladerunner, and The Thing to become cult hits. ”

      And I think over the past half-decade if not full decade we’ve entered into this period where there’s far more of a thirst to crown and celebrate cult classics. Mandy’s been out a month and it’s already a cult classic. The Monster Squad, Critters 2, Child’s Play, Troll 2, etc. people tour the country to sold-out screenings. Even if some of them actually made money back in their day and didn’t actually flop they’re more popular now than ever before. I wonder how much of that has to do with us turning to the past because it’s more knowable and enjoyable than the increasingly cluttered present. Sorry. Straying way off topic here.

      1. It’s okay! I don’t think you’re off topic at all.
        I think the public mindset, or even sometimes the political mindset has quite a lot to do with what types of film are popular at certain times, but we often don’t recognize it at the time. Only in hindsight.
        I think we’re in a period (just like then) where times are so anxiety producing, that many of us are looking for lighter, more care free entertainments. I know when my anxiety levels peak I look for more comfort/comedy entertainment then usual. What movies you personally feel like watching can depend on your mood. That could also apply on a much larger scale, like a national one.

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