The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
"They're back from the grave and ready to party!"
Two bumbling employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release a deadly gas into the air which promptly reanimates a cadaver in the freezer. After their boss arrives and decides to cover everything up, they chop up the cadaver and the trio head across to the nearby crematorium to burn the remains. Unfortunately, the ash is caught in the rain outside and the entire graveyard is reanimated, which is not only bad news for the men inside but also for a group of teenagers partying there.
THE original zombie comedy movie, The Return of the Living Dead was like a breath of fresh air into the zombie genre in the mid-80s after George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had spawned a never-ending slew of exploitative Italian knock-offs which had worked the formula to death. Another zombie film like the rest would have been the final nail in this sub-genre. But along came The Return of the Living Dead to straighten the score. No relation to Romero’s trilogy despite the title, The Return of the Living Dead is a horror-comedy classic which is almost unrivalled in the affection that horror fans have for it. You won't find too many horror fans that don't like this and that's a rarity in a genre which can be very divisive amongst its rabid fanbase.
Horror-comedies are all the rage now and have been for some time but if you think back, there weren’t too many efforts before The Return of the Living Dead came along. You’d have to go all of the way back to the likes of Abbott and Costello pairing up with the famous Universal monsters in the late 50s to really find a decent example of a successful horror-comedy teaming or an outright spoof like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. The Return of the Living Dead’s success and popularity would prompt one to ask ‘why had that been the case all of these years?’ Surely someone had a decent idea to mix comedy and horror together but it seemed like a no go, especially during the bleak days of the 70s backwoods horror cycle. However, the 80s provided the perfect decade to dare to be different and so The Return of the Living Dead came along, providing the template for horror-comedies for years to come. It blends horror and comedy almost perfectly, with scores of films trying (and failing) to get the mix right for decades afterwards.
The Return of the Living Dead is naturally funny. This isn’t a gag reel filled with jokes (though the script is very sharp and witty) – the humour is organic and comes realistically from the hysterical reactions that the characters have to what is going on around them. You have a trio of serious established actors in Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa who attempt to hold everything together before the insanity kicks in. The sharp, witty scripts helps them, their comic timing is impeccable and their deadpan reactions to everything that happens just makes the film a hundred times funnier than it was ever conceived to be. Karen is the standout here and his performance, particularly during the first quarter of the film as he tries to deal with the reanimated cadaver, is hilarious. Coupled with younger actor Thom Matthews, the pair make up quite the comedy duo as their prying around in the basement causes all of this carnage to go off - it’s the slapstick-like visuals and the constant wailing of Karen that really cause all of the laughter.
The bulk of the laughs are confined to the first half of the film and once the full zombie outbreak happens, things get a little more tense and serious. Unlike many horror-comedies, The Return of the Living Dead constantly reminds the audience that it is watching a horror film to go with all of the goofing around and manages to tread the fine line between laughs and scares. There are some true scares to be had amongst the hi-jinks and, for all of their silliness, the zombies are frightening at times. The first appearance of the cult ‘Tarman’ zombie in the basement sends shivers down the spine: a slimy, skeletal monster with a jelly-legged walk, Tarman is an awesome make-up effect. He remains one of the most indelible images of 80s horror, with his oily complexion, jerky movements and cries of “BRRRAAAIIINNNSSS” ringing out onto the screen. Tarman does get to feast on some brains too in a rather icky moment but the film’s ickiest scene for me is when half of a mounted anatomical dog comes back to life. I found that more distressing than any sight of zombies eating brains.
Writer/director Dan O’Bannon cleverly plays upon audiences preconceptions of what a zombie film is supposed to be – you know, the shuffling flesh-eating fiends with the whole ‘trauma to the head to kill them’ thing – but then re-writes the rules with fast-moving monsters who take more than a blow to the head to stay down and can talk and act based on their former lives. The script is set within a film universe where Night of the Living Dead was apparently based on true events and the remains of that original zombie outbreak were hidden away in canisters. That’s about as far as the subtle self-awareness goes as the film was originally perceived as a sequel to Romero’s films before O’Bannon came on board. The characters don’t do too many stupid things to further the plot, the irony here being that everything they end up doing makes the situation worse despite doing what they saw happened ‘in the movie.’
Not only content with twisting around the zombie genre, Dan O’Bannon purposely makes his cast full of punks as a sort of a middle-fingered gesture towards 80s slashers which had casts of faceless stereotypical teenagers. Funnily enough, most of the punks end up being faceless stereotypical teenagers but there are a few memorable characters, most famously Linnea Quigley’s Trash, who strips off on a gravestone and ends up being naked for the rest of the film to fulfil the requisite T&A quota. Coupled with this sense of rebellion against the Hollywood norms, The Return of the Living Dead also features a great punk rock soundtrack. Whilst I’m not the biggest lover of punk, the soundtrack fits beautifully with all of the carnage going on. The title track ‘Party Time’ by 45 Grave is a head banger and kicks off the zombie outbreak with a real explosive energy.
With "made in the 80s" stapled all over it, The Return of the Living Dead is still as excellent today as it was back then when it broke new ground in the genre. Brimming with comic energy, overflowing with great set pieces and still managing to provide enough chills and thrills to remind you of its horror roots, it’s the perfect party film to watch every Halloween. Everything about The Return of the Living Dead just works at a level that most films of its kind never seem to be able to reach - definitely in the reckoning for the greatest zombie film ever made and certainly the best horror-comedy.
The Return of the Living Dead
Director(s): Dan O'Bannon
Writer(s): Rudy Ricci (story), John Russo (story), Russell Streiner (story), Dan O'Bannon (screenplay)
Actor(s): Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shephard
Duration: 91 mins