Movie Review – The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

“Braaiins!” That one line is practically synonymous with cinematic zombies, and the idea that the undead are out to consume gray mater has inextricably entered the general public’s accepted mythos surrounding the creatures. Most of them would be surprised to learn, however, that this element did not originate with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead or any of the zombie films which followed in the 1970s, but was actually not introduced until 1985’s horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead.

The film’s birth stems from interesting circumstances. After co-writing Night of the Living Dead, John Russo parted ways with George A. Romero and entered a legal battle over who retained the rights to the phrase “living dead.” Russo won the rights and in 1978 he published a novel entitled The Return of the Living Dead, which takes place directly after the 1968 film. Looking to adapt the story to the screen, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) was originally brought on to direct before aborting to make another project. Dan O’Bannon, who had penned the story for Alien (1979), had been hired to rework the script and when Hooper left he was offered the job, which he accepted on the condition that he could significantly alter the script so as to make it distinct from the world which Romero had created. He accomplished this by adding humor and dramatically changing the rules. The film would be O’Bannon’s feature film directorial debut.

O’Bannon distances himself from Romero while also paying homage to him, directly referencing Night of the Living Dead in the film. In the story, two medical supply warehouse workers, Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews), accidentally release toxic gas from a barrel which houses a corpse. The fumes not only infect the men but also cause the dead to rise and hunger for brains in order to alleviate their pain. Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends – characters who are a mix of post-punk and new wave sensibilities – hang out in a nearby cemetery waiting for him to get out, and are in the thick of things when the corpses start crawling from their graves.

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The zombies in this film are not mindless. They talk, problem solve, and set traps for victims. They are aggressive, fast, and unrelenting. Each attempt to destroy them seems to only make them stronger, and each effort to solve the problem only exacerbates the chaos. Considering certain elements of the film, this could easily be read as a satire on the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, as the war-head solutions of the rival nations are perhaps more dangerous than the conflicts which initially spawn their seeming necessity. Our supposed protectors may very well prove to be our greatest threats. The film’s cynical and nihilistic view of the military would support such a reading.

The Return of the Living Dead is often referred to as the “punk-rock zombie” film, and it’s easy to see why. O’Bannon leaves 1968 far behind in terms of style, bringing zombies and their victims firmly into the 1980s. Unlike many other films from the era, the soundtrack of punk and deathrock bands still holds up. The young adults, with obnoxious names like Trash (Linnea Quigley) and Suicide (Mark Venturini), are disenfranchised and dissatisfied with what the world has to offer, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated. As Suicide says of his leather and chains attire: “You think this is a fuckin’ costume? This is a way of life.” They mention several times that they’re afraid of being shot by the cops. But for all their outward appearance of rebellion these punks are fairly tame and feel misunderstood by society, in a manner defying their earlier cinematic depictions as malicious anarchists. When Scuz (Brian Peck) suggests they wait for Freddy in the cemetery, Spider (Miguel Núñez) asks, “What do you want to do, Scuz, turn over gravestones?” To which he replies, “No, I just want to look around the graveyard – I never seen one before.” When in the graveyard they party, and we get that famous gravestone striptease from the delicious Linnea Quigley, but they do no damage to the graveyard. Later, when Spider is trying to flee the zombies and find refuge in one of the buildings, he’s asked by someone inside if he’s on PCP. “Nobody’s on any drugs, man!” he calls back truthfully, “Just let us in!” The Return of the Living Dead is certainly a punk-rock zombie movie, but it’s made in an era when the punk had become mundane and normal, and had lost its former edge. The following year’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) derives much of its humor from this very fact. These punks act out because they don’t feel like they belong in society, or that their lifespans are destined to be short due to nuclear war, toxic waste, or pollution – Trash’s obsession with death likely stems from this – and O’Bannon’s script offers nothing to quell these fears.

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Yet in the end, the punks are largely peripheral characters. The majority of the story focuses on two middle-aged protagonists: Clu Gulager as Burt Wilson, the owner of the medical supply business, and Don Calfa as Ernie Kaltenbrunner, a mortician who the film subtly suggests is a former Nazi (O’Bannon maintains that naming these two heroes Burt and Ernie was entirely coincidental and had nothing to do with the Sesame Street muppets). Burt and Ernie try their best to cope with the situation and bring it to a satisfactory end. Their characters are well-written – Ernie reacts realistically to Burt’s initial reluctance to reveal the gravity of their quagmire and Burt is quick to try to get medical help for his employees when he finds out they’re sick, the consequences be damned. Together the two characters anchor the increasing frenzy around them and allow for level-headed, experienced personalities to confront the undead – the other characters merely react while these two try to be proactive against them, perhaps giving due respect to a generation that fought against fascism and communism with a can-do attitude, even by acknowledging the dangerous byproducts of that active zeal. For all the mohawks and safety pins, in a film touted as a punk-rock movie it’s these older men who support the main narrative. They’re like the teens from the 1950s monster movies all grown up.

The Return of the Living Dead boasts some good creature effects, particularly what has become known as the “Tarman” zombie. Additionally, the cast is strong, and many will certainly recognize many of the actors from other horror films which were released around the same time. James Karen and Thom Mathews especially give sympathetic performances as they succumb to the necrotic effects of the toxins. All of these elements – the music, the style, the directing, the acting, and the smartly humorous script – make for a film that still has the power to entertain. It retains its youthful energy and gives viewers a combination of mild exploitation coupled with a grounded maturity. It’s still punk-rock, but the fogies have come to the jam session to class the joint up a bit, and the film is better for it.

Grade: A-

The Return of the Living Dead is available on Blu-ray.