Alien writer Dan O’Bannon redefines the zombie picture with an 80s cult classic
“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.”
Yep, that’s the opening text of a film called RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. As statements of intent go, it ensures that Dan O’Bannon’s glorious directorial debut, following stellar writing duties on films like Dark Star, Alien, Dead and Buried and Blue Thunder, hits the ground running. I mean, you know exactly where you’re heading with a declaration as stupendously fucking ridiculous as that, and boy, this total classic of the horror genre doesn’t let any of us down with its riotous, joyously horrible and ‘stop, my stomach’s actually hurting‘ brand of hilarity. It’s certainly the most punk, anarchic zombie movie of them all; the horror film as graffiti spray, as funky smell, as fresh guts. Coincidentally, the film came out the same year (1985) as Garbage Pail Kids, the trading card series produced by Topps that was designed as a grotesque parody of the immensely popular Cabbage Patch Kids, with similarly nasty/hilarious results. So yeah, this is one gross movie, and yet it’s so utterly fucking loveable too – the sheer joy that bounces from script to screen, from director to scene, from actor to actor, from actor to special effect… you know, for a film that exists under a terrifying fallout of anxiety over nuclear war, and where all the main cast die in the end, this is one seriously fun romp.
In fact, in the realms of truly great horror-comedies, I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the most gut-bustingly funny of the lot, if not the scariest; although trust me, there are plenty of fantastic chills to go with the near-relentless run of chuckles. I remember the very first time I watched it; I’d rented a VHS copy from my local EnormoRental video shop on an inebriated Saturday night during my university years, and ended up feeling giddy with happiness that I’d found another new horror to add to my list of favourites. It’s the kind of film that hits the spot immediately, an instant-hit summation of almost everything you can love about horror, and especially Eighties horror. Not for nothing did it grow to become one of the most beloved films of its kind, albeit one that’s far too tasteless, trashy and outrageous to ever be considered for mainstream or elite acceptance outside of its genre. Eh, fuck the snobs, I say – sometimes the gutter’s the best place for horror, and isn’t it just great down here?
Obviously, the most immediate reference point for this movie is George A. Romero’s landmark zombie classic Night of the Living Dead from 1968 – the film that laid the groundwork for all the zombie movies to come. Then there was 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s even better sequel, that did what all the great follow-ups do; it took the original and enhanced it, broadened it and deepened it, further consolidating what a definitive zombie movie should deliver. On first glance, you’d think that Return of the Living Dead was also part of the Romero series, and in some ways it is, as producer John A. Russo was Night‘s co-producer, and it was originally agreed that he would produce his own series of zombie follow-ups independently of Romero’s. Indeed, Russo’s original intention was to adapt his novel (also called Return of the Living Dead) for the screen but O’Bannon nixed the plan, preferring a more humorous approach so as not to rudely and blatantly ape Romero’s style. As such, it’s pretty much accepted that Return of the Living Dead is totally unofficial and totally unrelated to Romero’s film…well I say ‘unrelated’…more on that later.
Okay, no exaggerations here: the first thirty minutes of O’Bannon’s film make for one of the funniest first acts in all of cinema. In fact it’s so perfect that I used to underrate everything that followed it – it’s just that good. The sheer rhythm and glee of the writing, playing and direction…it’s absolute bliss, and so naturally, organically funny; the scenes between the gang members (who I’ll introduce soon) even have an almost Robert Altman-esque style of overlapping dialogue and disorienting aural ambience. There’s also a sense of ‘anything goes’ with the pacing, with the lengthy nine-minute long pre-credits sequence practically a short film in itself, as Uneeda Medical Supply (‘you need it, we’ve got it’) warehouse owner Burt (Clu Gulager) leaves new employee Freddy (Thom Matthews) in the care of deputy Frank (James Karen) so that he can be shown the ropes. What kind of stuff does Uneeda provide? Well there’s the skeletons that are used for student research, bedpans (ba-ba-ba-boom), the split dogs (don’t ask) and even goddamn fresh cadavers. Freddy lurches from being impressed to freaked-out and back again, but what really gets his interest buzzing is Frank’s insistence that, down in the basement, is proof that the events of Night of the Living Dead really happened. Yep, O’Bannon deals with the undead elephant in the room immediately by suggesting Romero’s movie was based on a true life case, and lest you’d already forgotten that opening on-screen text, Return of the Living Dead is all real, so you best believe Frank when he says that this shit ain’t fictional.
2-4-5 Trioxin, it’s called. It was to kinda spray on marijuana or something. And the Darrow Chemical Company was trying to develop it for the Army. And they told the guy who made the movie that if he told the true story, they’d just sue his ass off. So he changed all the facts around.Frank
Okay, so Frank gets the facts wrong when he insists that said real events occurred in 1969 (a year after Romero’s film came out), but whatever, we’re talking actual living corpses, reanimated when the military foolishly sprayed loads of 245 Trioxin, originally intended as a chemical to neutralise marijuana, over nearby centuries, accidentally kickstarting a zombie invasion as a result. That invasion was of course contained, but thanks to a ‘typical army fuck-up’, one of the containers full of Trioxin gas and the body of a zombie were transported to Uneeda instead of the military base where it was supposed to end up. Bullshit, Freddy insists – but Frank’ll show him the proof if he really wants to see it. Down they go to the basement, and an act of idiocy on Frank’s part leads to the all-important container’s contents coming back to life again, as well as a noxious wave of gas ending up right in his and Freddy’s faces. The gas then works its way around the warehouse, right to where a nearby cadaver is hanging…
Meanwhile, the local bad element – a bickering gang made up of angry, misunderstood Suicide (do not call him spooky), morbidly death-obsessed Trash, cool-as-ice Spider, lovesick (well, lustsick) Chuck, the no-bullshit (and perpetually annoyed object of Chuck’s adoration) Casey, the sweet, seemingly out of place Tina (who’s also Freddy’s girlfriend) and the scuzzy…er, Scuz – are looking for something to do to kill time before Freddy finishes work? Drive around maybe? Not enough gas. Oh wait, maybe they could hang out in the nearby Resurrection Cemetery… ‘Oh, let’s do that‘, says Trash with way too much enthusiasm. Oh, lest we forget; just before we re-join the gang after the credits, we have a scene where extremely uptight Colonel Glover, returning home from work and giving his poor wife Ethel grief over her plans for dinner (‘I had pork chops for lunch’, the ungrateful bastard says), checks in with his military superiors and seems to be awaiting some kind of long-gestating event – or discovery – to take place, something he snappily barks to Ethel might never happen.
While the gang party hard, poor Frank and Freddy awaken from unconsciousness feeling like fresh shit and subsequently scared shitless by a very-alive, whining split dog, the re-animated butterflies and especially the furious cadaver that’s trying to break free from its locked room. It sounds sore, Frank says in terror. What can they do? Call the army? Fuck, no – way too dangerous. In the end, Burt has to come back and take charge, resulting in an absolutely hysterical three-against-one battle with a nude, jaundiced cadaver that just won’t give up, even when its head’s just been sliced off with a bone saw. This whole bit, an insanely absurd parade of slapstick that may very well be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a horror movie, ends with a terrified Freddy, a near-broken Frank and a no-nonsense Burt all mortified that the rules those zombie movies taught us turned out to be crap. I mean, damaging the brain should kill them, right? Wrong. ‘You mean the movie lied?’, whimpers Freddy. It’s not the only rule of zombie lore this film will turn upside down. Soon, both warehouse staff and punks join forces at the morgue where the cadaver’s body has been burned to cinders in the furnace, only for its ashes to have risen up the piping, into the sky, into the clouds and then rain down on the cemetery (playing on the acid rain fears of the time, maybe?), which causes all the corpses to rise up, brilliantly visualised in a shot where a trickle of rain works is way downwards through the dirt of a grave and onto the feed of the soon-to-be-reanimated body. Now, as the soundtrack declares, it’s party time! With broken windows frenziedly boarded up, regular help swiftly dispatched by the surrounding zombies and our band of heroes gradually whittled down to a mini-fraction of its size, the horrors only get worse and worse over the course of one hell of a nasty night.
Speaking of nasty, the gore and effects in this film are memorably gruesome; your reactions might mirror Frank as he whimpers, having to hold a severed, moving hand and dropping it in a bin bag for safety. Blood pours freely, heads are gnawed open and their contents devoured hungrily. For the latter effect, real calf brains were consumed for that extra disgusting touch. Recently-turned zombies foam at the mouth and don’t let the inconvenience of acid thrown onto their eyes pose as a serious obstacle. Elsewhere, there’s the more mundane nastiness of the grossly realistic sight of mortician Ernie working on a ghastly, bruised corpse laid out on a slab. Or there’s Frank and Freddy’s gradual decomposition, involving pools of blood collecting in the backs of their rigor-mortis inflicted, already-dead bodies. It look genuinely horrific and clearly feels worse, if poor Freddy’s pained reactions are anything to go by.
Then there are the zombies themselves. Okay, there are some ludicrous examples here (the cadaver is hilariously goofy), but let’s face it – a befits a film where the approach is loud, rowdy and punky, Return of the Living Dead mostly has little time for the slow, shuffling zombies of yore. Snatching the baton from the fast, infected-with-radiation-but-zombies-in-all-but-name creatures who tore across Italy in 1980’s Nightmare City, O’Bannon’s zombies truly sprint. Now it could be argued that one of the most quintessentially frightening things about zombies is that they are slow, and that they can take their time because, ultimately, they will never, ever give up and will get you in the end, eventually. Yet it also turns out that making them sprightly doesn’t take anything away from how scary they can be. Even when they’re cut to pieces, the severed parts still move around and try to get you. Reducing them to ashes doesn’t put an end to the problem either.
The best zombie of the lot though, topping even the amazing, chalk-white, nude post-mortem form of the recently turned Trash, is the Tarman, the original zombie who was imprisoned in the container at the start of the movie: he’s an absolute masterclass in performance and make-up and is my humble opinion the most iconic zombie of all time. Well, maybe. I mean, he’s not exactly a household name, and it could be argued that the whole point of zombies is that they’re supposed to be anonymous and part of the masses, their terror stemming partly from them being just like us, albeit a little funkier. Nevertheless, 1985 was a great year for the individual zombie, with the Tarman and Day of the Dead‘s Bub as its star examples. A barely held-together bag of bones and putrefied flesh, and surprisingly clever in his means of devouring intended prey, the way the Tarman walks is utterly unearthly and genuinely frightening; his swift dispatch of Suicide is still a horrible, shocking moment. Saying that, it can’t be ignored that most of his dialogue is made up of hilarious variations of his vocal desire for brains, of which ‘MORE BRAINS!’ is my favourite. Oh yes, this is also the first zombie movie to introduce the concept of eating strictly grey matter over flesh, and as such the first film to scream ‘BRAINS!!!’ to its victims and the audience.
One of the best scenes is the disturbing, remarkable sequence where one of the zombies – well, the top half of her – has wound up strapped onto a mortuary slab by our heroes and then interrogated as to what exactly it is that she and her masses of undead companions want. As expected, the answer is ‘brains’, but why brains? And in the film’s most ghastly (and ingenious) revelation, it’s revealed that eating brains takes away the sheer pain of being dead. Imagine that – it hurts to be dead. And why wouldn’t it be? A perpetual state of decomposition but with no end, an eternal cold turkey where the only temporary relief is the high of devouring a brain with all of its endorphins. Yet while that might take away the pain for a while, it won’t be long before you come down hard once again, and you need another brain. And another. And another. And given that these zombies, like all zombies, are likely to live forever, that’s a horrifying, permanent cycle of addiction. It’s a scary thing to think about, and you may be agreeing with a head-shaking Spider when he accurately responds with ‘fuck this!’ You almost empathise with the plight of these monstrous killing machines for a moment.
It’s these kind of moments that combine to deliver the film’s surprisingly devastating emotional resonance – despite the hilarity of much of what we’ve seen, these characters end up getting under our skin. Their fates end up being genuinely affecting. Poor, poor Frank, whose last words to his wife was something about keeping the pot roast simmering, ends up leaving his wedding ring hooked on the switch of the very furnace he puts himself inside to stop the pain of death. Freddy meanwhile has fully changed into a zombie, spending his final moments desperately, gloatingly trying to eat his beloved Tina, unforgettably encapsulated in the half-hilarious, half-terrifying plead of ‘I love you, and you’ve got to let me EAT YOUR BRAAAAAAAAIIIIIIINS!!!’ Yet you totally get why Tina would stay with him as long as she does as he lays dying whilst clearly mutating into something worse – because she does love him. For a film with its tongue mostly in his cheek, it sure does love its characters an awful lot, enough to actually have them not even commit the horror sin of doing stupid things that will inevitably get them killed. When they do die, you don’t cheer their demise – in all cases, it’s not their fault. The ending is still a kick in the teeth; some of the survivors end up trapped in the Uneeda warehouse, and a quick call to the number on the side of the dreaded zombie container puts them in contact with Colonel Glover, inadvertently setting in motion the emergency plan of nuking the entire town, which does indeed kill all the zombies, but all the humans too. It’s the grim culmination of a film that has cleverly and gradually shifted into pure horror and an atmosphere of sheer hopelessness; essentially, there’s just too many zombies contend with and everything is just too fucked, so it’s best to just brutally sweep it all away.
You think this is a fuckin’ costume? This is a way of life.Suicide
So yes, that ending is bitterly, monstrously bleak, but the film can’t resist ending on a fun note by treating us to a highlights reel of what we’ve just watched, so even though everyone dies at the end, we still leave the film with a stupid smile on our face. Rooted firmly in the era of nuclear panic in cinema and music, Return of the Living Dead feels a bit like the zombie movie version of Prince’s ‘1999’ – we may all die, but let’s party anyway. One song on the soundtrack is even called ‘Tonight We’ll Make Love Until We Die’, for goodness’ sake. Elsewhere, the film’s debt to the punk scene is dominant, from the ‘No Future’ graffiti sprayed on the cemetery entrance, to Suicide’s hatred of being reduced to a stereotype in a ‘costume’ with his leather gear, the massive safety pin on the back of one character’s jacket, and even the morbid link to Nazism (some – but of course not all – of punk had an unhealthy fascination with it) with the visual and musical suggestions that Ernie might be a former member of the Gestapo. Then of course, there’s the soundtrack, a riotous, brilliant collection of garage-rock from The Cramps, The Damned and Roky Erickson, which really adds to the down-and-dirty punk feel.
One of Return of the Living Dead‘s greatest strengths is its cast; wisely, not everybody plays it all for laughs, such as Beverly Randolph’s Tina, who is a complete straight, making her plight later all the scarier. Gulager’s Burt and Don Calfa’s Ernie (the Sesame Street connection was apparently completely unintentional) don’t seem to be in on the joke either, although the former’s increasing frustration, whilst not as excessively absurd as Frank’s, does provide plenty of amusement. Or maybe it’s just that he always loves hearing him call one of the punks a ‘dickbrain’. Then there’s Linnea Quigley, one of the decade’s most celebrated scream queens, who certainly delivers one of her most unforgettable performances as Trash. Obsessed with what could be the worst possible way to die (and being quite turned on by the prospect of it), she unfortunately gets what she wishes for when she’s consumed by a group of rain-and-mud drenched zombies early on, after which she turns into a pale-white, elongated-mouthed nightmare who loves to get in on the murderous action. Miguel A. Nunez, who that same year would meet an undignified end in an outhouse in Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, is Spider, the gang’s de facto leader after Suicide loses his brains – I have never heard an actor deliver the word ‘fuck’ and its variants with as much snappy sharpness as Nunez. I quote this guy all the time, in appropriate company of course. Also, his answer to Trash’s question about wanting to be killed – a simple, curt ‘never‘ – always cracks me up.
Yet even in a cast full of inspired, energetic performances, James Karen absolutely runs away with the movie as Frank, and then some. I’d go so far to say that his turn here is one of my top ten favourite performances of all time. Giving it 110%, his initially chilled, in-control demeanour throughout the pre-credits sequence, where he enjoys being temporary king of the castle and scaring the new kid only makes his subsequent, frenzied breakdown all the funnier and eventually, all the more tragic. If I was in charge of giving Academy Awards, I would have given Karen the Best Actor that year. His behavioural range upon hearing that Ernie’s morgue and its furnace could be a potential solution to their dilemma is a classic moment of whiplash emotion, going from excitement to despair to anger to worry in the space of about twenty seconds, with my favourite bit being his rather rash description of Ernie (whom he’s never met) as an untrustworthy ‘bastard’. So, so funny.
Return of the Living Dead is like a short, snappy punk blast of a song, the kind you want to rewind and play again as soon as it’s over. Totally addictive, it’s a container of 245 Trioxin that’s also full to the brim with some of the funniest gags and delightful scares in the entire horror genre. Indeed, it was enough of a hit to spawn four sequels over the next twenty years. The first was a godawful small affair released in 1988 – while it was neat to have Karen and Matthews back on the scene in different, but equally hapless roles, Return of the Living Dead Part II was staggeringly anaemic, unfunny and, surprisingly given that it was directed by Ken Wieiderhorn, who gave us one of the nastier slasher movies of the era (Eyes of a Stranger) and even a legit zombie outing (Shock Waves), strangely wimpy. In 1993, Society‘s Brian Yuzna ditched the comedy almost entirely for the much darker Part 3 and while, the presence of 245 Trioxin aside, it feels totally disconnected from the first film in a way that even the second one didn’t, it’s by the far the superior of the two immediate sequels, a bold, brilliant mix of extreme gore and melodramatic, romantic tragedy, a worthy successor to the original. Yet it’s that original whose legacy has lasted the strongest – it remains one of the ultimate party movies, and I love it every time I attend its rave-to-the-grave celebration.