Some may argue that the genius of The Walking Dead, at least initially, was the simple fact that the word ‘Zombie’ is never uttered once either in the graphic novels or the highly successful AMC series. I, for one, have never agreed with that decision. They’re zombies. Romero zombies, for that matter, and should be referred to as such. Though I’ve mentioned this before, I must re-iterate that one of my favorite moments in Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series are the references to King’s work itself. The same can be said for films in which characters are either movie-savvy or even self-aware. In Dan O’Bannon’s fabulous butuThe Return of the Living Dead (1985) he’s able to honor George A. Romero and John Russo’s landmark film while successfully overturning conventions and re-writing zombie movie rules. It helps that the film is a horror-comedy. Like some of the best horror comedies: Killer Klowns from Outer Space, An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead 2, Critters, and Fright Night, the balance between giggles, thrills, and chills must be perfect or else you risk alienating your audience. Worse, you can end up with a product that’s both unfunny and not scary enough to satisfy anyone. In many ways, The Return of the Living Dead’s success is downright miraculous.
Although the story credit belongs to original Living Dead scribe John Russo, Living Dead zombie Mark Ricci, and “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” Johnny – Russell Streiner, the final script is very much a Dan O’Bannon creation. That’s not to say the original concept Russo came up with was a bad one. He remained friends with Romero even as a legal battle ensued between the two parties since Romero’s Day of the Dead would be released the same year as Return and the words “of the Dead” weren’t exactly up for grabs. In Russo’s script, the continuing phenomenon of the dead rising would cause society to form various cults. An evocative opening involving the funeral of a small child would have been something else, but definitely not of the humorous variety. Finally, with the legal snafus taken care of, an inexperienced but enthusiastic first-time producer (Tom Fox, basically a money man) raised a meager 4 million-dollars for an effects-heavy horror film helmed by a first-time director.
Of course, Dan O’Bannon was no stranger to filmmaking. His career-making work with Ronald Shusett on the classic Alien, along with his previous work with John Carpenter on the trippy Dark Star, led him to credits on such genre favorites as Heavy Metal, Gary Sherman’s brutal Dead & Buried, and the highly entertaining Blue Thunder. Post Living Dead, he’d work on the scripts for Tobe Hooper’s Cannon-based Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars (Hooper nearly directed Return), Total Recall, and the surprisingly good Screamers (1995). Unfortunately, studio interference and possibly O’Bannon’s own prickly nature torpedoed his H.P. Lovecraft adaptation of The Resurrected, although the film still has quite a few good points. For Return, he’d employ a straight-forward shooting style that relied less on camera movement and more on performances, effects, and particularly music to convey a sense of fun and fear.
In one of the finest cold openings to a movie ever, it’s the day before July 4th, 5:30pm, and Frank (James Karen, Poltergeist) is showing newbie Freddy (Thom Mathews, Friday the 13th Part VI) the ropes at the UneedA medical supply warehouse. In a beautifully-staged single-take dolly shot (courtesy of cinematographer Jules Brenner, John Milius’ great Dillinger, Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot), Freddy learns about skeleton acronyms and even gets to see what a dog would look like cut-in-half. In a classic and very human moment of the old incongruously trying to impress the youth, Frank let’s Freddy in on a little secret. This is where the movie’s brilliant concept comes into play. He claims that Night of the Living Dead was “based on a real case.” He describes a “typical military fuck-up" where the army manufactured a type of gas called 2-4-5 Trioxin which got loose, causing the dead to rise and eat people. Both Karen and Mathews are excellent in this scene, with James Karen particularly excellent as the camera pushes in while he intensely but very softly imparts his tale. The kicker is, the infected creatures were placed in tanks and accidentally shipped to the warehouse. Moments later, Frank gives the tank a friendly slap, the gas sprays out, and the film officially begins with Frank and Freddy being exposed to the deadly toxin and Francis Haines’ ominously cool “Trioxin Theme” playing over the opening credits. We see the toxic gas spread across the factory, re-animating a cadaver hanging in the meat locker.
In a rare instance, the cast (with the exception of latecomer Clu Gulager) of Return was given a two-week rehearsal period, very much like Sidney Lumet’s productions had, which results in a uniformly great ensemble. While some characters are better written than others, the actors are clearly having a ball. This is evident in our first introduction to the odd group of punks heading to the warehouse to pick Freddy up. O’Bannon initially expected to cast real-life punk rockers, but ended up with actors who more than make up for their lack of street cred with outrageous performances. There’s de facto leader Suicide (Mark Venturini, notably the ax-wielding maniac who doesn’t want a chocolate bar in Friday the 13th Part V), the death-obsessed Trash (scream queen Linnea Quigley, who was basically cast due to her relationship with casting director Sandi Stokes, who had cast her in the fantastic Silent Night, Deadly Night), Scuz (Brian Peck, The Last American Virgin and dialogue coach), Spider (Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Life, the infamous Juwanna Man, and who was homeless at the time of his casting), slightly-less punk Casey (Jewel Shepard, Hollywood Hot Tubs and whom O’Bannon would meet a strip club), the dorky Chuck (John Philbin, Children of the Corn, Point Break), and the way-too-cute-for-this-crew Tina (Beverly Randolph, who would take a 30-year break from acting after this film and who was freaked out by a meeting with O’Bannon involving a gun and a porno), Freddy’s girlfriend. Their rapport is infectious and after realizing they’ll have to wait two hours for Freddy to get off of work, they break into a condemned cemetery and mess around. This leads to one of Return’s most famous scenes.
Linnea Quigley’s naked dance to “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die),” sung by Stacey Q, has become the stuff of legend. It certainly must’ve been shocking for young boys (and girls) everywhere when she doffs her top and her bottoms and dances on top of a gravestone completely nude. Chuck quips “Oh, Trash is taking off her clothes again!” The rest of the punks surround her with road flares (which apparently burned the actor’s hands) and she whips them into a frenzy. Highly amusing is that when producer Graham Henderson arrived, he was aghast because Quigley’s pubic hair was on display. Quigley was led away by the film’s brilliant production designer, William Stout (concept artist, The Mist, Pan’s Labyrinth, Conan the Barbarian), who shaved her, and they returned to the set. Now it was even worse. A plaster cast of her...undercarriage was made and she essentially became as anatomically correct as a Barbie doll. I realize it’s crude to focus so much on this particular detail, but it’s a fascinating insight into the way producers solve and/or make problems.
You know what’s going to happen next considering they’re partying in a cemetery, but the getting there is rather unique. I like to think that this film’s energy-level starts at about an 8, then warp speeds to 11 and stays there for the duration. Frank and Freddy’s mounting desperation and despair is hilariously realized as they find the half-dog panting and wagging its tail and a pissed off and very alive cadaver wants out of cold storage. Frank beating the dog with a crutch is particularly amusing. Warehouse owner Burt (veteran actor Clu Gulager, Nightmare 2, The Virginian, and who did NOT get along with O’Bannon) shows up and after a bit of commiseration, it’s decided that the best bet is to follow the movie’s example: destroy the brain, you destroy the zombie. The twist on this theory is very clever, even elegant. After a mighty struggle with a bright yellow and very fast zombie, they drive a pickaxe through its head...to no avail. It’s still struggling mightily. Even after using a hacksaw to remove its head, the thing Will. Not. Die. To put it plain: How can you kill something that’s already dead? The comfort so many other zombie movies have been able to offer is that a reliable head shot or decapitation will kill your enemy, but The Return of the Living Dead states that this is simply not true. It’s a major rule-break that 100% works thanks to the film being a horror movie, a comedy, and ultimately, a satire. Even after they bone saw the creature into a dozen pieces, the body parts are still wriggling around. Dead is dead, but if a body comes in contact with the gas, it can’t die again, so it’s ostensibly immortal.
The only other option is to incinerate them in a crematorium until there’s nothing left. This possibility comes courtesy of their friendly neighborhood mortician Ernie (Don Calfa, Foul Play, Weekend at Bernie’s, and whose character was named after a Nazi officer), who packs a pistol and has no problem burning bodies but draws the line at “rabid weasels.” Revealing their ruse, Ernie obliges them and this seemingly clever strategy leads to absolute disaster as the smoke releases the gas into the atmosphere, mingling with the clouds and causing an acid rain to fall upon the graveyard, re-animating the corpses. This idea would be used a few years later to much less success in the disappointing Zombie 3 (1988). In one of my favorite musical cues, a skeleton springs out of its grave and pops its mouth open, causing 45 Grave’s “Partytime” to blast onto the soundtrack. All bets are off at this point and the movie becomes one amazing set piece after the other as the characters try desperately to survive.
A pair of paramedics check out Frank and Freddy and find that their vital signs indicate that they’re dead. Tina goes searching for Freddy and encounters the infamous Tarman (puppeteer Allan Trautman, Dinosaurs), who was reanimated from inside the military-grade tanks. This is our first introduction to the controversial concept of “the talking zombie.” At first, they appear only capable of monosyllabic speech, boiling down to the simple, but direct “BRAINS!” Later it’s revealed that they have quite the vocabulary. Again, the comedy aspect of the film forgives this very controversial decision. Also, the indication is that the army gas not only resurrects the dead, but allows them to retain their speech and motor functions, so it’s forgivable, but understandably divisive. There’s a fabulous trombone shot as Tina absolutely freaks at the sight of this nasty William Munns creation (Swamp Thing, The Beastmaster), one of the last pieces he’d work on before being fired from the production due to his lackluster work on a headless corpse and various zombie makeup effects. It’s not entirely Munns’ fault as the budget was low, but it does seem as though the producers made the right call to release him. Suicide and the gang attempt to rescue Tina but Suicide gets his brains eaten for his trouble.
Another slightly more problematic element is the familiar belief which Bart Simpson once aptly gave voice to: “Let's talk zombies. If a zombie bites you, you'll become a zombie. You must walk the earth, feeding on the brains of the living until the spell is broken.” Also, he did say they prefer to be called "The Living Impaired,” so I guess I’ve been very insensitive for this entire piece. Anyways, here too we learn that the only way to become a zombie is exposure to the gas. This idea gets a bit hazy as Trash is consumed by a group of elder zombies, a fantasy she alluded to earlier, but instead of having her brains devoured, she’s later seen as a confident, sashaying, naked, and very pale zombie with an extended monster jaw perfect for chowing down on the goo inside our heads. The attack occurs in the cemetery and it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that once she was bitten, she became a zombie, but considering all of the other victims simply die and have their brains eaten, there’s a lack of consistency here. To compound this problem, as the characters attempt to barricade themselves into Ernie’s funeral home, Scuz is bitten in a bloody scene. Actor Brian Peck vehemently argued that he should therefore come back as a zombie, but since he wasn’t exposed to the gas, he doesn't change. I’m inclined to side with Peck and it depends upon how much of a purist you are whether this is a major or minor problem in the film.
The zombie who bites peck is a half-corpse woman with beautiful blue eyes and some odd zombie tits. This fabulous animatronic effect was created by then-19-year Tony Gardner, who would go on to work on projects as varied as I Come In Peace, Hocus Pocus, and Army of Darkness. Here we get what I believe is one of the most vital ideas ever presented in a zombie film. Ernie, being an expert on death, asks the corpse why she eats people. She replies, “Not people...brains!” Don Calfa brings an excellent, quiet intensity to this interrogation as he digs deeper. She explains that a zombie can feel itself “rot” and brains “make the pain go away.” As an allegory for drugs, it’s smart and on a more simplistic level, it explains the traditional “mute” zombie’s desire to consume flesh.
The survivors decide to lock Freddy and Frank in the chapel, but Tina unwisely refuses to leave Freddy’s side. His eventual transition into full-zombie goes over about as well as you'd expect. He lashes out at her and demands brains, but Tina’s just not that kind of girl. Ernie manages to throw acid in Freddy’s face, causing blindness and resulting in what makeup artist Kenny Myers (Dead Heat, Star Trek VI, Humanoids from the Deep) referred to as the “Kabuki ghoul” prosthetic. Frank has escaped and was originally going to end up as another faceless zombie amongst the group, but James Karen came up with a brilliant and genuinely moving alternative. He removes his wedding ring and burns himself in the crematorium, a fitting and altogether more dignified end for a man who was just trying to impress a youngster. A running joke that elevates the absolutely desolate situation is the constant arrival of paramedics and police officers. The zombies are practically ordering pizza and it’s wildly funny when the police set up a pathetic barricade and are set upon by the fast-moving horde, another major step-forward as this film is often regarded as the first “fast zombie” movie, if you ignore Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980). Chaos ensues outside and the situation is genuinely hopeless. This makes the film’s “final solution,” to use a term Ernie’s namesake may have used, both appropriate, ironic, and horrifying.
Way back in the beginning, we’re introduced to Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry, the fabulous cheez whiz sandwich-eating hobo from Halloween 3), who's a real prick. He states that his day was “the usual. Crap,” and disappoints his wife since he already had lamb chops for lunch. He’s apparently still pissed that the tanks have been missing for 14 years. Burt finally bites the bullet and calls the number on the side of the tank. Glover listens politely and writes down all of the information. We get the feeling that salvation is at hand, but instead, a fucking nuclear bomb is dropped right on the spot, adding an apocalyptic but necessary end to both the zombies and the few survivors. It’s a damning indictment of the military’s “shoot first, ask questions later” motto and in its own macabre way, the fact that the resultant explosion merely releases more gas into the atmosphere and sets up the first of many sequels serves them right.
None of the sequels could measure up to the spirit and fun of the original, but they’re all amusing in their own way. The film launched the careers of many of the young performers as well as gave the older character actors a chance to show their stuff to a much younger generation. The acting may be hammy, but it syncs up with O’Bannon’s vision. It’s a film bursting with energy and is rightly regarded as horror-comedy done right.