Review: Return of the Living Dead (O’Bannon, 1985)

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Companion review for Top 10 1980s Horror Films

George A. Romero set them free, and now the ‘undead’ refuse to lay silent in the grave. Like his walking-corpse creations, this sub-genre in horror cinema keeps birthing new young and they just keep coming. It could certainly be argued that no other genre produced such a high volume of utter rubbish, and even many fan favourites fit into the ‘so bad, it’s kinda good’ category. The shoestring budgets forgot to price-manage what decent scripts, actors or direction cost, happily throwing dollars, pounds, or lire at wet-decaying dead bodies, animatronic beasties, and old ladies whose heads would explode on ‘action’. Yet while critics continued to spit in the direction of any ‘Zombie’ film that came their way, there were a few shining lights in the otherwise excrement-filled coffin.

The Return Of The Living Dead is one such gem, that emerged in 1985, with director Dan O’Bannon at the helm. Having acquired John Russo’s script (Russo penned Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead) from producer Tom Fox, O’Bannon decided to turn his debut directorial project into a comedy, rather than make a serious sequel to Romero’s first ‘Dead’ film, which Russo’s script was. Using the concept, O’Bannon (most famous for writing one of the best films ever made: Alien) was able to infuse some much needed humour into his ‘dead arising from the grave’ story, creating a film in keeping with the demands of the target 1980’s audience.

The plot couldn’t be simpler, but the set-up inferring that what happened in Night Of The Living Dead was based on a true story, is a great inclusion and begins the film wonderfully. New-boy on the job, Freddy (Thom Matthews) is shown the ropes of working in a warehouse which specialises is shipping out fresh cadavers for medical research, by old-hand Frank (James Karen). ‘Have you ever seen that film ‘Night Of The Living Dead’, he asks Freddy, before spinning a tale of how corpses came alive in a hospital and started moving around all by themselves. He goes on to say that during a military mistake, the corpses were sealed and shipped to the wrong place. ‘….their in the basement..’ he tells the now quivering man, before taking him down to see them. Freddy wonders if the steal containers that hold the corpses are secure, so Frank bangs the container with his hand, believing that they are. Unfortunately for them, the container begins to leak allowing the gas that brings the lifeless to life, to spread into the air. Cue…the start-proper of The Return Of The Living Dead.

Of course, it just so happens that this place of work is right next door to a cemetery and a morgue, and has a dead body hanging by its ears in the freezer. The words: ‘wrong place, wrong time’ couldn’t be anymore fitting. While the ‘undead’ body count rises, the human fodder decreases and there’s plenty of hapless targets for the brain munches to feast on, namely a bunch of teens who decide to have a little midnight ‘nookie’ in the cemetery, and the cops and paramedics who unfortunately come to help them.

The great thing about O’Bannon’s film is that it never takes itself too seriously with its straight-faced, mocking of the conventions inherited from the ‘Zombie’ films before it. The director is having fun with his material, and this is clearly expressed in the actors. It’s the three older members of the cast that shine, with Clu Gulager as Burt, desperately trying to deduce the best options of dealing with the situation. It’s great to see a well-schooled, knowledgeable manager-type trying to figure out how to stop a dead body from eating his brain. Don Kalfa as Ernie, is also excellent, but it’s James Karen who steals the show. When talking about the human cadaver in the freezer he says, ‘like the rest of the business, you don’t want your inventory to lose its freshness.’ He has a little wry quirk with the sound of his voice that ends his sentences, which makes them unbearably funny, and his over-the-top antics, when things begin to go wrong, are hilarious.

O’Bannon pretty much assembles almost everything in the right place. The special make-up and animatronic effects are true low-budget old school fare, which gives the film a nostalgic touch, and while the gore and violence remains fairly timid and comic book, it never loses a gratuitous edge. Working off the idea of T + A – a staple of the blossoming ‘slasher’ genre at the time, the director has death obsessed, punk teen Trash (Linnea Quigley), run around naked almost the entire film. The laughs are very funny, and the scares have enough tension to balance it out, but where the film does fall down is in its conclusion. Sadistically, it’s quite funny, but it doesn’t really work, suggesting O’Bannon wasn’t too sure how he should end the film. Nevertheless, this movie is great fun and thoroughly recommended.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    I agree with Leonard Maltin’s prognosis, in which the critic suggests the film losses its footing when, towards the end, its tone and violence becomes more sadistic.

    Having said that, I enjoyed it – the part when Gulager is holding a baseball bat and says “I’m going to knock its block off” before the army storage zombie comes ambling out of the basement is truly funny.

    For obvious reasons the ending reminded me of Dr Strangelove – not just because it involves an atomic explosion, but because of the underlying pessimism.

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