The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

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*. The bacsktory to this film is of a complexity that only a lawyer could understand, or have any interest in. The bottom line is that after Night of the Living Dead the two co-writers of that movie — George Romero and John Russo — went their separate ways, with Romero starting a franchise of “Dead” films and Russo taking over the “Living Dead” moniker.
*. The Return of the Living Dead movies, however, weren’t really the brainchild of Russo so much as they were the product of the fertile imagination of Dan O’Bannon, who wrote and directed this lead-off to the series.
*. It was O’Bannon’s first “official” directing effort (his emphasis), and with it several significant changes would be made to the Romero zombie formula. The living dead would be faster, fully articulate, and more intelligent. They would also be somewhat sympathetic. Living death is a curse, and those afflicted are drawn compulsively to devour not just any human flesh but brains specifically. For some arcane reason this eases their pain.

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*. Most of all, however, the ROTLD films would be funny, or at least that’s how the series would start out. Realism would be thrown to the winds. It makes no sense, for example, that the decomposed corpses are able to speak, or that any human mouth could bite through skulls with such ease. In contrast, Romero always prided himself on the realistically stiff movement of his zombies. He wanted audiences, at least on some level, to believe.
*. Does its sense of knowing humour work against it? Kim Newman thinks so, writing that “The Return of the Living Dead is a movie that is self-destructed by its cynicism . . . too hip and spoofy for its own good.” I can see his point. The best horror-comedies retain a real atmosphere of terror, with the humour coming as a relief. Here there’s nothing very scary or suspenseful going on and it’s all played as a series of zombie skits.
*. Eco-horror: the barrels of improperly disposed toxic waste lead directly to acid rain. I wonder why there isn’t more eco-horror these days. The world’s pollution problem has only gotten worse.
*. Why doesn’t the Tarman eat the brains of Rank and Freddy when he breaks out of his tank? They’re both lying unconscious there. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been infected with the gas. When the Yellow Man is released, he runs past the two of them to attack Burt. But they still have “live brains” don’t they? Even though they have no vital signs, they haven’t flatlined into full zombiehood yet. Frank is still “live” enough at the end to want to kill himself rather than turn into a zombie.

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*. When Ernie suggests using acid on the zombies his friend Burt rightly remarks that there’s not enough of it. Which is so obvious one wonders why Ernie bothered mentioning it at all, except to introduce it later when Freddy is blinded.
*. The scene where the ambulance driver turns on the headlights to suddenly reveal the crowd of zombies is brilliantly conceived. Indifferently executed, but brilliantly conceived.
*. The gang of kids is a real pot-pourri of music and fashion. There are punks, preppies, nerds, and new wavers. All of them looking pretty ridiculous by today’s standards. God, the ’80s were an awful time.
*. I guess it’s interesting that Ernst Kaltenbrunner was an actual Nazi official, and that his namesake Ernie here has a photo of Eva Braun on the wall, a German pistol, and a crematorium deliberately modeled (by O’Bannon) after Auschwitz. But what of it? I’m not sure what the point is. As we see him here, Ernie is a fully sympathetic figure.
*. Let’s call Linnea Quigley the sexiest zombie ever and get that award out of the way. I’ll confess, what I found most remarkable about her performance was her apparent lack of pubic hair, which was definitely not the style in the mid ’80s. That came later.
*. Here’s the story: on her first appearance it was remarked that her pubic hair would never get by the censors, so she then shaved it off. This, apparently, only made things worse. She then wore a prosthesis that gave her a plastic pubis which I gather is what we see her in (though I certainly can’t tell that she has anything on). In any event, she probably advanced the pubic grooming movement considerably with her role in this film, which may endear her to some and make her a public (or pubic) enemy to others.

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*. The Tarman is excellent, but he’s really the only good effect in the film. The yellow man sequence is a joke, the acid on Freddy’s face looks like layered-on putty, the torso woman is a simple puppet, Linnea Quigley’s “open jaw” mask can only be seen for fractions of a second because the mouth was fixed in one position, and most of the extra zombies just seem to have some colour added to their faces.
*. The production designer was very unhappy and fired the original makeup man William Munns, but given the very low budget I’m not sure how much more could have been done.
*. There’s a really interesting documentary on the making of the movie, More Brains!, that gives you a feel for what all was happening behind the scenes. It was not a happy set. From the dissatisfaction with Munns’s work to O’Bannon’s notoriously difficult personality and other conflicts among the cast and crew, it sounds like it was a tense time. It’s surprising for any of this to come through in a documentary feature like this; usually everyone is just happy and complimentary to one another. Not here.
*. It’s a decent little movie, but let’s not get carried away. It’s clever (at times) and fun, but it’s no cult classic. There’s a lot of material that doesn’t work, it’s dated, and it often tries too hard. What I mean by that last point is the party music, the characters who just scream at each other, and the final credits that play over the best parts of the movie we just watched. I enjoyed them enough the first time.

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