Ed note- Three classic zombie flicks came out within a few weeks of each other in the summer of 1985. I reviewed DAY OF THE DEAD as part of John Amplas Week this past spring, and yesterday, after four years of internet reviews, I finally wrote about RE-ANIMATOR. To finish things off, here’s a slight revision of my review of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which I actually wrote as the first of the trio, years ago for Icons of Fright. Reviews of the two sequels soon to come.- P.F.
1985: As George Romero planned to release the third installment in his DEAD saga, DAY OF THE DEAD, first-time director Dan O’Bannon was about to take Romero’s franchise in an entirely different direction. While Romero was intent on giving his audience “The darkest day of horror the world has ever known,” O’Bannon was busy turning everything in Romero’s universe on its ear. In the bargain, he created RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, a black comedy that is a wickedly brilliant twist on everything we knew about zombies.
As O’Bannon describes it in the disc’s featurette, this movie has an interesting back story. The original script, by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD co-writer John Russo, was supposed to be a very serious, direct sequel to Romero’s first film. O’Bannon, a screenwriter by trade, decided his rewrite had to veer away from Romero’s work, without ditching all connections to Romero’s franchise. When Tobe Hooper abandoned the project to make LIFEFORCE (from another script by O’Bannon, ironically), O’Bannon stepped in and fulfilled his lifelong goal to become a director.
O’Bannon’s script starts at the Uneeda Medical Supply Co. in Kentucky, on Freddy’s first day of work. Sitting in the office, his new boss Frank describes to him an intriguing revision of Romero’s universe. It seems the godfather of zombie films created a fictitious version of real life events in Pittsburgh, and the real source of zombification is in the Uneeda basement: a barrel of Trioxin. Eager to impress his new employee, bumbling Frank leads Freddy to the barrel, and then accidentally opens it. This awakes some corpses, including half a dog (you’ve really got to see this to believe how great this gag is). Trying to dispose of the body parts with a mortuary’s furnace only creates more zombies, and manages to turn some of Freddy’s friends into living dead.
Had all of this been done seriously, RETURN probably would have functioned as a decent zombie flick. But O’Bannon turns the whole affair into a black comedy, and in doing so creates a classic. Some of it is outright slapstick, as in the scene where Frank’s boss Burt tries to explain to funeral parlor owner Ernie that he’s got a problem with rabid weasels; or where a zombie puts in a lunch order over a CB radio. O’Bannon’s script is sharp, and never allows the film to veer into bad comedy. It also never lets the audience forget that this is a horror movie. Behind all the jokes, this is still a black and frightening film. The perfect example of this is the military’s final solution for the problem; it’s funny and grim at the same time. Horror comedies almost always fail, but O’Bannon straddles the line between jokes and scares admirably.
O’Bannon’s wisest decision was to take everything the zombie fan knew from Romero’s universe and subvert it. Blasting these zombies in the head would not kill them (as Freddy and Frank discover when they try to follow the rules established in NOTLD); in fact, nothing seems to destroy these undead. They run like panthers. They can talk. They can trick the living into becoming lunch, and they’re only interested in brains. Lastly, their victims do not reanimate.
These changes take the entire subgenre into uncharted territory, and give the movie an edge; anyone walking into this film expecting to find safety in the zombie rules swiftly finds himself in danger. Whereas every zombie film for nearly 20 years previous had followed Romero’s template, O’Bannon’s movie boldly reinvents things just as the master had, making RETURN a standout film.
O’Bannon’s also got a screwball cast who sell both the laughs and the tragedy of the material. Veterans such as Don Calfa, Clu Gulager and James Karen are in top form, as are the younger members of the cast, especially Thom Matthews as Freddy. Special mention needs to go out to Linnea Quigley as death obsessed, sex-starved punk Trash (she spends the entire second half of the film naked, unsurprisingly), and Alan Trautman as the Tarman, one of film’s unique zombies. The cast carries the material, with just the right touch to save it from becoming parody or overly moribund.
O’Bannon further elaborates about the movie in the disc’s two main extras. “Designing the Dead” runs 14 minutes, and is comprised of two separate discussions, with the director and the film’s production designer, William Stout. Stout spends most of his portion discussing the look of the zombies, and the influence of EC Comics in their creation. It’s a nice piece, but I don’t understand why it gives such prominence to Stout. He also contributes on the commentary, where he and O’Bannon discuss the film. The two men converse about all sorts of interesting background information, such as the real life genesis of Frank and Freddy’s discussion about buying skulls with perfect teeth from India. O’Bannon is quirky, and thus interesting to listen to. Stout provides much of the technical information. Both men obviously appreciate the film, and so the commentary is a success. Three trailers for the film and some artwork round out the package. Since I got my copy years ago, MGM has re-released RETURN in a Collector’s Edition; it ports over the two main extras, and adds some new ones. I haven’t purchased the new edition yet, so I cannot review the new material. But this movie’s worth a double dip.
Released in 1985 about a month after DAY OF THE DEAD, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD eclipsed Romero’s film at the box office, and achieved some critical acclaim. Romero’s darkest day failed to impress many fans by giving them more of the same, but O’Bannon’s offshoot turned the zombie rules upside down and became an instant cult classic. It’s a subversive masterpiece of black comedy, and one of the better zombie movies out there.