Retro Review: Return of the Living Dead
When writer John Russo ended his collaboration with George Romero for their classic Night of the Living Dead, part of the arrangement was that he would retain the rights to utilize “Living Dead” in the title of anything else he worked on. While Romero went on to make thought provoking and more upscale sequels based from their flick, Russo decided to take his “Living Dead” and slap it onto a unabashedly vulgar, violent, punk rock zombie movie.
On the first night of his new job, Freddy only wants to make a good impression on his senior coworker Frank. Frank however would rather show this new kid a barrel in the basement belonging to the federal government. Naturally it is opened and starts a chain of events which forces them to incinerate a body in a local mortuary and the smoke from that intermingling with rain falling on the nearby cemetery resurrecting the dead. Coincidentally at the cemetery is Freddy’s punk rocker friends who find themselves pursued by the growing zombie threat. Inevitably the undead brain-munchers set traps for oncoming first responders and begin to spread into town forcing the government to take desperate measures.
Behind this scenes of Return of the Living Dead there was a lot of job switching around in the lead-up to production. The most prominent change being to the director’s chair, as horror legend Tobe Hooper was originally set to helm this flick with his gritty and violent style. However the making of this film conflicted with the making of Lifeforce, forcing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre director to bow out. Luckily, fan favorite screenwriter Dan O’Bannon who had been working on the final draft of this flick slid into the director’s chair with ease.
Though the characters in this film come off as cartoonish, and in Linnea Quigley’s case take off their clothes and unexpected and inappropriate times, they react in ways which are very real and expected. Once the dead rise and start coming for their brains they collectively freak out and panic. Even the characters played by James Karen and Clu Gulager who one would expect to be the adults in this situation. One would assume famed scream queen, Linnea Quigley helped mentor her castmates in how to be appropriately terrified. This is refreshing, as often in zombie films you see the inevitable alpha male who steps up in the group and leads everyone into making improbable head shots on the undead threat. Unlike the usual ensemble of humans one finds in zombie movies, these characters are familiar with the tropes we all know. In fact they even mention Night of the Living Dead in the opening minutes. The problem is the zombies in this flick subvert all expectations the characters and viewers have.
Speaking of shooting/removing the head, those who try that on the zombies from Return of the Living Dead, will be sadly disappointed. In this particular film chopping a zombie to pieces only means those pieces will come after you. Further subverting zombie tradition, these monsters also speak and in one memorably creepy moment, a zombie is even captured and questioned by the humans revealing the dark hunger which plagues the undead. In order to get their fill of brains, the zombies of Return of the Living Dead even show rational thought and a mental prowess far beyond any of the other undead corpses usually seen onscreen. In fact one of the movies most memorable elements is seeing the hordes of the undead plot ways to bring more victims to them at the cemetery through using the emergency radios of the EMT’s.
Return of the Living Dead is a violent and dark flick with a bleak ending, yet somehow their is a great sense of humor through it all. This is a driving element as to why Return of the Living Dead is one of the most beloved zombie flicks in the genre. In the early 2000’s fans launched a campaign to have the film receive a proper DVD release in the US, to which MGM finally had to relent. Naturally over the years there have been sequels and while Return of the Living Dead Part II was good fun the others were quite miserable. Considering the impact left on the zombie genre, this is a flick any self-respecting horror fan should check out.