The 1980s was, of course, a bumper decade for we horror fans. There was the rise of the slasher flick, with Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers haunting our theaters every couple years, and nightmarish Freddy Kruger hit the scene in a successful franchise of his own. Tales From The Darkside, Friday the 13th: The Series, and Freddy’s Nightmares were all over the television, and films like The Howling, New York Ripper, The Shining, and The Boogens filled the theaters. Even longstanding genre staples like Psycho and Texas Chain Saw Massacre got the ’80s makeover with long-awaited sequels. From this genre boom, there are several films that stand out in our collective memories as “iconic” films from the time, films that captured the vibe of the decade, movies like Evil Dead, The Re-Animator, and The Lost Boys…
…but for me, there is one in particular that always takes me back to those days of my youth; the 1985 Dan O’Bannon film, Return of the Living Dead.
We start with a young guy named Freddy, working a little late on his first day, learning the ropes of his new job at the Uneeda Medical Supply Company. The manager, Frank, is giving him the broad strokes tour; packing skeletons for shipment, showing him where items are stocked, including bedpans, split dog bodies for veterinary uses, prosthetic limbs…and of course, cadavers used for research purposes. After the owner, Bert, leaves for the day, Frank regales Freddy with a tale of military chemicals they mistakenly received some years ago that allegedly made the dead rise and move about.
Not satisfied with just the telling, Freddy wants to see the vats of the noxious waste and corpses that are supposed to even yet be sitting in the basement, and sure enough, Frank obliges. The simple viewing goes awry, however, when the pair unwittingly release a mist that permeates the warehouse, reanimating the only cadaver (and the split dogs, butterflies…hell, anything that was dead). In a panic, they get Bert to come back to the office, who (trying to avoid bad publicity or government snooping) persuades his friend Ernie, the mortician across the street, to burn the evidence of the accident in his crematorium…but the resultant smoke infuses low-lying clouds, and the rain that inevitably comes falls directly onto the adjacent (and ironically-named) Resurrection Cemetery, where a group of Freddy’s friends are gathered, awaiting his departure from work…
Right out of the box, this flick starts out like any low-budget horror flick; the randy teenagers out on the town, the setting of a place that deals in human cadavers, the kinda crazy older guy that works there passing on a tale of horrors past…all tropes that we’ve seen before. It’s not long, however, before things start rolling in a different direction, and you know you’re watching something special. The story itself borrows its concept directly from the classic Night of the Living Dead, but it becomes more of a conspiracy theory/science-gone-wrong story that’s likely not the single most original thing you’ve ever seen; however, that’s not where the magic in this movie lies. John Russo’s story is creative and impressive, and Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay and direction runs with it; after the introduction of the players and the establishment of the crisis, the interaction between characters often becomes hilarious, and the situations they find themselves in are at times as comedic as a Three Stooges short. Still, it keeps it’s “horror film” edge because it’s all played unwaveringly straight; blood and guts fly amongst performances of physical comedy that could almost be slapstick at times, yet everything remains deadpan serious; this juxtaposition is situational comedy at its finest.
That said, the film is not a self-aware laugh-fest like Evil Dead or Shaun of the Dead; it’s still a horror movie at it’s heart, just with a clever and refreshing overlay of humor; the oft-told tale of a hodgepodge of different characters banding together to attempt to survive an apocalyptic situation is told here with a wink and a nod, but still maintains a sense of seriousness; hell, there’s even some drama peppered in at times. Also, the script gave us several elements were used for the first time in some cases, including “fast” zombies, conversational undead, and the now-cliche phrase, “BRAAAAIIINNNSSS!!!”
Performance wise, Clu Gulager as Burt delivers his lines stony-faced and dead serious, regardless of the fact that they often come across with brilliant comedic timing. Co-stars Don Calfa (whose character of Ernie is oft-debated to be a Nazi war criminal in hiding; there are little hints in the flick, but you’ll have to make that call for yourself) and James Karen as the emotional yet ridiculously funny Frank are outstanding in their portrayals.
The group of young people appear at first to be your stereotypical horror flick fodder, but all is not as it seems; there are genuine personalities demonstrated in the performances, and despite all, you begin to sympathize with (and cheer for) even the weirdest of the bunch before its all over (a standout is a very early performance by scream queen Linnea Quigley, in what could be called a very ‘revealing’ role). The deliciously practical gore and makeup effects are outstanding, with blood flying and gruesome countenances abounding, and some of the “hero” zombies are amongst the most memorable ever committed to film. There was also some ingenious prosthetic and puppet work to complement the effects, resulting in convincing characters with certain attributes that would have been virtually impossible to achieve with real human beings. Finally, you can’t discount the music that was chosen for the soundtrack; the eclectic mix of rock, metal, and alternative songs (by artists like The Cramps, T.S.O.L., and Roky Erickson, to name a few) made this film stand out to us back then as one that belonged uniquely to our generation, and firmly anchors it today to it’s status as an iconic ’80s flick. It’s the only movie soundtrack that I had in my cassette tape case in the back floorboard of my car back in high school, and is still one that I own today.
I love this film, peeps; it’s far and away my favorite horror-comedy out there, and one of my top five favorite zombie flicks. It’s got you covered in all the proper horror movie departments (creepy set pieces, gratuitous nudity, realistic and over-the-top gore), and will have you laughing like hell at how ludicrous it all is. It manages to keep its tongue firmly in its cheek, yet never delves into outright forth-wall parody, and that’s an achievement. For you zombie fans, this flick is a must…but even if you’re not a zombie fan, I’ll bet that there’s still a good time in this flick for you!
I can’t recommend this one enough, folks; for a fun time with a horror flick, it’s hard to beat.
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