The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Let me ask you a question, kid. Did you see that movie ‘Night of the Living Dead?’ …Did you know that movie was based on a true case?”

You know a horror-comedy is not going to hold back its punches when right from the opening title card there is already a joke. It dares to claim that the events and people found therein are based on truth. Its self-awareness is sharp, fresh, and pointed; writer-director Dan O’Bannon is clearly a lover of not only undead pictures but of movie-making that incites overt reaction from the audience. “The Return of the Living Dead” can be enjoyed when alone on the couch. But it is preferred that it be experienced as a group as the collective fever of laughter fills the room.

This is not just a movie that offers terrific special and makeup effects. Given that the premise involves a chemical leakage from a U.S. Army tank which houses a zombie from the “actual” case that inspired George A. Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” the work makes a statement about how we treat our environment, specifically the waste we put out there for the air to spread and for the soil to absorb. Everything comes from the ground—yes, even the air we breathe. (A prime example is the water cycle—which, to my surprise, is incorporated in the film in a most humorous fashion.) And so wastes we put out there make us sick and eventually kill us. Hence, zombies rising from the Earth, taking over, and eating our brains.

The picture uses every trick in the horror manual—except for CGI—to create grotesque, gross, curious, horrifying, and morbid imagery, from mannequins and old school puppets to animatronics and people sporting masks or heavy cosmetics. Not one technique used comes across as perfect, but there is an infectious joyousness in how they are utilized and framed. I enjoyed that it is almost always not enough to show a disgusting or unusual image and pass that off as entertainment. These images are often accompanied by an auditory gag, shocking acrobatics, or reference to other zombie movies. It feels like a love letter to undead films that came before, but at the same time it has two goals: to turn expectations inside-out and to push the sub-genre in new directions. Either way, it strives to make us laugh throughout.

I enjoyed all the characters here, from the medical supply warehouse foreman named Frank (James Karen) giving a tour to new recruit Freddy (Thom Matthews), who is a bit dim, to the punk rockers (one of them Freddy’s girlfriend played by Beverly Randolph) hanging out at the cemetery—which is right next to the warehouse with the zombie tanks sitting in the basement, which is so not a coincidence. The picture jumps back and forth between the two locations. Energy builds on top of one another until the two groups are required to meet at some point. Every person has a personality… even the undead.

These zombie are no slackers that lumber about waiting for food to walk by. They run. One is already a threat. Facing a horde is terrifying. But a noteworthy trait: These reanimated corpses can speak. “Brains!” “Send in more cops.” “More paramedics.” And another: They have the ability to plan an attack. Because the zombies possess intelligence, we believe that the living running away from them truly are in danger. And if that isn’t enough: Killing them is much, much harder in this film. A harsh blow to the head or a gunshot to the brain isn’t enough. Nor is beheading the zombies. It changes the rules. Not just because it can.

Because its purpose is for us to consider: What is the undead’s relationship to the overall message of the story? More specifically, environmental issues are solved not by one, or two, or five solutions. It is not enough to recycle. Or plant trees. Or manage output of industrial plants. It requires putting politics aside and doing all that we can on every front we can come up with—in an efficient, consistent, and reliable fashion. “The Return of the Living Dead” is progressively pro environment, demanding that we take responsibility for our the betterment of our home through action. It is also riotously funny, stylish, and deeply entertaining.

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