“Braaaains. More Braaaains.”
Return of the Living Dead came out in 1985. It was written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, the writer behind Alien, Lifeforce, and Total Recall. It’s sort of a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. It’s a campy, dynamic, generally amazing entry in the zombie movie canon. Basically the co-creator of Night of the Living Dead, John Russo, had the legal right to create his own series of sequels to Night of the Living Dead without George Romero. So while George Romero made Dawn of the Dead, Russo hired Tobe Hooper, who left the project to direct another O’Bannon script – Lifeforce. O’Bannon agreed to take over the project so long as he could completely rewrite the project to differentiate it from the Romero mythos.
BTW, because of the movie NSFW images within. Enjoy or flee. Your call.
The result is an audacious, ridiculous, entertaining zombie movie that ended up being a pretty important part of the zombie concept. The movie opens with a note that all the events portrayed are true, and the names involved have not been changed. Right off the bat that’s a pretty bold way to open your zombie movie. We then meet Freddy, a new employee of a medical supply warehouse. His boss, Frank, tours him around, explaining how everything works and showing him the medical cadavers they have in the back. Frank decides to impress the new worker by explaining a secret the company’s been keeping. Basically he reveals that the events of Night of the Living Dead more or less happened. A chemical spill made the dead rise and the military contained it. The film was meant to be an exposé, but the government threatened Romero (not actually named in the movie) into fictionalizing the events. The thing is the government accidentally shipped the company the corpses. This weird meta framework pretty much won me over instantly. Of course Freddy and Frank examine the canisters containing the corpses and one of them leaks, hitting them in the face.
Meanwhile Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina, is hanging out with her punk friends while they wait for Freddy to get off work. They barrel round in a convertible scrawled with punk slogans and all have weird adopted names. Spider, Trash, Chuck, Casey, Scuz, and Tina decide to kill time waiting for Freddy in a nearby cemetery. They hang out and Trash immediately takes her clothes off. She spends the rest of the movie sorta naked. The actress was actually wearing a weird Barbie doll plate between her legs, because heaven forbid your zombie movie have too much nudity.
In the medical supply warehouse the cadaver comes alive and Frank, Freddy, and their boss, Bert, try to kill it by bashing its head. “The movie lied,” Freddy squeaks. When destroying the brain doesn’t kill the zombie, they dismember it and take it next door to a mortuary to cremate it. Tina wanders over to the warehouse to pick up Freddy while they’re doing this. The smoke from the cremation seals into the clouds and falls back down onto the ground in the form of acid rain. Tina’s friends run in pain for the safety of their car. The still naked Trash is especially upset by the burning rain. Back in the mortuary Freddy and Frank, who were hit by gas leaking from the canisters, are getting increasingly sick. The mortuary owner calls an ambulance for them.
The punks run into the warehouse for cover and hear Tina shouting for help. The rolling, tar covered zombie from the canister is trying to eat her. He moans “brains” regularly. This is a significant invention of the movie, which started the zombies-eat-brains trope and the moaning in one fell swoop. They free Tina, but Suicide gets eaten. The zombie (a puppet controlled by a longtime Henson company animator) gets trapped in the basement. The rest of the group runs back into the graveyard in the hopes of finding Freddy.
The rain seeps through the soil into the coffins buried in the graveyard. The first zombie we see pop up is just a skull with eyes in it. A lightning flash illuminates him as a timely placed needle drop, “Party Time (Zombie Version)” by 45 Grave plays. “It’s party time!” More zombies roll out of the graves, running at the group. The next teen eaten is Trash, who later gets resurrected and runs around ferociously eating people, a grey naked corpse with a shock of red hair popping out of frightening places mouth-first.
The rest of the movie is pretty typical zombie fare. A group of survivors trapped in a location trying to get out. What makes this stretch of the movie more unique is the occasionally very funny tone the movie hits and the alarmingly good decision making of the survivors. They pretty much avoid all the expected bad-decision pitfalls, and the movie doesn’t make any kind of big deal about this. It’s also still frequently gross and frightening. Watching Freddy and Frank slowly turn into zombies is great, and a handful of the zombies are really dynamic and exciting.
Also great – the soundtrack, which includes The Cramps and The Damned.
The zombies in this movie, while influential for their brain lovin’ ways, are way outside the typical box. They move as fast as normal people. They’re not faster or slower at all. They’re also smart. They cajole and reason and use ambulance radios to lure more people to them. They’re also basically drug addicts, a theme that never really goes anywhere. Brains are the only way they can numb the pain of death.
The movie ends on a note that’s both spectacularly morbid and pretty amazing. The government kills four thousand some people with a missile when they find out about the walking dead. “I wouldn’t worry about the fires, the rain will put them out,” the General muses, mentioning the acidic nature of the rain shortly after. The acid rain is still falling, now on four thousand fresh corpses. A clip gets replayed and a skeleton emerges from the ground.
“It’s party time!”
Up next: Jennifer Connelly can psychically communicate with bugs, and that’s the least crazy part.