I love me some zombie movies. I feel drawn to them, like zombie is drawn to brains. But to understand something you have to understand its roots. And after three or four George Romero movies, you will end up here on your zombie journey So hold on to your brains for The Return of the Living Dead.
Click here to skip to the end for a SPOILER FREE REVIEW.
This show opens with Freddie getting his orientation for his new job at "Laid Back Medical Supplies". Freddie is wearing a sleeve-less t-shirt and suspenders, just to make sure we know we've arrived in the 80's. Trying to impress the new kid, the idiot Frank accidentally busts open a government barrel holding a zombie and a crap-load of orange zombie gas. When the two regain consciousnesses they discover the the cadavers, both dog and human, are alive again. They decide to call the boss.
During all this we meet Freddie's gang. With the exception of Freddie's girlfriend, they look like they were donated to the film by the Punk High-Schooler Emporium. Looking "to party", they go to wait for Freddie in the cemetery next door. There they listen to music, act tough, and get naked.
When boss-man Burt comes to the warehouse and determines they've got to kill the zombie cadaver. Follow the logic of the movies, they try to destroy the brain only to discover they can't be killed. Each separated body part is still out for murder.
Burt determines the only way to get rid of the zombie is to cremate it at the mortuary inside the cemetery. After hauling in bags full of dismembered-zombie to the mortuary, they convince the mortician to cremate the body parts. As the ash-filled smoke rises from the crematorium it's washed down by the ran onto the cemetery.At the same time Freddie and Frank are getting real sick. The original exposure to the zombie-gas is poisoning them. They call an ambulance to come get them at the mortuary.
As the cemetery and the kids are getting washed down, Tina goes looking for her boyfriend at the warehouse. Instead she finds the zombie from the government canister. She ends up trapped, but not to fear, because the 80's Rock Band comes to save her. Mr. Tough Guy get's his brains eaten out, but the rest manage to trap Tar Man in the basement.
Then the action really picks up. All the zombies in the cemetery rise up, eat Ms. Naked Girl, eat the ambulance paramedics, and chase most of the kids to the mortuary. Everyone barricades the mortuary and in the process capture a zombie. The zombie (which is both conscience and talkative) explains that eating brains placates the constant pain of death.
It becomes apparent that Frank and Freddie are turning into zombies and they get locked away. Burt and Mr. Token-Black-Kid jump in a car and head over to the warehouse, leaving Tina and the Mortician to hide from the Zombie Freddie.
All the while cops keep showing up and getting eaten. The situation is really getting out of hand, so Burt calls the number on the military canister This activates a military protocol in the form of a nuclear strike on the town.
The Good, the Bad, and the Gorey.
I love the period that this movie represents in the Horror Genre. Return of the Living Dead came out in the mid 80's. This is my favorite period of monster movies because it was all about the spectacle. It was a time that horror movies were established enough to start looking back at themselves. The genre started with the classic movie monsters like Dracula, Wolfman, Frankenstine, but as time went on, those monsters were revamped anew. The Howling and The Lost Boys were horror films that didn't establish the monster's background, assuming the audience already understood.
Return of the Living Dead does the very same. It even mentions George Romero's zombie movies by name. We don't have to have the annoying, "What is that? I think its a zombie. No it's just a crazy person. No wait, you were right, it's a zombie." Instead we just have complete focus on dealing with the zombies.
Now, I love George Romero. He will forever be the Godfather of all things Zombie. But Return of the Living Dead was pivotal to the creation of the zombie as we know it today. In this movie, writer and director Dan O'Bannon gave use the first fast/running zombies, the first speaking/logical zombies, and the call of zombies everywhere, "Braaains!" Granted it took a silly, humors movie to establish these elements, but movies like 28 Days Later and the Crazies all developed the concepts further.
As I've said before, I'm no lover of CGI gore, and this flick gave me models and makeup too my heart's content. The over-the-top theme of this movie is seen in the ridiculous gore. While not up to any Evil Dead levels, brains and blood fly freely on screen. I loved the zombie dubbed "Tar Man". He looks like a monkey covered in tar, but there is something about they way he moves his long, slender arms and legs that creeped me out good. And the amputee zombie made me jump for sure. Sometimes the models could come off as cartoon-ish, but in a funny, ridiculousness movie, I'm willing to forgive.
Once the movie takes off, the action is top notch. Zombies breaking down windows, tricking cops, charging checkpoints, biting open heads like nutcrackers. The accelerator jams down for the whole second half.
The acting in this movie isn't great, but it isn't suppose to be. All the characters are suppose to be one dimensional, clearly seen by the stereotypical personalities of "the Gang". The movie isn't about the characters, but about the events themselves, evidenced by the fact that everyone got nuked.
All that being said though, I do love watching James Karen loose his sh*t over the course of the film.
My biggest concern with this film is the pacing. The zombie hoards don't start amassing until 50 min in. Maybe I'm being picky but I think that is a lot of time to get going. Especially for a farce with no need for monster-background or character development.
I could pick at the cataclysmic everyone dies ending, but if you are watching horror movies for the neat, tidy endings, then you need to pick a different genre.
Why I Liked It
You might recognize Dan O'Bannon from his co-writer title on Alien. That's right Alien. One of my all time scariest movie. So it's clear that O'Bannon knows horror. Which was lucky for all of us because in order to do a farce of anything, you first have to understand it. Return of the Living Dead is funny. It pokes at the horror genre in general. You have blatant unnecessary nudity, the bumbling idiots of Frank and Freddie, the innocent damsel in distress, the unscrupulous business men in Burt. Plus the zombies themselves were funny. They talk and trick policemen into becoming their snacks.
I like this movie simply because it's fun. I love horror movies for all their classic dark terror, but it can be refreshing to see a movie break the norm every once and a while. This movie has scares and gross zombies in it, but it doesn't have the dark melodrama of most horror movies. There aren't any grave moral decisions to be made, no mirror of man's inhumanity, no condemnation of the hubris of scientists. Nope. It's just a zombie movie. Pure and simple.
I mean the zombies come out of the ground essentially singing.
SPOILER FREE REVIEW
The Return of the Living Dead is a must see. The film throws teenagers, medical supply employees, a graveyard into a bag, shakes it up, and spits out a classic zombie movie. With classic 80's gore and a couple of jump-at-ya scares it well fits the label of horror. However, set more as a farce of traditional, Romero-ian zombie flicks, this movie is funny. Enjoy the cliques and the stereotypes. It isn't horrifying or nail-biting, it's just fun.
A classic, humorous, fun. Let's not try and over think it.
Final Grade: A-