Written by: Rudy Ricci, John Russo, and Russell Streiner (story) & Dan O'Bannon (screenplay)
Directed by: Dan O'Bannon
Starring: Clu Gulager, Thom Mathews, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., and Linnea Quigley
Reviewed by: Brett G.
1968's seminal zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, is hailed as the groundbreaking arrival of its director, George Romero. Somewhat lost in the shuffle, however, is the film's co-writer, John Russo, who ended up retaining the rights to produce further "Living Dead" works, the first of which was a 1977 novel entitled Return of the Living Dead. Russo and producer Tom Fox then turned their attention to adapting the novel for the screen, bringing in Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon to write the screenplay and eventually direct the film. Featuring slapstick humor, awesome gore, and a wild cast of characters, Return of the Living Dead would become one of the greatest zombie films of all time. Ladies and gentlemen, do you wanna party?
Freddy is the newest employee at the Uneeda Medical Supply company, a firm that specializes in providing medical cadavers. The warehouse foreman, Frank, tells Freddy a spooky story concerning the events of Night of the Living Dead. Apparently, the 1968 film was based on a true event involving a toxic military chemical spill that reanimated dead corpses. Better yet, that same substance, 245 Trioxin, was mistakenly shipped to Uneeda and is resting in the warehouse basement. The two end up clumsily releasing the substance, which immediately begins to reanimate the corpses in the warehouse. Freddy and Frank are at a loss for a solution, so they call in their boss, Burt, who decides they must use a nearby crematorium to completely dispose of the undead body, which just won't die. This turns out to be a big mistake, as the fumes carry the Trioxin to a neighboring cemetery where Freddy's friends are killing time!
Return of the Living Dead dispenses the low-key, creepy tone of its predecessor, and instead trades it in for gore, shocks, humor, and, most of all, pure entertainment. The film is tongue in cheek from the opening title card that informs us that "the events portrayed in this film are all true," and that "the names are real names of real people and real organizations." Don't expect any socio-political commentary or musings on paranoia here; instead, expect a masterful blend of horror and comedy that's among the best the genre has to offer. That said, I'll go so far as to say Return of the Living Dead is just as vital and important to the zombie sub-genre as Romero's classic, if only because it shows that the undead can very much be a source of humor. Furthermore, the film has even influenced our perception of zombies, particularly their hunger for brains, which they vocalize at every turn. Plus, anyone who rues the recent rise of fast-moving, running zombies clearly wasn't paying attention to the frenzied undead here. While it seems Return of the Living Dead is generally hailed as a fine zombie film, it never seems to get enough credit for doing something different with the sub-genre in this respect.
Of course, it's never good enough to do simply do something different if the execution is lacking. That definitely isn't the case here, however, as the film is top notch all the way around: O'Bannon's direction is slick and stylish, and the film is never lacking for atmosphere. This is particularly true once all hell begins to break loose around the 35 minute mark, as the obligatory dark and stormy night really takes hold and is ever present. Furthermore, the film has a rich color palette and is full of ghoulish images. O'Bannon and crew truly made the most of the film's budget, as it's a classy looking production all the way around. It's a far cry from the guerrilla, low-budget look of Romero's film, but the polished look is appropriate for the Return of the Living Dead. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the humor here is just spot-on. Ranging from sight-gags to side-spilling verbal interactions, the film never fails to make audiences laugh as these characters are put through pure hell.
Said characters are the glue that holds the film together. In fact, the film sort of represents a personal Hall of Fame, as it's filled with some of my favorite genre actors, including Thom Mathews, Miguel Núñez, Linnea Quigley (and her breasts), and Clu Gulager. While Quigley's assets and and her graveyard strip-dance are the film's infamous show-stealer, I've always enjoyed Núñez's character, Spider. Though he seems to be the token tough-guy ethnicity, Núñez is able to bring a dimension of sympathy and charisma to the character (much like he did in his limited screen time as the ill-stomached and ill-fated Demon in Friday the 13th Part V). While some of the group is otherwise zombie-fodder, it's such a fun group as a whole to spend some time with, as there's great chemistry even between the older cast members and the younger ones.
However, the biggest show-stealer is Clu Gulager, who is also infamous for his portrayal of the indomitable Ken Walsh in Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Gulager's character Burt almost feels like an extension of Ken Walsh, as he brings the sort of no-nonsense incredulity to the character. Gulager absolutely leaves me in stitches as he attempts to maneuver around all the absurdity with a straight face, and I certainly can't get enough of him calling everyone "buddy-boy" at every opportunity. Truly one of the most underrated characters and performances in horror history. Speaking of chemistry, Gulager and Don Calfa play off of each other wonderfully, particularly in an early scene highlighted by Burt's awkward revelation that he needs his mortician friend to dispose of an undead body that he's hacked to pieces.
Despite all the comedy, Return of the Living Dead also succeeds as a horror film, as it's filled with some outstanding and gruesome effects. The film has some nice splatter elements, particularly when the zombies are feasting on their favorite delicacy. This one is truly one of the landmark "splat-stick" horror films, as it's a gloriously bloody romp that will leave weaker stomachs a bit squeamish. The zombie effects themselves are also among the best ever seen, as the film offers up a variety of ghouls in all shapes and sizes. Even the animatronic zombies are very lifelike and interact with the human cast in a believable manner. One of these zombies represents the film's signature character: the infamous Tarman, a hideous, decrepit zombie that terrorizes the cast to the bitter end.
Perhaps the most unsung aspect of the film are the 1980s themselves. Though the film is just as timeless and entertaining 25 years after its release, it's also so firmly rooted in an 80s milieu, particularly its punk aesthetic and soundtrack. If one were to make a short list of definitive 80s classics, this one would certainly make the list, and it's all the more charming for it. The film has been released by MGM on DVD twice, first in 2002, and then again in 2007 in the form of a Collector's Edition. The latter is the superior of the two, as it improves upon an already solid transfer and soundtracks. The release carries over most of the special features from the original release, including a documentary entitled "Designing the Dead" and a commentary with O'Bannon and production designer William Stout. In addition, the Collector's Edition also includes a newly recorded track with more cast and crew. two new featurettes looking back not only on the film itself, but other films of the 80s as well. Quite a package for a zombie film that will thrill you and chill you like no other. It's party time indeed. Essential!
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