During my freshman year of college, I had a hallmate (later a roommate) named Ted. One day, I mentioned that a movie I’d never seen, Return of the Living Dead, was going to be on TV that night*. Out of nowhere, Ted turned into a ranting lunatic. “Return of the Living Dead is the worst film I’ve ever seen. It’s the only movie that’s ever made me walk out of the theatre. It’s an insult to Night of the Living Dead**. It gets everything wrong!”
Ted wasn’t very good at the whole “humor” thing.
Dan O’Bannon, on the other hand, gets the humor thing. And the horror thing. Too few people know who he is, but almost everyone is familiar with his most famous screenplay -- Alien. Other folks might remember him as the co-writer and co-star (as Pinback) of Darkstar, still be best movie ever made featuring alien beachballs and sentient bombs. As a writer, he’s one of the unappreciated masters of horror, but he’s only twice stepped behind the camera and directed a movie. Return of the Living Dead was his directorial debut.
There’s a long and somewhat convoluted history of legal issues behind this film, and the split of the “Living Dead” franchise between John Russo (who wrote the novel on which this film is loosely based) and George Romero. I won’t go into it here because it doesn’t affect how much fun the movie is, and because all of you know how to use Google anyway.
The movie starts at the Uneeda Medical Supply Company, in Louisville, KY. Foreman Frank is showing new kid Freddy the ropes (which include cadavers, dog bodies, and other fun stuff). Eventually, while chatting, Frank reveals a secret. The movie Night of the Living Dead was based on real events (but changed significantly, because the government threatened to sue). An anti-marijuana crop-dusting gas actually reanimated the dead (talk about missing the mark -- this is why scientists working on anti-drug weapons shouldn't, you know, use drugs). And after the zombies were captured and placed in secure canisters, they were accidentally shipped to the Undeeda warehouse, where they’ve sat ever since!
Freddy doesn’t believe him, so Frank takes him down to the basement. Sure enough, there are canisters filed with corpses and a gas called Trioxin. Freddy asks if the canisters are sealed tightly, and Frank notes that it was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, so what could go wrong?
One Trioxin leak later, Frank and Freddy wake up and see that the canister is empty. They head upstairs, only to find that the mounted dog body (split lengthwise) and one of the cadavers have come to life (the latter shouting “brains” – yes, it was this series that inspired that most famous of zombie clichés). Worse, these zombies don’t die when the brains are destroyed. In fact, body parts keep moving on their own. Naturally, Frank and Freddy call their boss, who comes in, helps hack up the cadaver, and suggests they take the parts across the street to the funeral home, where they can use the incinerator.
Elsewhere, we meet Freddy’s girlfriend Tina, who is hanging out with a group of local punks. You know how all gangs in contemporary movies have to be multi-cultural, with at least one white member, one black member, one Hispanic member, etc? This is the punk equivalent. We’ve got one angry leather-wearing punk, a couple of mods, the punk-on-the-inside Tina, one guy who thinks that Rick James was punk, and Trash, a goth-punk.
Trash, played by future scream queen Linnea Quigley, steals much of the movie. While she and her buddies are hanging out in the graveyard waiting for Freddy, she talks about death. A lot. And she talks about the worst way she could imagine dying: being stripped naked and being eaten to death by old men. She then strips completely naked (yes, folks, this is that rare movie with full-frontal nudity) and dances and gyrates on a tombstone for a while.
Gotta love Linnea.
We also meet Colonel Glover, who is on call 24/7 (much to the chagrin of his wife), as the government searches for the canisters of Trioxin that have been missing for fifteen years.
Back to the funeral home, our heroes explain to escaped Nazi*** and current mortician Ernie**** that they’ve got “some rabid weasels” they need to burn, before an arm gets loose and the truth comes out. That convinces Ernie, who tosses the body parts into the incinerator.
Naturally, since this is a horror movie, it starts to rain. And the rain carries the trioxin-laced ashes right into the cemetery.
Fortunately, our punks have headed over to Uneeda, assuming that Freddy should be off work by now. Unfortunately, they encounter the zombie who’d escaped from the canister and was wandering around the basement. Say goodbye to the head punk.
Meanwhile, two paramedics have come to the funeral home to take a look at Freddy and Frank, and they come to a solid medical conclusion: They’re dead. See, they’re not breathing, they’re turning pale, their tongues are orange, and they have internal body temperatures of 70 degrees. There’s no way they should be walking around. Unless they’re turning into zombies.
You’d think that Trioxin would come with a warning label.
The paramedics leave, only to get ambushed by zombies. One of the zombies grabs the ambulance radio and tells the dispatcher to “send more paramedics.”
Meanwhile, the punks run for safety, but poor, naked Trash gets surrounded by a bunch of old zombies and, you guessed it, eaten to death.
The remaining punks make it to safety (with two of them holing up in a mausoleum), and the next half hour is zombie chaos, as Freddy and Frank get worse, zombies almost break in a few times (dispatching one more punk), and the heroes capture the upper half of a zombie for interrogation. Turns out that they like brains because eating them is the only way to stop the pain of being dead. If only these zombies had had Livejournal as an outlet for their angst!
Outside the funeral parlor, the zombies kill two more ambulance drivers, then the cops who come to investigate the missing paramedics (“Send more cops,” quoth the zombie). When more cops arrive (not knowing what they’re facing), the zombies ambush them. Trash, naked and somehow unblemished, is now amongst the walking dead.
Finally, two of our survivors make a run for a car, and end up making it to the mausoleum (where the meet up with two other survivors). Meanwhile, Freddy has become a full zombie, and he’s now after Tina (he loves her for her brains, after all). Even as Tina and Ernie hide in the attic, Frank (still a little bit human) decides to cremate himself rather than become a monster.
The folks in the mausoleum radio the cops, only to hear them get attacked as the zombies go on the offensive. However, news of what’s happening does eventually reach Colonel Glover, who authorizes a missile strike on Louisville to contain the plague. Just as Freddie bursts into the attic to kill Tina, the missile hits, and all our heroes and zombies are nuked. It was a tough call, but the world needed to be saved.
However, even as the nuclear cloud rises over this poor neighborhood in Louisville, we see the rain clouds start to gather, and the cycle looks like it’s about to begin anew.
Folks, this is a classic. Probably the first true classic I’ve reviewed this year. In fact, after NotLD, this is probably the single most influential zombie film of all time*****, and one of the best horror comedies out there. This film has it all – humor, gore, gratuitous nudity, a fun soundtrack, and perfect pacing.
Aside from Quigley, the wonderful cast includes Thom Matthews, Jewel Shepard and Clu Gulager, all of whom have done their share of fun B-movies. O’Bannon directs them brilliantly. Throw in some great zombie effects by Tony Gardner
Highest recommendation possible for this one.
A few notes on sequels: The second RotLD is a lot of fun (and features some of the same stars), even if it lacks the brilliance of the first one. The third loses the comedy elements, but features Mindy Clarke (pre-OC) in a near-career-making turn as a girl slowly turning into a zombie and attempting to control the pain. Both are worth catching.
The fourth and fifth (which attempted to be funny), however, are amongst the worst pieces of crap ever filmed. Rumor has it that they showed these “films” to the prisoners at Gitmo until Amnesty stepped in and insisted they use something more humane, like water-boarding. Avoid them like the plague.
The original Return of the Living Dead, however, belongs in every horror fan's library..
*This was back in 1990, before you kids had your fancy Tivos and the like. And since we were at Emory before the dorms were wired for cable, we had to make do with whatever the six crappy local stations chose to air, or with the few videotapes at Movies Worth Seeing or Blockbuster that we hadn’t seen. Also, we walked uphill both ways in the snow.
**This was about a month before Tom Savini’s NotLD remake, so there was no need to distinguish between versions.
*** Seriously. Dan O’Bannon had a mental backstory for this character of his being an ex-Nazi. He’s named after Ernest Kaltenbrunner, listens to German war marches, and has a picture of Eva Braun in his office.
**** Did I mention that the head of Uneeda is named Burt?
***** Evil Dead is not a zombie film, okay?