October Horrorshow: The Return of the Living Dead

The October Horrorshow continues on Missile Test, when we devote the entire month of October to watching and reviewing horror films. Today’s entry is tongue-in-cheek cult zombie classic The Return of the Living Dead, written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, from a novel by John A. Russo, co-creator of Night of the Living Dead. In its own way, Return is a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, although that film’s director, George Romero, had no involvement, and had already directed his own sequels to his legendary zombie progenitor. How this came about was the result of legal wrangling between Romero and Russo. Details aside, they had a falling out, and the original film spawned competing strings of sequels and continuity that continues to this day.

As for the movie, it cleverly weighs in on the split between Romero and Russo. In it, one of the characters, Frank, deftly played by James Karen, explains that the original movie was based on a true incident that took place at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Pennsylvania, where experimental chemicals were spilled and seeped down into the morgue, bringing the dead soldiers within back to life. The military covered it up, but somehow the original filmmakers found out about it and decided to make a movie. The military forced the filmmakers to change the facts around or face retribution. Thus Night of the Living Dead was born, and so was this new fictional continuity ready for Return to explore.

Frank is an employee of Uneeda Medical Supply, and he’s showing a new employee, Freddy (Thom Mathews), the ropes. He tells the true story of the VA hospital to impress Freddy, then reveals that in attempting to dispose of the bodies, the military mistakenly shipped the corpses right to Uneeda, and that they were stored down in the basement. Of course, the metal drums they were shipped in are inadvertently breached by Frank, and things escalate from there.

Two groups populate the film, alternately merging and separating throughout. One group consists of the Uneeda employees and their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), and later an embalmer from a cemetery across the street from the warehouse named Ernie (Don Calfa). The others are Freddy’s punk friends, teens or twenty-somethings from the wasteland of urban 1980s. They have such loving names as Spider, Suicide, Scuz, Trash, and Tina. Both groups end up in the cemetery, and they learn the hard way that a graveyard is the worst place in the world to be during a zombie outbreak.

The cast is very able throughout. To a man, they work with the humor of the script with aplomb, giving abject lessons in how to play straight when things get laugh out loud funny. That’s right, The Return of the Living Dead is a funny movie. It’s peppered with deadpan one-liners and absurdist comedy, despite all the blood and guts, of which there is a fair amount.

And then there are the zombies. Dan O’Bannon did much to differentiate his film from those of Romero. As everyone knows by now, Zombies are slow and lumbering. Not here. In Return they will run you down. We also know that if one can’t get away from a zombie, that’s not the end of the world. Just destroy the brain and you destroy the zombie. Wrong again. In Return the undead really are undead. Nothing short of complete incineration can get rid of them. Next, we learned from Night of the Living Dead that only the unburied dead are a threat, which would make a cemetery no more dangerous than a field of corn. Nope. O’Bannon’s ghouls can claw their way up from six feet under in search of food with no trouble at all. That’s another thing. Whereas Romero’s zombies were not particular about which part of their victims they ate, O’Bannon’s undead are picky eaters, preferring only brains. You can tell this about them because they constantly shout “Braaaiiiinnnnssss!!!!!” while they chase down their prey, making them far more articulate than the grunting beasts of other zombie fare.

This differentiation is good. It brings variety to the genre, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It keeps things fresh. Besides, rules in fiction make no sense. Bravo to Dan O’Bannon.

There are many unique zombies in the film. Of special note is Tarman, a slime covered zombie that gets a fair amount of screen time in the middle of the film. If you have a sick sense of humor, you’ll love Tarman. In fact, a sick sense of humor may be required to enjoy this movie at all.

The Return of the Living Dead is exploitative schlock. There’s no kinder way to say it. There’s gore, gratuitous nudity, bad language, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s good exploitative schlock, if that makes any sense. There are some reasons to hate this film, but if a viewer tucks away their sense of decency before the opening credits, there are a million reasons to love it.