Thursday, March 24, 2022

Review: "THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD" is Still Alive and Kicking

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 16 of 2022 (No. 1828) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Running time:  91 minutes (1 hour, 31 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Dan O'Bannon
WRITERS:  Dan O'Bannon; from a story by Rudy Ricci, John Russo, and Russell Streiner
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Jules Brenner (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  Robert Gordon
COMPOSER:  Matt Clifford


Starring:  Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Miguel Nunez, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Mark Venturini, Jonathan Terry, Cathleen Cordell, and Allan Trautman

The Return of the Living Dead is a 1985 comedy horror film written and directed by Dan O'Bannon.  The film is indirectly related to the seminal 1968 zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead.  The Return of the Living Dead focuses on a small group of people trying to survive a riot of brain-hungry zombies that are raised from the dead by a strange poison gas.

The Return of the Living Dead opens early on the evening of July 3, 1984 in Louisville, Kentucky.  At the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse, owner Burt Wilson (Clu Gulager) is leaving work for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, leaving his employee, Frank (James Karen), behind to close-up shop and to also train new employee, Freddy (Thom Mathews).  Frank tries to impress Freddy by showing him some old container drums that the U.S. military mistakenly shipped to Uneeda and are now stored in the warehouse basement.

What Frank does not know is that the drums also contain a toxic gas called “2-4-5 Trioxin.”  Frank accidentally unleashes the toxic gas from one of the tanks, which knocks him and Freddy unconscious.  When the two bumbling employees awaken, they discover that the gas has reanimated a medical cadaver stored in the warehouse's cold locker.  Frank and Freddy call Burt back to the warehouse, but everything they do to solve their “zombie” problem makes matters worse.  That includes asking Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa), owner of Resurrection Funeral Home, for help.

Meanwhile, Freddy's girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), and his friends: Spider (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), Trash (Linnea Quigley), Chuck (John Philbin), Casey (Jewel Shepard), Scuz (Brian Peck), and Suicide (Mark Benturini), arrive to meet Freddy at his job.  But they don't know what's about to happen at the Resurrection Cemetery, next door.

As long as I can remember, I have read print and online articles and commentary that refer to The Return of the Living Dead as a cult movie.  I never had much interest in watching it.  Over the past year, however, one of my cable movie channels started showing its sequel, Return of the Living Dead II (1988), which I have found to be mildly entertaining.  But that channel never shows The Return of the Living Dead, so after a long stint on the waiting list, I got it from (a Netflix company).  Wow!  I wish I had watched it a long time ago.

The Return of the Living Dead is like no other zombie movie.  It is apparently the first to feature zombies that run and also talk.  Its zombies only want to eat the brains of living humans and not the rest of the body.  The Return of the Living Dead's mood and pace are accented by its musical score (by Matt Clifford) and by its soundtrack (which was also released as an album in 1985).  The Return of the Living Dead is a punk rock comedy and rock 'n' roll zombie movie driven by two punk rock sub-genres, “death rock” and “horror punk,” that emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The songs give the film a freewheeling spirit that carries it through any narrative bumps and inconsistencies.

The film owes much of his identity, spirit, and success to writer-director, the late Dan O'Bannon (1946-2009).  He was one of the most imaginative and genre-busting screenwriters in the history of American science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, writing for such films as Alien (1979) and Total Recall (1990).  O'Bannon produces a film that acts as if it owes nothing to the zombie fiction and horror storytelling that came before it, while gleefully cutting and pasting bits and pieces of American pop culture all over itself.

The casting of this film is an accidental work of brilliance.  All the actors are pitch perfect:  tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top, comically straight, and slyly satirical.  James Karen and Thom Mathews are perfect as Frank and Freddy, respectively, the bumbling employees that release the gas which turns the dead into zombies.  Actor Clu Gulager, who always played the “White Man” boss/leader type, plays Burt Wilson with a artfully satirical edge that is easy to miss.  Linnea Quigley personifies a kind of punk sex goddess and later a deadly sex creature.  As “Spider,” actor Miguel A. Núñez Jr. creates what is one of my favorite male African-American horror movie characters.

The Return of the Living Dead is now one of my favorite zombie films, and perhaps, it is a coincidence that one of my other favorites, George A. Romero's underrated post-apocalyptic jewel, Day of the Dead, was releases the same year, 1985.  [Or maybe something was trying to warn me about the future.]  I highly recommend The Return of the Living Dead (which is available in a “special edition” DVD) and its soundtrack.  This is the most fun I have ever had watching a zombie film … or zombie anything, for that matter.

8 of 10

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

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