The Return of the Living Dead, 1985.
Written and Directed by Dan O’Bannon.
Starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathes, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Miguel Nunez, Brian Peck and Linnea Quigley.
When a deadly gas is released at a medical supply warehouse, the dead are re-animated and immediately seek out their favourite food supply – brains.
Cinema audiences have been infected by the zombie virus in countless occasions. George A. Romero really fired the zombie sub-genre into the forefront of horror cinema. The 80s in particular, coinciding with the VHS boom, was bloated with films about flesh hungry zombies. One of the more successful films, and indeed film series, to step out of the Romero shadow was The Return of the Living Dead. This, the first of three films, was a cult hit and a film that continues to garner fans who finally get around to seeing it for the first time.
When two blithering idiots accidentally release a gas that triggers a zombie inducing rain over a neighbouring cemetery, a small band of locals find themselves in a fight for survival. This film is a blast. It wastes no time in getting things moving, and from then on it’s a groaning choir of brain eating madness. What sets this apart from other films in the genre, is the comedy element. This film has a lot of humour. It’s not an out and out comedy and not pushing for laughs, it’s just funny. Some comedy horrors play for the humour first and try too hard to gain the guffaws (a problem evident in the sequels), but Return of the Living Dead is strong mix of horror, gore and laughs. The entire cast play it a notch above scenery chewing. At times it’s a little pantomime, but wildly entertaining.
The cast are great. Each manages to ground their character into some kind of a reality whilst still raising the necessary laughs between the brain munching. Of particular delight is the chemistry between the two responsible for unleashing the zombie plague, played by Thom Matthews and the hilarious James Karen. Clu Gulagar as Burt, who is desperately over his head in trying to salvage the situation, is also excellent. The film is typically exploitative as well, and makes good use of Linnea Quigley’s fine assets.
Dan O’Bannon, as well as taking on his usual scriptwriting duties, also takes to the director’s chair. O’Bannon does brilliantly in creating something simple, entertaining and inventive. The effects are well done, if lacking the level of class of a Rick Baker or Tom Savini, but even when something looks a little silly on screen, it only adds to the charm of the film’s delightful silliness. The titular living dead also mark something of a change to the norm too, with a certain level of intellect. Granted, they’re still dumb as a box of spanners, but they manage to outwit the ambulance and police service (was O’Bannon trying to say something?). Elsewhere the film has a decent soundtrack too.
The Blu-Ray release looks brilliant and is also jammed packed with fascinating documentaries about the film and its creation. Not only that there’s a couple of short features on the sequels which are a superb insight into how the cast and crew of the first film felt about the direction the 2nd and 3rd took. Certainly though the amount of passion and enjoyment that went into making the first is clearly evident. It comes across on screen for sure.
This is still a horror classic. It’s a level bellow Romero’s best of course, but Dan O’Bannon crafted something brilliantly entertaining that didn’t try too hard. The film breezes by and is instantly quotable. Anyone expecting a pure zombie gore-fest or genuine scares may still be disappointed but the point of this was to do something a little bit different to the typical spec.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★