Tag Archives: Dan O’Bannon

CAPSULE: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)

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DIRECTED BY: Dan O’Bannon

FEATURING: Clu Gulager, Don Calfa, James Karen, Thom Mathews,

PLOT: Workers at a cadaver warehouse accidentally release an experimental army chemical that reanimates the dead and, together with a band of punks, find themselves fighting hundreds of brain-eating zombies.

Still from Return of the Living Dead (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s essential cult movie viewing, but it’s not inside the perimeter of the weird.

COMMENTS: In the mid-1980s horror movies realized that, in a post-Leatherface/Michael Meyers/Jason/Dawn of the Dead world, it was fast becoming impossible to shock jaded horror audiences with escalating gore. The response was to embrace, and exaggerate, the campy aspects of the genre. By 1984, wisecracking Freddy Krueger and his groaner puns supplanted the silent masked killers of just a few years earlier. Along with 1985’s bloody-but-wacky Re-Animator and the increasingly cartoonish horrors of , Return of the Living Dead was in the vanguard of the new tongue-in-cheek horror movement, helping to start a cycle that reached an artistic apex with 1987’s Evil Dead II (verifying the trend towards black comedy, II was itself an outrageously campy sequel/remake of the earnestly grim 1981 original).

While took horror’s basement budget subgenre into ridiculous realms of farce with The Toxic Avenger and its ilk, Return got the tone just right, adding reassuring flecks of “you shouldn’t take this seriously” to the script in a way that didn’t mar its legitimately scary and thrilling aspects. Return‘s jokes range from the blatant and silly (a zombie grabs a walkie-talkie from an abandoned ambulance and advises the concerned dispatcher to “send more paramedics”) to the subtle and silly (a pair of the survivalists are named “Burt” and “Ernie”). But the gags are just opportunities to catch your breath as the zombies close in, not the entire point of the show. Return captures the siege mentality of its inspiration, ‘s Night of the Living Dead. The victory of the ghouls is inevitable, because the dead outnumber the living. The victims, funeral industry workers and a gang of “punks” trapped in the melee while partying in the cemetery, can’t hope to defeat the undead. These corpses are particularly resilient—if you chop them up into tiny pieces and throw them in a garbage bag, the dismembered parts continue squirming. They are, in fact, nearly indestructible. The living can only hope to hold out long enough for the National Guard to arrive. Along the way come some imaginatively freakish sights, such as quivering half-dog zombies (the FX are not great by today’s standard, but it’s the concept that chills you) and the interrogation of a female corpse who’s missing the lower half of her body. Add in proto-Goth Linnea Quigley’s full-frontal nude dance among the tombstones (which is about as much Eros as a teenage boy in the 1980s could take with his Thanatos without exploding) and you have a trashy but timeless horror spectacle.

Scream Factory released a 2-Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” of Return in 2016, with four different commentary tracks (!), including contributions by director O’Bannon and a number of the cast members. The set also includes unused scenes taken from the work print and a definitive 2-hour documentary on the film (More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead) among its comprehensive encyclopedia of supplemental features.

Happy Halloween!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style. It is.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).