Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1984, it was still possible to make a gore film - where zombies bite into human heads, and half a
woman on an autopsy table writhes while answering questions about why she wants to eat our
brains - and still get an R rating. The Return of the Living Dead is a comedy, and not a
bad one. It starts out with a creepy premise that has instant 'campfire story' appeal, and builds
quite nicely into an orgy of brain-chomping hi-jinks. Of course, the whole thing is in
lousy taste, but it's also unpretentious, and as about as much fun as a zombie gore film can be.
The Uneeda Medical Supply Company in Louisville is closing down for the 4th of July
weekend, when overeager stock manager Frank (James Karen) shows new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews)
some cans mistakenly delivered by the Army 14 years ago, reputed to have been the cause of a breakout
of zombies that was twisted into what became known as the Night of the Living Dead. Frank
unwisely kicks one of the cans, which leaks a noxious gas ... starting a chain of unfortunate events.
The corpse in the opened can comes to icky life, along with a cadaver in the freezer. Freddie and
Frank hack the cadaver to bits, but even the bits refuse to die. So along with their boss Burt
(Clu Gulager), they haul them next door to the mortuary, where friendly embalmer Ernie (Don Calfa)
obliges by shoving 'em into his crematorium. Freddie's punk
friends are hanging out in the adjoining cemetary, waiting for him to get off work, when the smoke
from the burning cadaver begins to affect the dead in their graves ...
By the early '80s, gore was on a roll in horror offerings that saw plenty of
theatrical action in secondary distribution patterns. Homegrown independent George
Romero had started it all, and followed through with parts 2 and 3 of his Dead trilogy.
Upstart Sam Raimi was showing talent with his shoestring
Evil Dead, and whatever grindhouses
left to book were inundated by imported Fulci films that, even when partially censored, served up
gutwrenching thrills as entertainment.
An authorized sequel to Night of the Living Dead (on the producer/writer side), The Return
of the Living Dead wisely realized that after a decade of reanimated zombies, gore movies were
already being received in the theaters as de facto comedies. So the talented Dan O'Bannon
wrote and directed this show allowing his cast to play straight-men to a horde of joke-cracking
animated corpses. The film certainly doesn't take itself too seriously, and is completely
unpretentious, qualities that make it a lot easier to watch than ponderous stomach-turners like
City of the Living Dead.
Through simple domino plotting, O'Bannon brings to life what should be a thoroughly dessicated
plotline: a dumb accident with a secret U.S. Army zombie shipment 1
is compounded by typical bad decision making. The film can be described as an exaggerated
industrial safety short subject, where one's job & company esteem is placed ahead of common sense -
with disastrous results. Although his overplayed punk teenagers are jammed into the story
far too conveniently, O'Bannon does a good job creating some credibly fun characters. Clu Gulager
is a convincing Mister Practical boss whose coverup attempt backfires, and underused character
actor Don Calfa 2
makes a wonderful, goofy embalmer. None of the characters are called on to do illogical
things to keep the plot rolling; the nice thing here is that they all remain likeable, even when some
are turning into zombies themselves. Through embalmer Eddie's sober observations, we even get a
human-into-zombie metamorphosis that plays with convincing credibility.
The weak link are the overage punks assembled for the obvious purpose of becoming zombie chow.
They're introduced in a stock exploitation way, partying naked in the graveyard, which in more
conservative horror movies is in itself sufficient motivation for the dead to rise. There's hulking
thug Suicide (Mark Venturini), a pair of cynics in a suit and a party dress (John Philbin &
Jewell Shepard), the ethnic latin-black guy Spider (Miguel Núñez Jr.), and the
'nice' girl Tina (Beverly Randolph). There's also 'bad' girl Trash (Linnea Quigley), who can't wait to
get naked and talk about her favorite death fantasy - being bitten to pieces by nasty old men.
Quigley is an authentic new-age Scream Queen, with a filmography almost completely devoted to
sleazy (oops, sorry, Mr. Vraney) - exotic horror films.
The nice thing is that once the zombies come out to play, the punks also behave credibly, with Trash
defnitely regretting having left all her clothing in the cemetary, and Spider's jitters keeping
him on the verge of tears half the time. The movie doesn't use moral judgements to punish its
characters, or kill them off by their positions in the cast list. The only cynicism is reserved for
some rather trite finger-pointing at the Army and its secret testing programs.
But best of all is the underappreciated James Karen, who puts just the right level of enthusiasm and
nuttiness into his early scenes. He launches both the movie and its outrageous premise almost
singlehandedly, and provides an amusingly credible line of comic confusion that eases the film
gently into oldfashioned E.C. Horror Comics territory.
With its high gore quotient, The Return of the Living Dead might as well exploit constant
nudity and profanity; it must have been the comedy angle that kept it from receiving an X rating.
The 'tarman' zombie from the Army cannister is an absurd pile of rotting ooze, but it can talk about
its hearty appetite, like Audrey Jr.: "Mmmm! More brains!" There's a rather logical running gag
where arriving emergency medics and cops are repeatedly overrun by the walking dead, which pays
off in another funny dialogue line, that might not be ruined if you don't read it here.
The Return of the Living Dead has plenty of gross-out moments, and a generally unwholesome
attitude, but it never plunges into the gore-porn depths of its unrated European cousins. The
cynical Army subplot wraps up with the brass making the same dumb mistakes as did Frank and Freddy,
and an explosive finale eliminates the need for morning-after survivor scenes. No, it's not for
polite audiences, but for what it is, this is an entertaining and fresh monster rally.
MGM's DVD of The Return of the Living Dead is a packed special edition at a bargain price
that's all a gorehound could ask for, and more. The film is transferred both full frame and in a
very nice 16:9 version, and looks just great. The rock soundtrack has name talent, unusual for
a horror film.
Director/writer Dan O'Bannon and production designer William Stout provide a strange commentary
track that starts out pretending that the events of the show are real, and then settles into
a more informative format. A pair of jokers perhaps a bit too impressed with themselves, they
definitely are the kind of guys who'd sit around thinking about morbid topics like, how come all
those medical skeletons from India have perfect teeth?
The documentary is a bit scattered, as it can't make up its mind whether its subject is the movie or
its two weird interviewees. The interview experience is bound to catch any normal subject up in
some inconsistent statements, or, after a long session, making himself look a bit foolish by trying
too hard to say interesting things. The choices here deliberately make O'Bannon and Stout look
spacey and overly morbid, highlighting some awkward statements. The two guys may indeed have their
weird qualities, but the first rule of interview work is to protect the talent, not go out of
one's way editorially to give them a goofy spin. Or maybe this is as normal as they get?
O'Bannon talks about the show without repeating the commentary too much, and Stout shows off his
grisly, horror comic-inspired artwork. A separate gallery of his visual concepts is included,
along with a generous helping of TV spots and trailers.
MGM's attractive packaging uses the original poster for cover art. The synopsis blurb on the back
says that the setting for the story is an Army Surplus store, the kind of error that indicates
that nobody in DVD marketing actually watched the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Return of the Living Dead rates:
Supplements: docu, commentary, art gallery, trailers and tv spots
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 6, 2002
1. In print, this reads like the most ridiculous concept yet to initiate
a zombie menace, but it's so well handled in the film, especially by James Karen's foolhardy meddler,
that it almost seems credible.
2. Savant briefly met Don Calfa on 1941, where he had a
memorable bit as a radio operator for Warren Oates out in Barstow. Calfa's pop eyes and hangdog
expression also got a workout, I believe, in Blake Edwards' 10.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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