If the planets align just so, and there's still enough Trioxin 245 floating around, there might just be a FOURTH installment to the Living Dead franchise looming. But then its producers ALSO have an eye toward a teen-friendly TV series as well. Just how many forks is this undead tree gonna have!? CineSchlockers may place wagers amongst themselves. For now, let's focus on the truly grand spectacle of Dan O'Bannon's immortal pseudo sequel The Return of the Living Dead (1985, 91 minutes). The first-time director previously collaborated on screenplays for Alien and Blue Thunder when he stepped in for the project's original director Tobe Hooper, whom he'd later work with on Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars. It'd been nearly 20 years since George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead and George's second sequel, Day of the Dead, also opening that summer, would be, ahem, stiff competition indeed. But Dano smartly asserted his own spin on zombidom with a perverse infusion of dark comedy. Not unlike Re-Animator, which Stuart Gordon sprang upon an unsuspecting world that same year. Both expertly mine gut laughter amid onslaughts of outrageous grue without the snarky one-liners or obligatory pop-culture references seemingly unavoidable in the post-Scream era.
The movie: When someone says, "Hey, there's something really cool in the basement. Wanna see?" Generally, what follows is rarely pleasant. This time it's pickled zombies from the REAL night of the living dead that were misplaced by the U.S. military and ended up in a Louisville medical supply warehouse. It's when Frank and Freddy (James Karen and Thom Mathews) are ogling one of the strange containers that it ruptures, choking them unconscious with the thick, rancid gas that spews forth. When the two wake, well, they're not the ONLY ones. Soon they're mighty busy rassling a reanimated cadaver that refuses to die even though they try that "kill the brain, kill the ghoul" stuff they saw in the movies. So they turn to their boss Burt (Clu Gulager) for guidance whose best idea is to cut the fella into itty-bitty pieces, but THAT don't work either. That's when Ernie the undertaker (Don Calfa) and his cremation oven springs to mind. Bad move, folks. A gaggle of punks skulking around the Resurrection Cemetary next door are first to benefit from this miscalculation when the dead awaken and burrow from their graves with a chronic case of the munchies. The twists get zanier from there, but none so memorable as when CineSchlocker fave Linnea Quigley's Trash snarls how she loves to fantasize about being clawed to death by geezers. To further emphasize her point, Trash then peels out of her clothes for an impromptu interpretive dance atop a tombstone. It's the stuff of B-legend.
The army misplaces ANOTHER leaky canister and hijinks ensue in the utterly forgettable Return of the Living Dead Part II. However, Brian Yunza throws out the laugh track and pours on the grue in the immortal Return of the Living Dead 3. It's the tender love story of an undead hottie (Mindy Clarke) who gets HEAVY into body piercing to quell the hunger for her boyfriend's brains. Sadly still unavailable in its Unrated form.
Notables: Two breasts. Way more than 41 corpses. Puking. Railroad pick to the brainpan. Reanimated split dog. Hacksaw decapitation. Drooling. Zombie boobs. Gratuitous slow mo. Bitch slapping. Unbridled spazzing. Crematory suicide. Pummeling with sledgehammer. Copious brain gobbling.
Quotables: Of course, among the most beloved lines in horror, "SEND. MORE. PARAMEDICS." Ernie just don't trust these kids today, "Are you crazy!? Are you on PCP!?" Spider (Miguel Nunez) demands a course of action, "What are we gonna do? Stand around here beating our meat til the corpses bust in this damn place?! There ain't no way to stop these things! We gotta get the f@#$ out!!!"
Time codes: Clever reference to Night of the Living Dead (5:08). Sparky wants to play (16:55). Ms. Quigley would later attempt to top this legendary scene with her Virgin Dance of the Double Chainsaws in Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (19:10). A genre staple: "Do you hear something?" (42:30). Trash deals with the homeless problem (1:04:52). Frank does it HIS way (1:16:40). Deliciously primitive miniature and stop motion effects (1:25:20).
Audio/Video: Presented both in widescreen (1.85:1) and open-matte fullframe depending on how one flips the disc. Tragically, both look as though they're teeming with microscopic life, especially during the outdoor scenes at night where serious grain is most pervasive. Also, the theatrical framing trims information CRUCIAL to the plot, namely Linnea's rain soaked bosom. There's been much hand wringing over O'Bannon's soundtrack tinkering. But Dano rightly went in and lifted music he felt stomped on dialogue (a certain guttural death howl) and gave "Tar Man" a consistent voice among other noodling with this largely utilitarian mono track.
Extras: Frustratingly coy commentary by O'Bannon and production designer William Stout. It's reasonably informative, genuinely entertaining, but Dano always seems as though he's biting his tongue when it comes to revealing the gory details of what he readily admits was a grueling production. The two also headline a "Designing the Dead" featurette that smartly avoids being glaringly repetitive and proves the bow tie will never die (13 mins). A massive gallery of more than 80 of Stout's conceptual drawings will especially dazzle CineSchlockers. Theatrical trailers. TV Spots. Static menus without audio. No printed insert or liner notes. Finally, flip off the lights and thrill to the glow-in-the-dark cover. An inspired touch.
Final thought: Such a brilliant example of comedic horror deserves a DVD Talk Collectors Series-worthy disc, but poor image quality contributes to missing that mark. Highly Recommended.
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.