When it comes to liking or not liking a movie there are many more factors that weigh into the equation than the quality of the film itself. Sure, the primary factor should always be the overall quality of the film. But then you need to take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the viewing of the film--where you saw it, who you saw it with, what was going on in your life at that time--which can all drastically affect your opinion of any given movie. When I stop and think about films within the broader context of the circumstances in which I saw them, there is one dominant factor with nearly every movie I love--most of them I saw them with my cousin Sean.
In the autobiography of my film-watching life, with the exception of my mother who took me to see everything when I was a kid, no person played a greater role than my cousin Sean. We snuck into our first R-rated movies together (a double feature of 48 Hours and Blue Thunder), and the list of all-time favorite movies we saw together includes Enter the Dragon, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. But no single cinematic experience we shared--not even seeing Empire Strikes Back on opening night--can compare to when we saw The Return of the Living Dead.
Sean and I saw The Return of the Living Dead at a sneak preview screening when it showed as part of double feature with Fright Night at the old Broadway Theater in Portland, Oregon. Once a grand old movie palace, the Broadway was divided up into a multi-plex in the 1970s, and by the 1980s it had fallen into a disgusting state of disrepair. The Broadway was Portland's equivalent to the grindhouse theaters found in New York's Time Square; you could see two movies for 99 cents, but the real show was usually watching the junkies and the hookers, or avoiding the rats and the roaches. And this was the environment we saw ROTLD in back in 1985.
The summer of 1985 was pretty much the Summer of the Dead. This was the year that George A. Romero's Day of the Dead was scheduled to hit theaters. For hardcore horror fans like me and my cousin, this was the one film we were dying to see (and we did, at the Avon in Stamford, Connecticut, a disgusting theater with black water in the toilets). We had seen trailers for The Return of the Living Dead, but it looked pretty silly, so that one wasn't even on our radar. When we saw the ad in the newspaper for the sneak preview of ROTLD, we actually debated whether or not we should go, because it looked so stupid. But the fact we could see it with another movie for under a dollar convinced us that there was little to lose.
Just in case some you of reading this have never actually seen ROTLD, it is an unofficial sequel to Romero's 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. Return starts off at the UNEEDA Medical Supply Warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, where long-time employee Frank (James Karen) is training the new kid, Freddy (Thom Mathews). Frank explains to Freddy that the movie Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story--an incident in Pennsylvania where the government used an experimental chemical to spray on marijuana, which inadvertently resurrected the dead. All of the contaminated bodies where sealed up in special containers, and mistakenly shipped to UNEEDA, where they sat in the basement for nearly twenty years. But when Frank shows Freddy the canisters, he accidentally releases the chemical gas, and all hell quickly breaks loose. Meanwhile, Freddy's punk rock friends are partying in the cemetery across the street from UNEEDA, only to find themselves fighting for survival when, through a series of ridiculous mishaps, the gas from the canister in the basement reaches the corpses in the ground. Next thing you know, the dead are clawing their way out of their graves, and looking to feast on human brains.
The Return of the Living Dead came along toward the tail-end of a horror cycle in film that kicked off--depending on who you talk to--in the late 1960s or early 70s with movies like Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. By the late 1970s, the horror genre was really starting to come into its own with films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, and with an increasing number of multi-screen theaters opening in the suburbs, these films were reaching larger audiences. The early part of the 80s saw a tidal wave of low budget horror, but most never broke new ground within the genre. Some of these films had campy elements, or some unintentional laughs, but with the exception of Motel Hell, few ever tried to seriously incorporate comedy. Nowadays, with films like Scream, comedy has become a major part of the horror genre, but with the exception of small handful of films in the early 80s, that simply wasn't the case. Until, of course, The Return of the Living Dead proved how successfully you could blend comedy and horror without compromising the frights.
Before ROTLD, the most successful mash-up of comedy and horror came almost 40 years earlier with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (which remains one of the funniest movies of all time). Since ROTLD, there have been dozens, if not hundreds of attempts to mix laughs and scares, but most usually favors one element at the expense of the other. Even classics like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 or Peter Jackson's Dead Alive take either the comedy or the gore a bit too over the top at times, resulting in films that begin to border of satire or parody. But The Return of the Living Dead never loses that delicate balance, which is why it can hold its own against any comedy or any horror film. It is, quite simply, a brilliant film.
The success of ROTLD's humor comes from great writing and an incredible sense of comedic timing. Dan O'Bannon's sharp, witty screenplay, which deviated greatly from John Russo's book, takes great care not to be a string of jokes. As screenwriter and director, O'Bannon understands that the real trick in creating great comedy is to look at a situation through a slightly different perspective. Comedy in and of itself should be more organic than manufactured, and the best comedic films are almost always those that are one step away from being another genre. Comedy for the sake of comedy is more often than not a recipe for disaster, as it has no solid foundation from which is has been built. A never-ending barrage of jokes and gags may work for a select number of movies like Airplane, but without the element of a solid story, very few of those movies are worth watching.
As a comedy, The Return of the Living Dead never goes for the joke. The jokes, or more specifically the humor, lie specifically within the presentation. O'Bannon places supreme importance in the ability of his cast--specifically Matthews, Karen, Clu Gulager, and Don Calfa--and allows them to work their magic, often in scenes that are played in long master shots with very few cutaways. Having given his actors a decent amount of rehearsal time, and providing them with rapid-fire dialog, O'Bannon makes the comedy seem so natural that it would be easy to understand why some people get confused by the film. They find it funny, but there are no silly jokes or ridiculous moments of parody to let some people know that this is in fact a comedy, and not some film that has accidentally stumbled into unintentional laughs.
The key to understanding the fundamental difference between ROTLD and many of the other horror films that have introduced comedy with varying degrees of success is, first and foremost, that most of those other films have a knowing self-awareness--a wink and a nudge to the audience--that telegraphs where the laughs are supposed to be, and where the scares are supposed to be. The Return of the Living Dead does not have that sort of self-awareness. This is evidenced by the fact that with only two exceptions in the movie do we ever see characters do something they should never do in a horror film. Most horror films are filled with stupid people doing stupid things and meeting with tragic results. By comparison, the characters in ROTLD almost always do the right thing, and still everything goes wrong.
The magic of The Return of the Living Dead, as it turns out, was serendipitous at best. The first sequel, which reunited James Karen and Thom Mathews as a pair of bumbling grave robbers made the mistake of placing the comedy over the horror when the comedy itself was half-ass at best. Ignoring all the potential material that could have been mined from the nihilistic ending of the first film, the sequel was a major disappointment. The same can be said for the other three sequels, only more so.
ROTLD is one of those rare films that has managed to endure the test of time. Some of the makeup effects look a bit dated and cheesy, but those weren't the best even back in 1985. But what made the film great 22 years ago when Sean and I first saw it--a great script, solid direction, hilarious performance for a talented cast, and a killer soundtrack--are still there, and are still working to make The Return of the Living Dead simultaneously one of the best horror films and comedies of all time.
At least Gulager and Karen are present on Return of the Living Dead: The Dead Have Risen (20 min.), a retrospective documentary. Unfortunately, other key personnel, including over half the cast and the director are not part of the featurette. Having read Jewel Shepard's great autobiography, I know how many great stories she has about the making of the film, which makes her absence especially disappointing. The Decade of Darkness (23 min.) examines the horror films of the 1980s, with an emphasis on titles distributed on DVD by MGM (the company releasing ROTLD). Featuring interviews with the like of Joe Dante and John Landis, this would be a mediocre documentary at best; but the inclusion of Elvira--the horror show hostess whose only talents are her breasts--turns this featurette into an insipid waste of time. The short doc about William Stout's work as production designer that graced the original DVD release is repeated, and the disc is rounded out by some trailers and the idiotic zombie subtitles gimmick.
For the most part the bonus materials on this disc are either just okay, or pretty disappointing. Everything seems to be as poorly thrown together and as half-ass as the sequels that followed this classic film.