by Michael Allred
Part 1: The movie
These films were often very serious with Romero putting a mirror up to American culture, and forcing us to look at things with an entirely new perspective. While the messages in these films were in no way subtle, (yes, even horror films can have something worthwhile to say) they should be championed for the risks that were taken – such as giving women and minorities strong role models, especially in times when such a thing was barely a whisper in middle America.
In the years that followed, there were many imitations which, for the most part, failed on all cinematic levels. Romero created a world and everyone else decided to merely tread water, blindly rehashing the same things we've seen before, over and over.
Then something funny happened.
A man, who was best known at the time for writing a sci-fi/horror film set in deep space, Alien, was offered a job to direct his first film, The Return of the Living Dead in 1984.
This opportunity came about when Romero and John Russo went their seperate ways with each getting the rights to make their own "..Living Dead" films. Russo happily took on the "Return.." title, and proceeded to write the screenplay. As the movie was close to production, Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was originally slated to direct but eventually opted out. The screenwriter of Alien, Dan O'Bannon was then tapped to direct.
O'Bannon virtually rewote the "Return.." screenplay and made it his own. Making it a point to be as different as possible from Romero's genre defining films, O'Bannon's script gave us a different kind of zombie – unlike the lumbering, thoughtless, and easy to kill undead that Romero came up with, O'Bannon's take was to make his living dead almost unstoppable (so much so that they have to be completely destroyed, every part of them must be reduced to ashes) and as it turned out, funny.
In The Return of the Living Dead, these ghouls ran after you at top speed, they came up with plans to eat you (the classic line "Send more cops!" comes to mind) and more often than not, succeeded in their attempts to devour brrrrrrraaaaainnss! Why a specific body part? Well, they "make the pain go away." In this film, we now understand why the living dead hunt down humans, we understand their motivation – yes, this is zombie characterization, one of the many ways O'Bannon completely shook up and revitalized a horror staple.
As many will take note of, humor runs rampant throughout the movie but it's sharp and rather morbid humor. The Return of the Living Dead is not a horror/comedy as many easily mistake it to be. It's a horror film with humorous undertones. The self-referential joking is meant to lighten the mood when necessary, not to be the focal point.
"Return.." refers to Night of the Living Dead right from the very beginning.
Frank (James Karen) is showing the ropes to young Freddy (Thom Mathews) at the UNEEDA Medical Supply Warehouse. Frank is something of a know-it-all and begins to interest Freddy with his morbid tour of the building – split-dogs and a single, hanging cadaver in the freezer.
"What's the strangest thing you ever saw in here?" Freddy asks. Knowing a good opportunity to freak out his younger co-worker, Frank begins to weave his tale. Night of the Living Dead was based on a true case, you see? The movie had to change some of it's facts around but the basic plot was real. The U.S Army created a chemical to spray on Marijuana plants, 2-4-5 Trioxin, but in a rather unfortunate accident, they found the chemical had an interesting side effect: It re-animates dead bodies!
Naturally, the Army covered it all up and threatened to sue the movie's filmmakers if they ever blabbed the real story. The military dug up all those bodies and contaminated dirt, and sealed them away in canisters.
Frank can hardly hold back his glee, he has Freddy in the palms of his hands now.
There was a mistake in the shipping of those very tanks, and some of them were sent right here. They're down in the basement......
From this point on, Frank, eager to show off this little secret, seals their fate by bringing Freddy downstairs. To prove he's telling the truth, he opens the lid to expose the corpse tucked away inside. Naturally, Freddy is frightened and then asks a fateful question: "Hey, these things don't leak do they?" Frank, showing confidence in the work of the Army corps of engineers (don't we all believe that the military can do no wrong?), slams his hand on the side of the tank to reassure Freddy how strong it is....or isn't.
The tank cracks open, and out spews the Trioxin gas, knocking the two men out and then circulates all throughout the warehouse....a warehouse full of long dead things – like that single cadaver hanging in the freezer........
Ultimately, this is an absolutely PERFECT blend of horror and dark comedy. I honestly cannot think of any other film that pulled it off so well. Unlike George Romero's zombie trilogy, it didn't take itself seriously – It had FUN, it never dragged, zipping you from one moment of dread to another, and when it got too gory or intense, O' Bannon brought in the laughs. Not slapstick, but genuine, over-the-top gags. Whether it be a hungry zombie asking to "send more cops" as if he was ordering pizza or the bumbling warehouse employees who, after accidentally releasing a toxic gas that re-animates corpses, find that killing zombies by destroying the brains doesn't work. When they finally exclaim "WELL IT WORKED IN THE MOVIE!" you know the rules have been thrown out the window.
The film works on so many levels of gore and humor, and the fact that it makes fun of itself and Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead come off as more self-aware than Wes Craven's Scream films of the 90's.
The film took it's chances, and could've angered fans of Romero's original by actually referring to that movie within the first few minutes, saying it was all fictional and that "what really happened was...", well, you know the story.
The film was shot on a $4 million dollar budget, and had it's problems with make-up and FX but the wonderful, brisk editing, and the gloomy lighting more than covered up it's technical flaws – You'd be hard pressed to find any obvious goofs. The fact that the filmmakers made such a low budget film look like it cost more, is a credit to their inventiveness.
From William Stout's brilliant production design, Jules Brenner's frame compositions, and Kenny Myers' make-up work, this is a very professional and inventive piece of cinema.
The film's punk rock soundtrack is excellent – Dare I say "goth punk"? Sure it fit in with the punk characters that got stuck in the horror, but the tone of the songs fit in so well with the movie. Sometimes dark, occasionally sexy, it's that rare instance when movie and music meld together in such a way that fans cannot imagine watching the film without those songs.
Because of the placement of these songs, most fans seem to forget the actual score of the film was written by Matt Clifford or Francis Haines, who was responsible for the "Trioxin Theme" which plays over the opening credits. The movie would not achieve the same atmosphere without it.
The cast was superb, all somehow finding the perfect way to play their parts – There isn't a single 'off' performance. Frank's over-the-top "freaking out", Burt's calm "this is what we're gonna do" attitude, and Freddy's realization of what's happening to his body and mind all showcase the talent that made the film work.
When Frank commits suicide by burning himself "alive" in the crematorium....it's not just disturbing but truly sad. The little touch of him removing his wedding ring and kissing it gently, adds a geat deal of humanity to someone who no longer is. Actor James Karen embodied 'Frank' with such an "every guy" quality, you couldn't help but be touched by his plight.
Thom Mathews played "Freddy" – A new level was added to the zombie genre. We see a young man, full of life with lots of partying left to do, slowly getting snuffed out. He was exposed to the gas and he's slowly dying.....yet already dead. He's conscious while feeling rigor mortis setting in.....and he describes every pain to you. It's unsettling.
Clu Gulager plays the warehouse owner 'Burt' (his best friend who owns the funeral home next door? Ernie. Nope, not kidding!) who seemingly dead pans throughout the entire movie. While the entire film is going crazy, he is the constant throughout, and you feel that if you were in the same situation, you'd want him there helping to make crucial decisions.
Linnea Quigley, the "B-movie scream Queen" plays 'Trash'. Her infamous, FULL FRONTAL strip tease has left many of my fellow 20-something's with fond memories of their childhood.
Notably rounding out the rest of the cast are Mark Venturini as 'Suicide', the seeming leader of the punks. While he wears a scowl through most of the film, we are given some insight to who he is and what he believes in. "This isn't a costume, it's a way of life!" He's far more sensitive than he lets on. Sadly, Mark passed away a few years ago.
Beverly Randolph, as Freddy's girlfriend 'Tina', is saddled with making us believe how much she loves him, even though we don't see the two together until late in the film, after Freddy has turned. Her histrionics are entirely understandable even when her feelings for Freddy put her life at great risk.
'Chuck' & 'Casey' (John Philbin & Jewel Shepard, respectively) add an enjoyable bit of unrequited love, and it's only near the end, when Casey seems to lose all hope, does she turn to Chuck for comfort.
Miguel Nunez Jr. plays 'Spider' with part cooless, part swagger, and is very capable as one of the stronger punks. Yet again we are allowed to see his frailty after he sees 'Freddy' has changed, his crack-up is brief but believeable.
John Terry portrays the weary 'Col. Glover', a man whose sole mission is to find those missing tanks. We see how much this role has taken over his home life, and how it's strained his relationship with his wife.
Finally, playing 'Ernie' the mortician is Don Calfa. An excellent character actor whose facial expressions alone steal every scene he's in.
This film parodied it's sub-genre of horror YEARS before the Scream trilogy made it hip to do so. It also managed to be FAR scarier than Wes Craven's poor attempts which basically amounted to a "Boo!" a 9 year old attempts on Halloween.
Dan O'Bannon created a film that, in every way, perfectly blended horror and humor. I'm not saying it's the first, I'm saying it's the first at doing it right.
The film was released in 1985, and went head-to-head with George Romero's Day of the Dead. "Return" not only got better critical reviews but bested George at the box office, and Romero is considered the best in the genre.
O'Bannon saw the genre in a way most could not: Treat it's subject with respect yet realize, this is incredibly silly.
O'Bannon's script is self-aware yet understands it's fictional world is very real. We get the humor, the film's characters aren't so lucky, for which I'm grateful since watching characters constantly winking at the audience is so cliche.
The film goes the opposite of what you'd expect in such a subtle way: The hapless humans are caged in places normally associated with the dead (a funeral home, a medical supply warehouse), whereas the dead are free to roam around in the land of the living. A nice reversal.
This is NOT a "dumb" film at all (as some uneducated people might mistake "zombie" films for) – It's an ironic, horrific, and witty take on established lore. A landmark film that shattered a classic horror genre, and reassembled it in it's own image.
Continue to page 2.