Dan O’ Bannon is a name that should be locked into the brain of every genre fan and yet it isn’t. Having worked with such game changers as George Lucas, Ridley Scott and John Carpenter over the years in a variety of roles (he co-wrote Alien, acted in Dark Star and did visual effects for Star Wars to name just three) he’d subtlety been steering the face of cinema from behind the scenes for decades and in 1985 he finally directed his first movie.
And WHAT a fucking movie!
In a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Frank is showing Freddy, a new member of staff the ropes when, in an effort to impress the kid, shows him some drums of some weapons grade toxin mistakenly delivered there to the wrong address by the military years earlier. Showing Freddy the infected corpse encased within the sealed barrel, Frank unwittingly breaches the container sending a blast of Trioxin 245 to blow directly into their faces and into the surrounding building. Meanwhile, Freddy’s punk rocker friends have arrived to meet him at his new job and then go on to party and so chill out in an abandoned graveyard across the street. Upon waking up from their gassing, Frank and Freddy are horrified to find out all the dead things in the warehouse have come alive, including the dissected dogs used for veterinary schools and the cadaver hanging up in the freezer who is very vocal about being alive again. Calling the manager, Burt, to come in and take care of the situation, they make a deal with Ernie from the funeral home across the street to dispose of the body in his crematorium after cutting it up seems to have no effect. This horrific comedy of errors finally reaches it’s peak when the toxic zombie smoke pumping out of the crematorium’s chimney goes up into the clouds only to come down again in the form of acid rain which subsequently revives every body in the neighbourhood graveyard into indestructible, brain eating undead engines of destruction. To make matters EVEN WORSE, the barrel zombie is slopping around the basement as a gooey Tarman, the zombie outbreak is expanding by the hour and both the poisoned Frank and Freddy are both exhibiting signs that they themselves may not be alive any longer. Can the punks and Burt unite to survive this murderous farce or will the swelling tide of the ravenous undead roll over them too?
A cruelly mischievous shot in the arm for the zombie genre, Return Of The Living Dead is a zippy, vastly entertaining comedy horror who’s laughs are purely of the pitch black kind and subsequently adds an ironic sense of freshness to it’s mouldering, rotted antagonists.
The first thing that strikes you about this movie is it’s stunningly defiant puck-rock tone, first hinted at by it’s utterly awesome soundtrack and then conveyed by the characters. Not only are the movie’s leads young, pierced, mohawked kids but they are also eloquent, loyal and very likeable whereas the adult authority figures that sparsely populate the story are either ineffectual (the police), untrustworthy (the military) or just downright incompetent (it’s Frank who sets the whole thing off while Burt makes things far worse during his cover up). The entire running time is drenched with nihilistic glee as the movie continuously flips conventions on their head (for example Ernie, the creepy undertaker has to protect Tina from her boyfriend) as hope for a happy ending rapidly fades. In fact, ROTLD’s denouement may be the most accurate ending to a possibly real zombie attack you’ll ever see…
Another thing about he movie is that it’s stunningly meta for it’s time. Name dropping Night Of The Living Dead right from the get-go as a series of events that actually happened (with the facts smudged around to avoid a government lawsuit), ROTLD riffs on George Romero tropes way before Scream took a satirical blade to the slasher genre. Watch as Burt, Freddy and co. recall that cinematic zombie lore requires the brain to be destroyed only to find to their dismay it’s all Hollywood bullshit when the business end of a pick axe spectacularly fails to do the trick.
Finally we come to the zombies themselves, overhauled and boasting numerous tricks that would stun even the most prepared zombie survivalist wannabe. Firstly, these dead guys could sprint way before 28 Days Later or Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake which gives everything a terrifying sense of urgency. Secondly, the fuckers just won’t die. The movie reasons that if you are already dead, how could you possibly expire again and even when dismembered, the parts still insist on flipping around and so the marauding corpses have to be literally burnt to cinders in order to be stopped. Plus, and most suprisingly, not only are the mouldy bugger self aware but they can actually talk (the scenes where zombies get on the radio of a devoured ambulance crew to call in more paramedics to eat is ghoulishly hilarious) and reason. An interrogation of half of a (incredibly impressive) skeletal woman reveals the sobering fact that zombies only eat brains because they make the pain of being dead (rotting, riga mortis) temporarily go away.
The actors sell the hell out of a movie that, in the wrong hands, could have been unbearably goofy but instead form memorable characters from both the living and the dead. From the shifty Burt (possibly genre stalwart Clu Culager’s best role), to death obsessed, perpetually nude zombie bait, Trash (scream queen Linnea Quigley giving the role everything she has – except clothes), to the repulsively slick, bug-eyed Tarman (“BRAINS!”), virtually every character is quirky and fleshed out enough to make an impact (sometimes even after they’re dead).
Twin all of the above with exemplary special effects and you have a stone cold classic which both gets in the face of the established rules of the genre while still honouring what’s come before. Plus it’s fucking funny too.
A real example what you get when your filmmakers have BRRRRAAAAAIIIINNNNSSSS!!!!