It's party time as Cody Hamman celebrates the 30th anniversary of The Return of the Living Dead with some Film Appreciation.
In 1968, director George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead re-shaped the perception of zombies. A term that once immediately called to mind voodoo slaves now first and foremost makes people think of re-animated corpses that feed on the living. What exactly people think zombies eat, however, comes from a concept introduced in a film that was released nearly twenty years later.
Ask most people, even some devout viewers of The Walking Dead, what zombies eat, and the response will often be, "Brains." But that's not the case in Romero's films, or on The Walking Dead. Those zombies eat flesh, they'll chow down on any part of a person they can get their teeth into. Zombies didn't become known for eating brains until Dan O'Bannon's 1985 film The Return of the Living Dead.
Interestingly, The Return of the Living Dead wouldn't have happened if not for Romero's co-writer on Night, John A. Russo. In 1978, the same year Romero was making his ten-years-later follow-up Dawn of the Dead, Russo published a novel with the Return title. This novel was a direct sequel to Night, although Russo took a different approach to the aftermath of that night of terror than Romero did. In Romero's films, the zombie outbreak became an apocalyptic event. In Russo's continuity, the living dead situation was dealt with, all of the ghouls put down by groups of authorities and volunteers like the one we saw scouring the countryside in Night's finale. For years, there have been no more occurances of the dead coming back to life. But then, just as suddenly as it started in 1968, the zombie outbreak happens again, and Russo's novel follows another group of characters trying to survive the ordeal.
A producer named Tom Fox purchased the rights to make a cinematic adaptation of Russo's work and turned to the men behind a couple of 1970s horror classics to bring Return to the screen: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Tobe Hooper was signed to direct the film (which was intended to be shot in 3D) from a script by Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon.
Hooper eventually departed the project and O'Bannon got promoted into the director's seat. But he had no desire to sequelize Night of the Living Dead. Romero had made Dawn and was working on Day of the Dead, and O'Bannon didn't want to tread on his toes by making something that called itself an alternative to Romero's sequels. Aside from the title and the presence of zombies, he threw out Russo's work entirely and started from scratch, with a story that would pay homage to Romero and Russo's 1968 film but present its zombies in a very different way.
The back story O'Bannon created for his take on the idea is that Night of the Living Dead as we know it is a film that exists and has been watched by characters in The Return of the Living Dead. The twist is, Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story. In the '60s, the Darrow Chemical Company was developing a chemical originally created to be sprayed on marijuana (exactly what it would do to the weed isn't specified) for use by the Army (again, what the Army would do with it isn't clear, but those were the days of the Vietnam War.) There was a leak of this chemical, 245 Trioxin, at a veterans hospital in Pittsburgh, and when the gas reached the morgue it caused the bodies in there to move around as if they were alive again. Romero and Russo are said to have been inspired by the rumor of bodies moving around at the VA hospital and made Night of the Living Dead. But what happened to those moving corpses? They were packed into barrels and shipped out to Darrow Chemical headquarters. And they never arrived.
The barrels were accidentally delivered to the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky. Not wanting the Army snooping around his business, the owner of Uneeda, a man named Burt, simply had the barrels put in the basement. And there they've sat, for fourteen years.
The Return of the Living Dead is presented as being a true story itself, and the film begins on July 3, 1984, at 5:30pm. Uneeda is closing for the day, but longtime employee Frank decides to stick around a while to finish up some work and show young new hire Freddy how to read orders, pack shipments, and fill out forms. During their overtime, Frank tells Freddy the story about the origins of Night of the Living Dead and the bottled bodies in the basement. Then he makes the mistake of taking Freddy into the basement to show him the barrels.
Throughout his telling of the story, Frank has painted the Army to be a rather inept organization, saying that delivering the barrels to the wrong place and having no idea where they ended up is typical of them. However, he shows faith in the Army Corps of Engineers, assuring Freddy that barrels made by them wouldn't leak and then giving one of them a solid slap on the side. With this slap, the barrel springs a leak. Frank and Freddy are hit in the face by a blast of 245 Trioxin, and the gas spreads throughout the warehouse.
So begins a new night of the living dead, as the Trioxin re-animates every dead thing in the building, from split dogs that are used at veterinarian schools to butterflies stuck on a corkboard... and even the med school cadaver hanging in the freezer.
At first, Frank, Freddy, and Burt - who is called back to the warehouse to help his employees out of this mess - try to use their knowledge of Night of the Living Dead to deal with the situation. Romero had told us that you can kill a zombie by destroying its brain, so they let the cadaver out of the freezer and sink a pick axe into its skull. It doesn't work. The brain is destroyed, but the zombie keeps moving. Even when Burt saws its head off, the body continues walking around on its own.
This zombie is much tougher to stop than any Romero had ever shown us, and there is life in every limb. Cut its arm off, and that severed arm will still be trying to grab you. Every bit of this cadaver and the other re-animated things in the warehouse will have to be destroyed completely...
To accomplish this, Burt enlists the help of his old pal Ernie, a mortician at the funeral home across the street, on the property of the aptly named Resurrection Cemetery. Ernie is convinced to cremate the sacks full of writhing body parts the Uneeda trio have brought him, but the relief this brings is short lived.
Not only are Frank and Freddy gradually, painfully becoming zombies themselves due to inhaling the Trioxin, but the smoke rising from the crematorium causes a reaction in the clouds above that sets off a torrential downpour of toxic rain. Rain which seeps into the soil of the cemetery, reaching the corpses below and reviving every one of them.
The dead rise from their graves, hungry for brains.
The streets of Louisville are soon full of the living dead, and O'Bannon did his best to differentiate his zombies from Romero's in every possible way. Romero's zombies shamble, O'Bannon's can run as fast as they ever could when they were alive. They're virtually indestructible. They can speak, and although they're usually just yelling for "Brains!", they're capable of being clever and setting traps - for example, calling for help from paramedics and police, then swarming in on the responders. Romero's zombies were only the recently, unburied deceased. These zombies have crawled out of the ground in various stages of decay, some have been dead for over a century. And, as mentioned, they specifically want to eat brains.
Given their ability to speak, in one memorable, chilling scene the characters are able to capture a zombie, severing the top half of a skeletal woman's body from her legs, and then tying her down to a gurney for questioning. This desiccated corpse is able to tell them why the zombies want brains: it hurts to be dead. They can feel themselves rotting. Something about eating brains makes the pain go away.
As the city descends into chaos, the Uneeda guys and Ernie are trapped in the funeral home, but they're not alone: Freddy and his girlfriend Tina hang out with an interesting group of punks and mods with nicknames like Suicide, Spider, Scuz, and Trash. Tina and these friends were hanging out in the cemetery while waiting to pick Freddy up after work. They're the first to see the dead start to rise, and the ones who survive long enough get trapped in the warehouse and the funeral home.
O'Bannon assembled an excellent cast to drop into this scenario. Each actor is absolutely perfect for their role, from Clu Gulager, James Karen, and future Jason Lives hero Thom Mathews as the Uneeda workers and Don Calfa as the weaselly Ernie, who has odd, vague connections to Nazi Germany, to Beverly Randolph as Freddy's sweet girl-next-door girlfriend and John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Brian Peck, scream queen Linnea Quigley, and Mark Venturini and Miguel A. Nunez Jr. (who were also both in this same year's Friday the 13th: A New Beginning) as Freddy's pals.
The style of Freddy's friends adds a really fun element to the film, and their personalities at times clash with the no-nonsense working class Burt's. The biggest threats to the people in Romero's films are each other, but that's not the case here. Although the characters are an unlikely mix, they do their best to work together to make it through the night. The biggest danger to these people is the horde of relentless zombies, whose strength and speed make them very formidable and scary.
The film has a terrific score by Matt Clifford and an awesome soundtrack that matches its younger characters. There are songs from the likes of The Cramps, Roky Erickson, The Flesh Eaters, The Damned, Tsol, Tall Boys, The Jet Black Berries... 45 Graves' "Partytime" kicks in at the same time that the zombies come out in full force. SSQ's "Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" plays over one of the most popular scenes in the movie, in which Linnea Quigley's Trash gets so turned on by the atmosphere of the cemetery and her fantasies of being violently murdered that she performs an impromptu, gratuitous strip dance on top of a tomb.
Other characters with a wonderful style to look at are the zombies, as they were designed with an influence from EC Comics (which also inspired Romero and Stephen King to make Creepshow) and Bernie Wrightson. There are several memorable ghouls in the film, like the jaundiced cadaver; the zombie from the Trioxin barrel, who is known as The Tar Man because its skin melts down to a black, tar-like substance once it's exposed to the air; the half-corpse who is questioned; an amputee zombie; the zombified Trash, wearing nothing but leg warmers; the "Partytime" skeleton zombie, etc.
Not only are the zombies creature feature eye candy, they're also used for some intensely creepy moments. My personal favorite is when a paramedic switches his ambulance's headlights on to reveal that a large group of mud-caked ghouls are standing right in front of the vehicle.
The horror and excitement of The Return of the Living Dead always came across for me. What took me a few viewings to realize is that the movie also has a large amount of comedy to it as well. This realization came while sitting through the end credits of a viewing, as the credits start rolling over a montage of some of the more absurd moments from the film. Then it sank in... there is some really funny dialogue in here, and if there's anything you could make fun of, the movie is in on the joke. It knows that the Trash dance, for example, is utterly ridiculous. Since that realization, picking up on the humor has made the movie all the more enjoyable for me. In fact, it contains what became one of my favorite types of comedy - the comedy of hysteria. The characters are scared out of their minds, and that makes for some hilarious lines and reactions.
The fantastic balance it strikes between humor and scares is what makes The Return of the Living Dead one of the greatest horror/comedies ever made. It's one of my favorite movies, and I really appreciate that O'Bannon tried to separate his film from Romero's as much as he could out of respect for the man. In doing so, he made a movie that stands out from the pack in its own unique way, as a highly entertaining punk rock/comic book romp, and has made its own lasting impact on pop culture. Not all zombies eat brains, but thanks to Dan O'Bannon a lot of people think they do.