Movie Review – The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Written & Directed by Dan O’Bannon

The Return of the Living Dead is not so much a film as it is a cinematic experience. The characters are drawn paper-thin and spend most of the picture screaming at each other in panic. The plot is super simple, zombies get lose and start wreaking havoc. The movie is more influential than you probably realize, the whole zombies wanting to eat brains trope came from this picture. Zombies being the result of military/industrial chemical experiments or accidents came from this movie. If you think about Romero’s zombies, they don’t really have an origin; they just are. Traditional zombies are related to practices of voodoo. The Return of the Living Dead established new rules while ignoring old ones and became a true cult classic.

Freddy is on his first day on the job at Uneeda Medical Supplies. Warehouse foreman Frank is showing Freddy the ropes and lets him in on a little secret. The events from the film The Night of the Living Dead are true, and the military accidentally shipped three vacuum-sealed barrels containing zombies from that day. Frank and Freddy bust one barrel open after tampering with it, spraying themselves with the chemicals inside and awakening the body in the company’s frozen locker.

Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends, a cavalcade of New Wave, Punk and Heavy Metal cliches go to hang out in the cemetery next door until he gets off from work. To deal with the problem in the warehouse, Freddy and Frank call on their boss, who leads them to the nearby mortuary where they burn up the reanimated corpse. Problem solved, right? Well, as the crematorium pumps the infected ashes into the air, a dense thunderstorm forms and rains the zombifying chemical all over the graves. You can see where this is going. Insanity ensues.

The Return of the Living Dead is not a horror film that ended up being so bad it became a comedy; it is entirely self-aware that it is a slapstick affair. Dan O’Bannon is a name most every film lover should know as he was the screenwriter behind Alien and Total Recall. He always had a penchant for science fiction, horror, and comedy, often mixing the genres together. They are all present in this picture, and it is one of the most fun entries into the subgenre you could watch. O’Bannon doesn’t waste time with heavy exposition or trying to help the audience understand the Why. You go to see a zombie movie because you want to see shambling corpses and people fighting them.

There are so many fantastic details in the movie that add to the enjoyment of watching it. One element you will pick up on quickly is how often people are shouting and screaming at each other. It’s a pretty realistic detail because I guarantee any of us in this situation would end up in hysterics when faced with the living dead. I suspect many of these scenes had elements of improv because the actors really go over the top with their performances to a comical degree. You likely won’t be emotionally invested in any of these people, and they exist in the story to be fodder for zombie violence. That doesn’t mean they are completely flat, the older characters especially feel like they have a backstory we simply aren’t in on.

My favorite character is Ernie, the mortician. His appearance is so stark with his shock of slicked back bleached hair, wearing a purple tracksuit. Numerous details point to Ernie being a Nazi or an admirer of the Third Reich. He’s listening to the German Afrika Corps anthem when Freddy and Frank stumble into his place of work, he carries a Walther P38, and he has a photo of Eva Braun pinned up in the morgue. O’Bannon revealed in the DVD commentary that yes, Ernie is intended to be an escaped Nazi who set himself up as a mortician in Louisville, Kentucky.

This backstory adds a lot of layers to the scene where Ernie interrogates a half corpse that the crew has drug inside. She explains that being dead and conscious comes with unending physical pain, they can feel the rigor mortis and the coldness of their veins. Eating brains gives them some unexplained relief from this feeling, but like any drug causes them to want more to recreate the feeling. Ernie earlier shows skill with the crematorium, and if he is a Nazi, then it can be implied that he worked in the death camps. His reaction to understanding what it means to be dead is the turning point for the character, he becomes much more desperate and frantic. As a Nazi, he has gallons of blood on his hands and knows that if his victims got the chance, they would tear him limb from limb.

There is nothing that will quite prepare you for the manic silliness of The Return of the Living Dead. It is a midnight movie in every possible regard, benefiting from your brain’s giving up of pretense and getting a little tired. The themes of the picture are deeply nihilistic and are a near satire of the American military-industrial complex and false assurances of safety provided by agencies like Homeland Security. It’s also a movie with a very negative view of human nature, showing us as either ravenous hordes or unable to handle anything that pulls us out of our comfort zone.

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