1985 was a banner year for zombie films, as two “Dead” flicks hit cinemas within the span of two weeks. George A. Romero’s third zombie effort, Day of the Dead, came first, closely followed by The Return of the Living Dead, which was written and directed by Alienscribe Dan O’Bannon. Return is based on the novel of the same name by John Russo, who worked with Romero on Night of the Living Dead in 1968 before the pair parted ways, leading Russo to desire a franchise of his own. Tobe Hooper was initially slated to direct the adaptation of Russo’s book, but was replaced with O’Bannon, who in turn rewrote the script to change the tone to comedy-horror and retool the story to avoid similarities to Romero’s flicks. It’s hard to dislike the resultant picture; a completely unpretentious and devilishly enjoyable zombie comedy which delivers thrills and laughs in equal measure.
Following a botched army experiment which resulted in a zombie outbreak, barrels containing the preserved remains of said zombies are mistakenly sent to the Uneeda Medical Supply Company in Louisville, where they’re stored in the basement. When Freddy (Thom Matthews) is employed by the medical supply company, his superior Frank (James Karen) begins showing him the ropes of the job, and decides to show the young lad the barrels of zombies. Frank unwittingly releases a gas from one of the barrels which has the power to reanimate dead things, leading to cadavers and split dogs being resurrected. Fretting over the situation, their boss Burt (Clu Gulager) is brought in, who suggests they burn all the zombies with the help of mortician Ernie (Don Calfa). Unfortunately, however, the gas from the burning bodies spreads to a nearby cemetery, giving rise to an army of superhuman un-dead with a taste for human brains.
Not long into The Return of the Living Dead, O’Bannon actually acknowledges that Romero is the zombie maestro – Frank explains that Night of the Living Dead was based on true events, but some of the details were switched up. Furthermore, O’Bannon pretty much ignores Romero’s previously established zombie mythology. The similarities start and end with walking dead; as for the rest, O’Bannon does his own thing. A shot to the head doesn’t stop these zombies – they must be entirely obliterated with fire, acid, or a nuke. The zombies can speak, too, and they retain some semblance of human logic. It’s refreshing to watch something as creative as Return, which remains unique in the heavily populated zombie subgenre. It helps that O’Bannon’s treatment of the premise is so thoroughly fun, turning what could’ve been an undistinguished low-budget zombie pic into a truly memorable orgy of campy awesomeness. The script is a complete hoot, full of witty bantering and funny dialogue, not to mention a wonderful proclivity for off-the-wall mayhem (there’s a midget zombie, for crying out loud). Running a scant 85 minutes, O’Bannon infuses Return with wonderful narrative velocity, making the experience all the more satisfying.
O’Bannon has apparently expressed disappointment in some of the special effects, as he could only do just so much with the tiny budget, but Return of the Living Dead stands the test of time. The make-up and sets look impressive, and the prosthetic and animatronic effects bestow the undead creatures with a tangible quality which cannot be replicated on a computer. Sure, some of the zombies look like extras in tattered clothing with a dab of make-up, but this adds to the charm of the flick, reinforcing that nothing is being taken with a straight face. This was O’Bannon’s first directorial outing, and while he doesn’t attempt anything visually audacious, his work is effective and efficient, displaying a gift for storytelling and pacing. The great soundtrack (including a few nice songs and a flavoursome original score) is another standout, adding the finishing touches to this delightful romp.
The colourful and fun ensemble of characters also warrants a mention. O’Bannon recruited a great selection of actors, each of whom plays their respective role to perfection. Matthews displays side-splitting comic delivery as Frank, while Gulager is both convincing and hilarious as the boss who’s in over his head. But the film belong to Calfa, who makes for a goofy embalmer. Miraculously, nobody in the film is called upon to do silly things for the sake of the plot; they all remain likeable, and possess the right amount of campiness.
Perhaps this review has lavished Return of the Living Dead with more praise than some of you think it deserves. Sure, it’s no Best Picture winner or any monumental achievement, but the film deserves respect and adoration for being the endlessly entertaining and witty extravaganza that it is. Pitched at the right tone, Return is a total hoot, and it closes with one of the most surprising and darkly comic endings in film history. Its four sequels may be of inferior quality, but they cannot diminish this original film, which is required viewing.