The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The Return of the Living Dead first published by Little White Lies

When George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, co-written with John A. Russo, came out in 1968, it would change the horror genre forever, bringing the creature feature out of the gothic castle and into the ordinary home, and refashioning cinema’s zombies (called ‘ghouls’ in the film) into the flesh-eating undead we still know today. By the time The Return of the Living Dead emerged in 1985, Romero had fastened his grip on the zombie genre with his influential sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), spawning countless Italian rip-offs – while Romero’s (then) trilogy closer Day of the Dead also came out in 1985. 

Yet though the title of The Return of the Living Dead itself suffices to reference Romero’s ‘Holy Trinity’, and though it has also been (loosely) adapted from a story by Russo, experienced genre screenwriter (Dark Star, Alien, Dead & Buried, Lifeforce) and first-time director Dan O’Bannon brings an entirely different sensibility to his film, ensuring that this overnight zombie apocalypse is a tongue-in-cheek brainload of hard-rocking fun. 

“The events portrayed in this film are all true,” promises the opening text – and it will soon be followed by a discussion of the differences between film and reality, as Frank (James Karen), long-term employee of a medical supplies warehouse, tells young newbie Freddy (Thom Mathews) that Night of the Living Dead was in fact “based on a true case” of a 1969 Pittsburgh chemical spill which caused the cadavers in a military morgue to “jump around as though they were alive.” Under threat of a lawsuit, NotLD‘s filmmakers “changed all the facts around”, while the contaminated soil and corpses were secretly shipped out by the military, and in a “typical army fuckup” ended up in this warehouse’s basement by mistake. 

Of course Frank and Freddy will accidentally open one of the army containers, unleashing a zombie outbreak that will forever change not just this quiet corner of Louisville, Kentucky, but also the world beyond, fuelling the death-fixated fantasies of Trash (Linnea Quigley) and the nightmares of everyone else – yet what propels this narrative is less a strict adherence to the tropes of Romero than a constant (and constantly surprising) deviation from them, as the absurd reality that Frank, Fred and their boss Burt (Clu Gulager, studiously channeling Jimmy Stewart) must face is repeatedly compared and contrasted to the established conventions of zombie movies. Needing to stop an aggressively reanimated medical cadaver, Bert observes, “In that movie, they destroyed the brain to kill ’em” – but it is a method that altogether fails to work in this movie, as does decapitation and indeed more extensive dismemberment. And it will turn out that, unlike Romero’s braindead shufflers, these zombies can talk, run, reason, plot; they crave only human brains to eat; and the undead infection is disseminated not through bites, but via the resurrecting chemical that has now polluted the environment, spreading further with every attempt to destroy it. 

All this represents an affectionately postmodern interplay with Romero’s zombie flicks, replacing his satirical fictions with a ‘reality’ that hardly seems more plausible. After all, as one confused paramedic puts it, “Obviously you’re not really dead – dead people don’t move around and talk.” The creature make-up and gore effects are amongst the best that the Eighties had to offer, and Freddy’s motley coterie of punks, goths, exhibitionists and nerds is well-drawn and refreshingly cliché-free. Meanwhile the raucous party soundtrack by the punkish likes of The Cramps, 45 Grave and The Damned keeps reminding us that it is okay to be laughing at all the death and doom unfolding on screen.

Perhaps though the funniest scenes revolve around the closeted interplay between Burt and the local embalmer Ernie (Don Calfa). Note those names, shared with Sesame Street’s famous gay couple – for after much talk of an unspecified ‘favour’ that, in return for Ernie’s help now, Burt will render later (“Whatever you want, I’ll do it,” he insists), Ernie’s last words to his old friend will be: “Burt, that favour you owe me – you watch your ass out there.” For what Ernie desires from Burt has remained buried like the old corpse in the warehouse’s basement – only to seep out on a long dark night that will end with a big bang. While a very similar queer subtext is definitely discernible in the masterful episode ‘The Crate’ from Romero’s Creepshow (1982), it is not something you would ever find in one of his zombie films.      

© Anton Bitel