There are zombie movies & then there is Return of the Living Dead….
I owe my entire fascination, love & fear of the dead to this movie & I even recently got the infamous Tarman tattooed on me. I saw this very graphic movie from an early age (my parents rocked!) & it scared the absolute crap out of me. As a kid I didn’t bother over-thinking the fact that long-dead zombies wouldn’t be able to run, that long dead zombies wouldn’t have vocal chords & that skeletons shouldn’t have perfect eyeballs! All the niggly bits come with being an adult but thanks to my early exposure to Return… these niggly bits don’t bother me in the slightest now.
Return of the Living Dead is a spiritual successor to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. John Russo who worked alongside Romero on Night kept the rights to all movies bearing the ‘Living Dead’ moniker while Romero was free to create his own path (Dawn of the Dead). Director changes & story re-writes meant the eventual Return of the Living Dead film bore little resemblance to Russo’s original idea but he is credited as a story writer.
The film opens with the foreman of a medical supply warehouse (Frank) showing the newest recruit (Freddy) around. He shows him 2 drums filled with a failed army experiment in the basement that he claims inspired the movie, Night of the Living Dead. They then accidently damage a drum releasing the gas inside…they are knocked out by the gas & it escapes through a vent into the dead body storage freezer re-animating it.
Meanwhile a group of young rockers & punks are waiting for Freddy to finish work, the group include his girlfriend. To kill time they decide to hang out in an abandoned cemetery nearby.
When Frank & Freddy wake up they call the warehouse owner Bert over & together they deal with the reanimated corpse. Bert calls in a favour from the local mortician Ernie who agrees to let them use his furnace to burn the bodily remains. The smoke from the burning body is pumped out of the chimney & into the atmosphere causing a heavy acid rain shower which drives the infected smoke into the nearby cemetery.
Can you guess what happens next? Well basically the dead start coming out of the ground terrorising the punks partying & resulting in a zombie siege on the mortuary. Oh & Linnea Quigley is naked for quite a bit of the movie…
Return of the Living Dead’s awkward plot is made 10 times better by the calibre of acting on show. I don’t think I have ever seen better in a zombie movie to date & not a single person can be faulted. Considering the slapstick nature of the movie & silliness on show at times it is even more impressive that the cast act so terrified. Special mention has to be given to Don Calfa as Ernie…my favourite character in the film (except for Linnea Quigley but that’s for another reason).
The build up to the big zombie showdown is excellent…it’s not rushed & I loved that in Bert’s desperation to destroy the evidence of the lone reanimated dead he inadvertently causes the bigger outbreak. All the while Frank & Freddy are getting sicker from the gas from the tank…as a watcher we suspect we know what is going to happen to them. The scene where the paramedics fail to find a heartbeat & declare that, while impossible, they are technically dead is edge of your seat stuff.
The eventual payoff for both characters is both emotional & terrifying with Freddy’s being one of my lasting memories when I was younger.
When the zombies do come in force they come with speed & some degree of brains function, enough to create a zombie cul-de-sac & keep calling in police backup for food. Zombies that run…is there anything scarier? I didn’t think so & even now I shudder a little.
There are genuine moments that I can describe as down-right scary. One such moment sees the paramedics returning to their vehicles to get some equipment & hear moans in the wind. One climbs into the driver’s seat to call it in & hits the headlights switch illuminating a horde of zombies just waiting patiently. So impactful….
Gore is limited but when it happens it packs a punch with close-ups of skulls being bitten into & brains spilling out. The most graphic of all is when one character runs into the zombie that was in the original army drum, the infamous tarman. It’s a great scene & the make-up on tarman is so impressive.
One of the reasons the movie is so adult is the level of nudity in it. Now I have a soft spot for Linnea Quigley as she is an original scream queen (I love her in Night of the Demons) & playing Trash in Return she excels even if she does spend a lot of it nude…
Tell a lie…technically she isn’t fully nude. Ok, one of the most well-known scenes is the bit where in the graveyard Trash begins to describe how she dreams of dying (being eaten by old & dirty men). She makes it all very sexual before stripping off & dancing on a tomb, except for some reason she wears a skin coloured patch over her unmentionables giving her a Barbie doll look. It’s all very confusing especially as she remains that way for the rest of the movie. I mean if they didn’t want her to be fully nude why not have her strip to just her underwear?
I struggle to be too negative about this movie…even flaws such as shoddy make-up & rotting bodies with perfect teeth & a full head of hair just add to its overall charm.
The movie ending is absolutely brilliant & sees the surviving cast separated across different sections of the area. Some are trapped in the attic being terrorized by a zombie Freddy while others are desperately hoping a call to the army can save them. I won’t lie to you…it is as bleak of an ending as you can get & the usage of freeze-frames to show the final moments of the cast including the zombies is amazing.
Lastly I have to mention the excellent soundtrack…its pure rock & roll filth & it is one of my favourite movie soundtracks ever. The songs chosen accompany the scenes perfectly & it is a safe bet that the big moments wouldn’t have been half as impactful without the music.
The zombie movie that I hold all others up against. Sure it breaks all of the conventional zombie rules but it is so entertaining that I can easily forgive it. The cast are hugely impressive throughout & the plot holds together well. From start to finish the movie rarely lets up & manages to combine scary moments with slapstick behaviour. See this movie…
The Return Of The Living Dead