I think at this point it is safe to say the zombie genre is a little bit flooded. We have done every type of zombie from fast moving to the slow old school walker and put them in almost every situation we could imagine. I love zombie movies and will watch any that cross my desk but I find very few that are actually worth going back to or that seem to get better with age. My fellow zombie fans and I have argued as to what the best zombie film is and why. You always see Romero’s Dead series (Night, Dawn, Day etc) fighting to keep these classics in the top 5 and with due reason. The original 3 were great but I have one that easily dethrones at least one of these titles, Return of the Living Dead.
Personally this movie is and probably will stay my favorite zombie movie of all time. It just does the simple premise so well, there is an outbreak and the dead come back to life. You can add all the twists and turns into this as so many zombie movies have. And still I find myself referring to this movie and also recommending it to almost anyone looking for an almost perfect balance of humor and gore splashed with enough seriousness to keep from being billed as a comedy.
So we have a young man by the name of Freddy (Thom Matthews) who is receiving what seems to be an orientation from Frank (James Karen) on his first day at his new job within the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse. This is the 80’s folks, 1985 to be exact, and everything from the clothes to speech will have that radical 80’s vibe. While showing Freddy around Frank accidentally releases a gas from a barrel labeled Trioxin 245 in the basement. The two men pass out and awaken with almost flu like symptoms. Frank being the company man he is jumps on getting things cleaned up before the boss arrives.
Unfortunately this released gas has reanimated some of the warehouse’s stock, specifically a fresh cadaver along with a dog split in half. These two bumbling fools end up having to call the boss Burt (Clu Gulager) to see what they can do to contain this mess. With the help of Burt they are able to cut the cadaver up into pieces, all of which are still alive, so Burt can coax his pal across the street, Ernie (Don Calfa) into using his funeral home’s furnace to finish of the lively cadaver chunks. Ernie reluctantly helps after realizing these were not rabid weasels as he was told initially. Unknowingly this troop has released the same gas into the local air by burning the body parts up.
All while this is happening Freddy’s friends and love interest have set up camp in the creepy graveyard across the street to wait until his work day is over. Upon the release of this gas from the burned cadaver it seems a rain storm has conveniently been triggered bringing the Trioxin back down and into the earth to raise the dead. The story goes on from here in almost a standard fashion as Ernie, Burt, Frank and the kids all try to survive the onslaught of reanimated corpses.
I absolutely loved how the film was able to make you laugh but still maintain the seriousness of the plot. At no time did I feel the humor was forced or unneeded as the quips and comments between Frank and Freddy made a lot of scenes early on. I really wish more horror movies or zombie movies would take the time to develop humor without seeming like a tacked on distraction until the next kill scene. ROTD nailed this on the head and deserves plenty of praise for it.
The writing and direction (Dan O’Bannon, writer for the classic Alien) was spot on and well thought out. The movie progresses on and as it does you will start to care for some of these folks, namely Frank and Freddy. Watching these two go from chummy coworkers to dead men walking gets me every time. The addition of Freddy’s love interest, Tina (Beverly Randolph) into the fray only helps to further drive home the fact that you will care about these people at some point.
Another great point is the realistic nature of how things played out in this feature. Yes, I know it is a zombie movie and zombies are not real (sigh) … yet, anyway. ROTD had me saying “I would have done the same damn thing!”. It is all too common in horror movies to see a character doing something that makes no sense or makes you yell at the screen in disagreement. The situation with the cadaver is a perfect example. They use a pick axe to the head and the thing is still moving, so on to dismembering it in hopes that it will die. No luck with the chopping, so burning it seems like the only readily available option. Another vehicle that led me to caring about the different characters is the fact that I could relate to them and the choices they made.
Oh and a toast to the sweet T&A splashed with copious amounts of gore. As with any decent horror flick of the 80’s you had the requisite nudity. The grave yard strip tease scene with Trash (Linnea Quigley) has always been a favorite of fans and pervs alike. I mean what is not to like about a goth chick sporting a killer rack who wants to die at the hands of filthy old men as they devour her body. See, nothing wrong with that at all. Add this to awesome amount of cringe worthy gore and you have something really special here that any horror fan can enjoy, parents permitting of course.
The effects and makeup rival some of the best movies of the 80’s. Every flesh rip, head gnaw, or bone snap is so realistic looking that you will shudder and maybe even look away for a moment. The detail in each one of the zombies is so well done that I, with my nit-picky ways, had a hard time finding any flaws that could be seen in the makeup. To this day the upper torso zombie that they interrogate creeps me out. With that raspy eerie voice saying “brains” I automatically get chills and look around the room.
The ending is about the only thing that could have been scraped and replaced. Anytime you pull and use “stock footage”, I will always feel let down. It’s not just the physical ending but also what they chose as an ending to the story that was a letdown. I do not want to ruin the ending for those who have not seen it but I can think of 5 different and better ways this movie could have ended.
I could go on for hours maybe even days about this movie and the effects it has had on the horror genre, but I would rather each person go and seek this gem out. If you are a horror guru or something similar, chances are you have seen this and agree with me to some point. ROTLD has spawned a total of 5 movies in the series that just got increasingly worse with 3 ranking right behind the first followed by parts 2, 4 and 5.
If you love zombie movies or well-written and directed horror movies saddled with a few laughs, The Return Of The Living Dead should be spinning in your DVD players tonight.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: anytime a zombie speaks.
Take a Drink: anytime Eddie brandishes his gun
Do a Shot: anytime nudity is on screen and you are high-fiving your inner 13 year old boy.