February 01, 2010

The Return of the Living Dead

In The Return of the Living Dead (1985), writer-director Dan O’Bannon treats us to a garishly funny and violent zombie spoof that seems like a strange mix of 1950’s science fiction and 1980’s punk. The production design often makes us feel like we're watching an expanded version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video. The exuberant comic-book-feel of the horror is in that kind of vein, and the humor is in-your-face, as it should be with this kind of material.

Referencing George Romero’s 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead early on (partly to dispel confusion that this was a sequel to that movie), Return purports to tell us the "true" story of the living dead, and how it was all the Army's fault.

The disheveled corpses, sleeping peacefully in a dilapidated cemetery, are inadvertently revived when a military-developed chemical leaks into the atmosphere and over their graves. To the horror of some unsuspecting punk teenagers (with nicknames like “Trash” and “Suicide”) who unwittingly picked the graveyard as a place to party the night away, these zombies are hungry for brains and can run—fast. They can also talk, a gimmick that allows for at least two good jokes involving police radios. Despite all the problems in store for the adolescent characters, the adults apparently have much more at stake than their safety. Clu Gulager, as the owner of a nearby medical supplies warehouse, recognizes his culpability in hiding the lost military canisters that unleashed the troublesome gas into the air (infecting two of his employees—James Karen and Thom Matthews—in the process).

Return of the Living Dead is as much a part of its time as Night of the Living Dead was a time capsule of the 1960s, and yet both films seem to be telling us something very disturbing about our culture, then and now. Instead of the Bomb coming from the Russians, it comes from within our own borders, a rather chilling concept that endures even now.

Better than most of the walking dead movies, Return of the Living Dead spews gore and humor in equal doses. Despite its deviations from Romero’s “form,” zombie fans have embraced this as a minor classic with an ending as ironic as that of Night. With Don Calfa, Beverly Randolph, Miguel Nunez, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Jewel Shepard, John Philbin, and Mark Venturini. ½

No comments: