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Non-Review Review: Return of the Living Dead

Return of the Living Dead is a fairly strange beast. Something of a black comedy spin-off from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the film is a ridiculously campy exploration of trashy low-rent horror… and yet somehow has been picked up and embraced by popular culture. After all, this is the movie that introduced the idea that zombies weren’t just satiated by consuming large quantities of meat (most often from humans) – this was the film which introduced the idea of zombies stumbling forward, repeatedly droning “braaaaains!” It’s a concept which has been so throughly incorporated into pop culture’s definition of zombie (although it’s rarely the case, we still expect it and recognise it), so it seems strange that it came from a spoof.

No bones about it...

Written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, the movie is smart and cheeky – but never too much so. It gleefully plays with all sorts of horror conventions, but never seems especially harsh. “We can go fool around in there for a while,” a teenager observes, looking across the road at graveyard. “Let’s do that,” another agrees. I find it highly unlikely that any zombie looking for brains would be especially nourished after chowing down on these young folk.

The plot stems from a rather cheeky premise. Night of the Living Dead, the George A. Romero film, actually exists in this world (and the characters are familiar enough with the idea of the dead walking that they even us the phrase “zombie”). However, the film assures us in a rather strange burst of expository dialogue between a stock manager and a new hire, the film was “based on a true case.” However, certain information didn’t transition to screen properly – for example, sadly enough, how to kill these creatures (“you mean the movie lied?” one character asks, shocked). Anyway, as our experienced stock manager assures us, “what really happened was…”

Painting the town red...

These zombies are different. It’s strange to use adjectives like “realistic” when talking about zombies, but these ghouls are far more outlandish than anything Romero would ever dream up. They can talk, they can think and reason, they can run, and they can survive damage to the brain. The bites don’t infect people, only the mysterious toxin (devised to “to spray on marijuana”, in a nod to the classic monster movie “social commentary” cliché) changes people. Of course, burning the zombies spreads the toxin into the air and that rains down to create more.

In a way, these creatures actually resemble the monsters from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. They can reason and negotiate – one half-decayed corpse explains that they consume brains to help manage “the pain of being dead.” They are smart, setting up ambushes to lure the emergency services to feed on them (“send more cops,” one zombie radios in). All of this is completely ridiculous and makes little-to-no sense, but the comedy elements manage to make it all seem well. There’s something darkly hilarious about a bisected dog being reanimated.

The movie does play a fair amount of the “living dead” schtick straight – including the obligatory “hands reaching through boarded-up window” scene. There’s actually a fair amount of blood and guts on display (the creatures are, after all, hungry for brains). In fact, there are some fairly strong emotional scenes at the end, if you can look past the cheese factor. The humour and the horror aren’t integrated as beautifully as George A. Romero did in his own Dead trilogy (mixing genuine horror with more subtle social satire), but it’s a cocktail which works well.

Taking a horror film fan back to ghoul...

Part of the reason it works so well is because Dan O’Bannon clearly knows his source material especially well. He knows all the beats a monster movie should hit, and actually manages quite a few impressive special effects – I like the shot of the infected rain soaking down through the earth into the grave. There’s also an awareness of the clichés that one might associate with horror movies, to the point where, as a beautiful teen strips off her clothes, her friends casually observe that she’s “taking her clothes off again.” As if this happens in every graveyard they decide to crash. I also like the fact the film centres around two friends known as Burt and Ernie.

There are also some other nice moments which will likely appeal to horror buffs. I loved the sequence where two paramedics were monitoring two infectees and note that their patients have no pulse or blood pressure. Even though it makes no scientific sense. “Technically, you’re not alive,” the paramedics observe as they casually accept the impossible readings almost without question (personally, I’d accept that both sets of equipment might be faulty).

Nibbling his ear...

The movie is dated. I’m not going to say either “well” or “poorly”, because that will depend on how you feel about the eighties. Personally, I think the retro vibe really adds a great deal to the camp tone of the movie. The synth heavy soundtrack is fairly neat, and there’s something really cool about spending the movie waiting for the Michael Jackson from Thriller to show up. The movie is noted for its punk soundtrack, which is kinda cool – but I think the hokey “dated” feeling is far deeper than that, as if the crew were aware of exactly how we’d remember the eighties and just played that up to add an extra layer to the film to be enjoyed three decades later. The kids even say “totally radical.”

Return of the Living Dead won’t be for everyone. It’s juvenile and non-sensical and downright silly at times, but it’s also an affectionate parody of these type of schlock horror movies that Hollywood is still turning out today. If you though Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead invented the zombie comedy, you might want to give this a try.

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3 Responses

  1. What an awesome movie. I’m right there with you on every point, from the nature of the zombies to the film’s tongue-in-cheek, dark sense of humor. And honestly, that tar-covered zombie is maybe more iconic to me than any other representation of the 80’s zombie, even conflicting with Raimi’s deadites.

    • I do have a fondness for the film. The featured zombie is an iconic one, but I think Romero’s Bud from Day fo the Dead is perhaps my favourite eighties zombie.

  2. I love this movie. While it is most definitely a divergence from the classic zombies, it did add a lot to the culture of zombies. Where would we be without “braaaaains.” But I think this movie holds up as a great farce of the horror genre at large.
    I actually reviewed this movie too on my new blog. I would love to hear from another critic. Too see if my review holds up.

    http://horrormoviemedication.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-return-of-living-dead-do-you-want.html

    Check it out if you could. 😉

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