On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
by NIR SHALEV
Editor’s Note: Nir wrote this review in celebration of Halloween, but my trial commitments kept me from putting it up until this week. Take it as an early recommendation for next year and not a commentary on Election Day.
Freddy (Thom Mathews) just started his new job at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse and is receiving his tour of the place. His boss Frank (James Karen) secretly discloses to him that George Romero’s film The Night of the Living Dead (1968) is loosely based on a true story and that due to a shipping mishap several cadavers that were exposed to a dangerous, experimental, toxic nerve gas have been stored in the basement of their warehouse. Frank shows Freddy a container and its contents: a corpse that resembles a mummy. Then to prove that the container is sealed tight and impregnable he bangs on it. It ruptures and a disgusting yellow gas fills the air and Frank and Freddy pass out. The gas traverses the many ventilation pipes and chimneys that are located within the warehouse and causes other cadavers in it to come to life.
Thus begins the hilarious and terrifically clever horror/comedy that was written and directed by Dan O’Bannon. Wait… not the Dan O’Bannon who wrote Alien (1979)? Surely it can’t be the same one! Well, it definitely is and one can rest assured that the screenplay to The Return of the Living Dead is darned clever through and through. And to a certain degree it even makes sense.
[Please note this review contains spoilers.]
Aside from Frank and Freddy we also have a group of punks that are patiently waiting for Freddy’s shift to end so they could all party. To kill time, they hang around the nearby cemetery and exchange random dialogue that develops their personalities rather than deliver superfluous expository dialogue. A nice touch.
Meanwhile upon waking up, Frank calls his boss Burt (Clu Gulager) and the three of them try to kill a corpse that simply wouldn’t die (even after they’d decapitated it). They attempt to figure out how to kill the corpse and Burt asks, “In that movie, how did they kill the corpses?” Frank replies, “They destroyed their brains.” Burt then says, “We already did that! And it still won’t die!” Finally Frank says, “Because it’s already dead!”
And last but not least, there’s Ernie (Don Calfa). Ernie’s the embalmer who works next door and who eventually joins Frank, Freddy, and Burt in disposing of the corpse through the method of cremation. But the toxic fumes and smoke from the corpse exit the crematorium and into the air. It causes tainted rainfall and all of the corpses in the nearby graveyard come to life. Now there are a lot of undead running through the streets and hilarity continues to ensue.
This may not sound like a comedy, but believe me it can’t be anything but. O’Bannon showcases the first ever film zombies that feed only on brains and even has the audacity (or brilliance, depends on how you look at it) to provide the film with a reasonable explanation behind its importance. It’s nice to have a reason for everything. And, again, to a certain degree it makes sense.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a zombie film that never utters the word “zombie” and also its undead, hungry tormentors are invulnerable. The pacing of the film is also, deliberately, a tad slow at first but quickly picks up with the rainfall and so does the body count. The film quickens its pace even more in the final 30 minutes. When the impossible happens, there’s no time to beat around the bush. The film goes straight for the throat and never lets up. And that’s, partly why it’s brilliant.
However, the most brilliant part of the film is when Frank and Freddy are slowly dying, due to firsthand exposure form the yellow gas. As the film progresses they begin to sweat, then grow pale and cold. When they’re given a check-up by a couple of paramedics they’re informed that they have no pulse and that their body temperature is equal to room temperature. Then rigor mortis kicks in and so does a lot of screaming. The “transformation” is more comical than it should be because it follows all of the logical steps towards becoming undead. Frank and Freddy’s ordeal never feels cheap; their screams are painful to endure because they sound authentic and it’s all apart of O’Bannon’s brilliant screenplay.
This is my favorite horror/comedy film and I write this review with just one day left before Halloween. This film is a blast and if you hadn’t yet watched it make sure to gather around the fire with a big bowl of popcorn and a two-liter bottle of pop. You’ll laugh, you’ll scream, and most importantly you’ll have lots of fun.
Return of the Living Dead is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Special features on both releases include a commentary track by Dan O’Bannon and the production designer, William Stout; short feature “Designing the Dead”; conceptual art by Stout; and TV commercials for the film.
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