1985 was an amazing year for zombie movie fans. Three of the all-time best entries in this subgenre emerged that year: Re-Animator, Day Of The Dead and Return Of The Living Dead. All three soon became cult favorites but it was Return Of The Living Dead that was the breakout hit of the group ($14 million U.S. gross on a budget of $1.5 million). Thirty-plus years after the fact, it remains a wily mixture of subversive and surprisingly commercial instincts in how it handles its blend of humor and horror.
Return Of The Living Dead begins with a clever “here’s what really happened” scene in which medical supply warehouse manager Frank (James Karen) explains to new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews) that Night Of The Living Dead was a fictionalized version of real events – and a drum of the nerve gas that accidentally revived corpses in real life is stashed in the basement. He accidentally busts a seal on said canister when showing it off, reviving a cadaver.
Warehouse manager Burt (Clu Gulager) is brought in and enlists the help of mortician pal Ernie (Don Calfa) to get rid of the corpse by cremating it. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of their problems: Frank and Freddy rapidly develop a strange illness from their exposure to the gas… and the fumes from the cremated corpse create a nasty rain when it hits the clouds above, sparking a strange rain over the local graveyard. A group of Freddy’s punk rock pals find themselves caught in the middle as the dead begin to rise.
Though the above synopsis is technically accurate, it only hints at the sense of invention and dark wit that makes The Return Of The Living Dead so unpredictably entertaining. The fun is rooted in Dan O’Bannon’s smart, irreverent script, which reinvents zombie lore (this was one of the first films to suggest zombies could move fast, think, speak and trick the living) as it plays up the outlandish, morbidly humor inherent in how a zombie uprising is rooted in the bumbling of the living. It’s also shows a nice grasp of deadpan satire at all levels, giving it a sometimes Dr. Strangelove-esque vibe.
It also pulls off a neat trick in that after it gets you sold on its dark wit, it reminds you that the potential zombie victims are people and shifts to drama as the brutal reality of the situation sinks in. Few horror films can pull off a tonal shift like that but O’Bannon makes it look effortless.
O’Bannon was a first-time director here – sadly, it was one of only two movies he made before passing away – but the results show confidence and a spare, smart sense of style. The film looks like a grungily stylized comic book, as if it were an E.C. Comic updated for the deadpan satire of the ’80s: Bill Stout’s production design plays a big role, often planning Mad Magazine-style stealth in-jokes in the corner of a frame. The smart use of punk songs on the soundtrack, including standout tunes from the Cramps and Roky Erickson, just heightens the film’s savvy sense of style.
The filmmakers use this unique sense of style to create a series of setpieces that have left an indelible impression on horror fans in the decades since its original release. Highlights include the medical supply crew trying to kill a zombie by hitting its brain only to realize they have to dismember to stop it from moving, a scene where Trash (Linnea Quigley) gets so turned on by the graveyard that she performs an impromptu striptease and a tense, smartly written scene where the survivors capture and interrogate a half-body female zombie to learn more about their enemy. There’s at least one scene like this per reel, making it a horror movie whose sense of narrative invention is as strong as its style.
The last piece of the puzzle – and it’s a crucial one – is a vivid set of performances by a cast that pairs talented newcomers with inspired veteran actors. Amongst the punks, Quigley single-handedly realized her scream queen status with her gutsy, darkly funny performance as Trash and there are also standout turns from Mathews as a nice guy who finds himself being transformed into evil against his will as well as funny work from Miguel Nunez as one of the more resourceful survivors.
That said, the core of the movie lies in a trio of performances from the old-school cast members. Karen gives an amazing performance that works in lockstep with the film’s gradual change of tone from satire to dramatic horror: he starts off as a charming send-up of middle managers but develops a surprising gravity and soulfulness in the final stages of the film. Gulager’s subtly satirical, surprisingly textured turn helped him become a favorite with horror fans because it grounds the film while adding to its humor – and Calfa has a blast here an eccentric who gradually transforms into one of the film’s heroes.
In short, The Return Of The Living Dead is an example of the peculiar alchemy that makes great cult movies in action: so much here could’ve gone wrong but the results never take a wrong step. It’ll make you laugh and squirm in all the right paces while you lean forward to catch all its surprises. Cult movie isn’t strong enough to describe this film – it’s a masterpiece.