Film Review: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Release Date: August 16th, 1985
Directed by: Dan O’Bannon
Written by: John Russo, Rudy Ricci, Russell Streiner, Dan O’Bannon
Music by: Matt Clifford, Francis Haines
Cast: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Linnea Quigley

Hemdale Film Corporation, A Greenberg Brothers Partnership, Orion Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Listen, there’s a bunch of people from the cemetery who are stark, staring, mad, and they’ll kill you and eat you if they catch you. It’s like a disease. It’s like rabies, only faster, a lot faster. That’s why you’ve got to come and get us out of here now… right now!” – Burt Wilson

There are very few movies as awesome as The Return of the Living Dead. It is, hands down, the greatest zombie comedy ever put to celluloid… sorry, Shaun of the Dead. It is also balls to the wall insane from beginning to end while being full of punk teens, great older actors and the best zombie hoard in the history of motion pictures.

Like Dawn of the Dead, which was George A. Romero’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead, this film is also a sequel (in a way), as John A. Russo was the other half of the creative duo that gave birth to that original film back in 1968.

The Return of the Living Dead is an alternate continuity to Romero’s Living Dead universe, though. In fact, the original film is mentioned in this picture, as it is a movie that exists within this alternate timeline. However, the movie is referenced and casually dismissed as a Hollywood version of the “real story”. This film continues off of that original story, which is established in a conversation between two of the characters very early on.

The reason for the split continuities, is that Romero and Russo had creative differences over the property. Romero even went as far as to send Russo a cease and desist order over this film, which effected the marketing but ultimately, didn’t stop the film from being released and spawning its own sequels.

Romero purists will probably hate me for saying this but this is my favorite Living Dead film. It is also my favorite zombie picture. I wouldn’t say that it is the greatest, as far as overall artistry is concerned, but it is the one that I watch the most and have the largest amount of appreciation for. The film is just fucking cool and that is really an understatement.

Initially, Russo wrote a Return of the Living Dead novel and shopped it around Hollywood to be adapted. At one point, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 1 & 2Poltergeist, The Funhouse) was slated to direct the film but that fell through. Ultimately, what we got was this, which is better than what the Hooper film probably would have been.

In this film, we quickly learn that zombies don’t die by destroying their brains. The zombies can be dismembered, have their heads knocked off and still keep coming. They’re essentially impossible to kill. At one point, they cremate a pile of animated zombie parts. However, the smoke from the crematorium goes up into the clouds, which rain onto the graveyard, reanimating the dead. There really isn’t an effective way to kill the zombies, which makes the threat in this film, infinitely worse. Not to mention the fact that they move with speed and want to eat human brains.

I know that they don’t give out Oscars for pictures like these but James Karen put on a performance that was legendary. He was a hilarious and useless doofus that accidentally set the zombie threat free. All he did from that point forward was freak out and whine but he did it with such believable gusto that it is impossible not to be captivated by his absurd character and to love the scenes that he’s in.

We also get Miguel A. Núñez Jr. in my favorite role that he ever played. He’s a punk rocker that kind of acts like a damsel in distress but it works. Linnea Quigley also shows up, gets butt naked and dances on a tomb because this is the kind of stuff she was best known for. It is also her most memorable role, in my opinion. Don Calfa, probably best known as the killer in Weekend At Bernie’s is the guy who works at the crematorium and he’s also fantastic in this. Clu Gulager is perfect as the no nonsense older alpha male lead; Thom Mathews, one of the Tommy Jarvises in the Friday the 13th film series, pulls his weight too.

This film, for what it is, is absolutely perfect, which is why I have to give it the highest score possible. I used to love watching this when it rotated in and out of Joe Bob Briggs’ MonsterVision on TNT back in the 90s but nothing beats watching the unedited non-television version. How else are you going to see the beautiful gore and Ms. Quigley’s glorious breasties? Her bum is quite exceptional too, for the record.

The Return of the Living Dead could make a case for being the coolest movie of all-time. It probably isn’t for everyone but for kids who grew up watching horror in the 80s, this thing is a friggin’ masterpiece.

Plus, it features music from The Cramps, who were the most perfect band to feature in this film. It was tailor made for their tunes.

Film Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Release Date: October 1st, 1968
Directed by: George A. Romero
Written by: John Russo, George A. Romero
Music by: William Loose, Fred Steiner (stock recording)
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Riley, Keith Wayne

Image Ten, Laurel Group, Market Square Productions, The Walter Reade Organization, Continental Distributing, 96 Minutes

Review:

Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies that broke a lot of ground. Looking back at it now, it is nowhere near as gory or horrifying as modern zombie films but without its existence, a whole sub genre of horror would have never existed. Big franchises like The Walking Dead owe their existence to this film and the men behind it, director George A. Romero and writer John Russo.

I wasn’t around in 1968 but from what people have told me, this film scared the bejesus out of the masses. The thought of people coming back from the dead to roam the Earth as cannibals was a terrifying thought, especially since it hadn’t really been a thought before this movie hit theaters. What is now a common thing in our entertainment, was once something brand new.

Zombies did exist before Night of the Living Dead but they were typically of the voodoo variety and more like mindless minions controlled by an evil mastermind of some sort. 1932’s White Zombie with Bela Lugosi is a good example of what zombies were before Romero and Russo came along.

This film isn’t just ballsy in that it delves into some new terrifying territory. It also makes a black man the hero of the film in a time when civil rights tensions were at their highest. He also has to deal with a weaselly and wimpy white guy whose actions cause the group more harm than good.

The focus of the film is not the living dead outside of the house but the tension within the house, as the group of strangers has to learn to work together to survive the night. Otherwise, they’ll most certainly perish as the main course in a zombie buffet line. This concept would go on to be the focal point of many zombie tales after Night of the Living Dead. Hell, that is the whole shtick of The Walking Dead, which has existed in comic book form for over 150 issues and in television form for over seven seasons and two other seasons with its spin-off.

Night of the Living Dead is great in that it shows that a really compelling film can be made with a very low budget. Romero made magic and thus, created a motion picture that feels much larger than it is. Sure, it takes place in one location, primarily, but the world feels large and lived in. The use of news footage on television and reports over the radio added a lot of depth to the story. The zombie hunting posse showed a larger civilized world coming in to help and their presence created a sense of hope. Maybe things weren’t so bad away from the farmhouse? Maybe things were getting under control and the threat was almost over? Romero, however, doesn’t end this film in a positive way and that tone eventually carries over into his other Dead sequels.

George A. Romero and John Russo would have a falling out after this film. They both created their own series of sequels. Romero went on to make Dawn of the DeadDay of the Dead and a bunch of other sequels years after those. Russo, who maintained control of the “Living Dead” name, as it was his story that gave Romero a framework to work with, was behind the Return of the Living Dead series of films that started in 1985. The first of those films is still, to this day, the greatest zombie comedy of all-time. Sorry, Shaun of the Dead lovers. Don’t worry, I love it too.

Night of the Living Dead was so influential that it spun off into two separate franchises, a stellar 1990 remake and a slew of other zombie properties and franchises that have gone on to generate billions of dollars. Maybe Romero and Russo should have patented their new kind of zombie.