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.

Rating: 10/10

Documentary Review: Document of the Dead (2012)

Release Date: November 13th, 2012
Directed by: Roy Frumkes
Music by: Rick Ulfik

Synapse Films, 66 Minutes (1979 cut), 85 Minutes (1989 cut), 102 Minutes (2012 cut)

Review:

Document of the Dead is a documentary that has been released at three different times, as it has been updated and expanded throughout the years.

Initially, it was about the making of Goerge A. Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead. Since then, it has looked behind the scenes at some of his other films, as well as checked in with the man and those close to him from 1978 up through 2006.

It is a sort of disjointed documentary, as the additions are very apparent in a way that distracts from the narrative. Also, the documentary jumps around a lot. It is entertaining and informative but it is a mess too.

I am reviewing the 2012 version, the final one released, so I can’t really say if the earlier versions, especially the 1979 original version, were more coherent. Anyway, it is the 1979 material that is the most compelling anyway.

Some of the cool things in this are seeing Tom Savini put the makeup on the Dawn of the Dead zombies, as well as his stunt work. Also, just seeing the behind the scenes stuff is cool, especially on an old school movie like this where DVD extras were still twenty years away.

Document of the Dead, while not a great documentary, is still a cool look into the world of Romero from a filmmaking point-of-view. For fans of Romero’s Dead series, it is certainly worth checking out.

Rating: 6/10

Film Review: Day of the Dead (1985)

Release Date: July 19th, 1985
Directed by: George A. Romero
Written by: George A. Romero
Music by: John Harrison
Cast: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato, Richard Liberty

Dead Films Inc., Laurel Group, United Film Distribution Company, 100 Minutes

Review:

“What kind of progress? What are you talking about, “make them behave?” What does that mean?” – Captain Rhodes

While Dawn of the Dead is regarded as the closest thing director George A. Romero has to a masterpiece, I consider its follow-up (and the third film in Romero’s Living Dead series) Day of the Dead to be a slightly superior film. I know that some agree with me but that the majority are probably against me.

Maybe it’s because the outside areas of the film where shot in downtown Fort Myers, a city in my county or maybe it is because when this film came out, I was incredibly impressionable and saw it first. I think the real reason however, is that this has the most compelling story of the first three films in Romero’s zombie arsenal. In fact, it has the most compelling story out of any film that Romero has done.

This is the first time, at least to my knowledge, where a filmmaker delved into the zombie psyche and experimented with the idea of how their brains might work. In this film, there is one zombie in particular, named Bub, who shows increasing improvement in his mental functions, in that he recognizes people, likes music, learns how to fire a gun, remembers how to use a phone and builds up an almost father/son relationship with the scientist that is studying him.

To this day, Bub is one of the most iconic zombie figures in the history of film. I would even go on to say that he is the most iconic. That alone, puts this film on a higher level than the other Romero zombie flicks. A lot of credit should also go to the actor who played Bub, Howard Sherman. He didn’t speak but his facial expressions made it so he didn’t have to. His performance is what made Bub the first lovable zombie character in cinema history.

As far as style, this film takes the cake in the Romero zombie world. From the sunny and historic Florida streets to the cavernous and haunting mine underground to the brightly lit zombie lab, this film has a good palate of contrasting tones that go on to shape the emotional narrative of the film.

The great effects of its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead, were once again on display but perfected even more for this film. The death of the character named Rhodes is one of the most gruesome yet awe-inspiring scenes of all-time for a special effects junkie.

Yes, the acting can be a bit cheesy and overly boisterous at times but that adds to the fun of this film. The violence, while there is a lot and it might seem gratuitous to some, never really pushes the bar so high that this becomes some low budget gore fest. There is a pretty stark political and social message in this film and it isn’t lost by a filmmaker inadvertently distracting his audience with shock value tactics.

Romero delivered in every way and this is, in my opinion, his best film.

Film Review: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Also known as: Zombi (Italy)
Release Date: September 1st, 1978 (Italy)
Directed by: George A. Romero
Written by: George A. Romero
Music by: Goblin, Dario Argento, De Wolfe Music
Cast: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, Tom Savini, Joseph Pilato, John Landis

Laurel Group, United Film Distribution Company, 116 Minutes (Italy), 127 Minutes (US)

Review:

I’m reworking my way through The Living Dead series of films. I’m going through the George A. Romero ones first and will then look at the films involving John A. Russo, as the two split the franchise down different creative paths after they made the original Night of the Living Dead in 1968.

The second Romero film and the most highly regarded of the series is this one, Dawn of the Dead.

This film came out ten years later and was a co-production between the United States and Italy, as Romero teamed up with Italian horror and giallo maestro Dario Argento. Argento edited the film for Italian audiences, who would see it first, and also brought in Goblin, who worked with him on the music for several of his pictures, most notably Suspiria, which came out a year before this.

In Italy, the film was released as Zombi and it would spawn a series of unofficial sequels, the most famous being Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2. That was released in the States, oddly enough, as Zombie.

To start, Dawn of the Dead is a damn good zombie picture. However, I am in the minority here, as I don’t consider it to be the best of the Romero Living Dead mythos. I actually prefer the other two of the original trilogy and especially consider Day of the Dead to be the best. But I’ll get into why, when I review that one.

Dawn of the Dead is still pretty stellar and it does show the world in a much broader sense than the original. The thing I really liked is that the zombies are everywhere but society hasn’t fully crumbled at the start of the film. Things fall apart over the course of the story, as we learn through television and radio broadcasts until things from the outside world go silent.

In this chapter, two SWAT team members, a helicopter pilot and his girlfriend land on top of a mall. They decide to live there, as it has power and it has all the things they will need to survive and then some.

The bulk of the story deals with the men cleaning out the zombies and securing the mall. They take out the living dead and fortify the entrances by moving semis in front of them. Eventually, things go south when a biker gang shows up, trashes the mall and bring the outside zombies swarming in. This isn’t just a movie where our heroes fight zombies, they also have to deal with a biker gang who want to take their home but ultimately ruin it for everyone.

This is the first film, that I know of, that shows humans having to defend themselves from other humans in a zombie scenario. This was the prototype of almost every zombie story after it. Hell, The Walking Dead is, at this point, a seven season television series based on this concept.

Dawn of the Dead is one of the best zombie movies ever made. To many, it is the best. The trilogy of films it is a part of are responsible for creating the genre and its tropes. It is also interesting, when compared to modern zombie entertainment, as the zombies are still fresh and newly created and therefore, aren’t just ragged flesh hanging off of bones.

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.