Jarv’s Schlock Vault: Return of the Living Dead

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Return of the Living Dead

“But that’s okay, Darlin’, because I love you, and that’s why you have to let me EAT YOUR BRAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIINS!”

Oh deary, deary me. Where to begin with this minor classic?.Dan O’Bannon has had a strange career, there can really be no denying it. He went from co-creating arguably the greatest horror movie of all time to writing drivel and directing schlock. Interestingly, Tobe Hooper was originally slated to direct Return of the Living Dead, but IMDB reliably informs me that he managed to get himself fired before filming started. So this is a sort of precursor for the insanity of Lifeforce, even if it isn’t as amusing as that film. I don’t know how much of this is true, given that I sourced it from IMDB, but it’s a cool story nonetheless.

This film had a damned difficult gestation. It started out life as a pseudo-sequel/rip off of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead. The script fell into O’Bannon’s sweaty mitts, who in a fit of integrity that seems to be most unlike him, decided that he needed to rewrite several parts of it drastically to inject humour and take it away from Romero’s grim original. Or so the legend goes. Much of this is sheer comedy, but I doubt that it was intentional- a prime example being that two of the main characters are called Burt and Ernie.You would think this had to be deliberate, but O’Bannon was allegedly unaware of Sesame St. when he made it. As if. Anyhow, some idiot was willing to stump up $4m for it, which I bet they regretted when O’Bannon turned in an unreleasable film, thus forcing the studio to recut it behind his back. The end result of this fiasco is a solidly gory, undoubtedly fun, occasionally downright hilarious, and certainly pioneering zombie classic of the 80’s.

Return of the Living Dead is ostensibly a formulaic zombie film. Two simple minded fools discover a secret canister of military shit in a warehouse. They accidentally crack it open, inhaling a couple of lungfuls and reanimating a corpse. In a panic, they call the boss (Burt) who turns up to help them deal with the mess. He contacts his mortician pal across the road (Ernie) who agrees to let them use the furnace to destroy the polluted material. This is, clearly, a great plan and was working a treat until rain clouds form and dump the pollutant on the cemetery causing the dead to revive. Not to mention the side effect of utterly ruining a group of punks’ (who happened to be partying in the cemetary) evening. Shenanigans ensue, before the President authorises the army to destroy the town with a nuclear missile. Humdrum stuff really, and nothing that hasn’t been done in other films.

It has a first rate B-movie cast- including Clu Gulager, Don Calfa and underrated scream queen Linnea Quigley, and all of them perform with some relish. Special notice to Quigley though, for giving her all in a largely underwritten role. Her character seems to exist for the sole purpose of shedding her clothes and cavorting naked in the rain. I give special props to her professionalism, (as with Mathilda May in Lifeforce) because this must have been downright fucking freezing. They all put in good schlocky performances,even if it is fairly obvious that none of them are ever likely to receive an Oscar. However, far most importantly, they all seem to be having fun with the material. Almost as much fun as O’Bannon himself was having in the director’s chair.


As good as the cast is, the film is not perfect (as if you needed me to tell you that). The make up on the zombies is frequently below par, even amateurish,there are several huge leaps in logic (why has Burt been holding on to toxic waste for fucking years?), and plot holes galore, continuity errors all over the place and a few sections that are not particularly well shot. The zombies in particular come off badly from this- there is more than one occasion where the makeup stops short and you can see the actor’s actual skin tone underneath.The punks themselves are not the most sympathetic lot, even for cannon fodder, and as such I found it pretty hard to care about them when they start getting killed off. In all fairness to the punks, they get some excellent dialogue such as Trash’s sex or death exchange, even if some of it does lean towards cliché. Maybe I’m biased because I live in the goth/ punk/ unwashed/ pierced twat capital of the universe but after a bit they did get on my nerves.

However, as shoddy as it is (and anyone that thinks it isn’t shoddy needs a slap), it more than makes up for it by being fucking awesome.

Return of the Living Dead is, I believe, the first film with zombies that can run, use tools, think, talk and collaborate and it’s from this pseudo-intelligence that the majority of the comic scenes arise. I defy anyone not to bust a gut laughing when the zombies, having slaughtered all the paramedics, use the radio to order some new victims: a kind of take-away brain service. This is excellent, and I was in absolute hysterics when I saw it. It isn’t the only moment of high comedy in the film, they really were not afraid to go for the funny bone.

The talking zombies are a great idea, especially when they manage to capture one-which leads to a brilliant interrogation. The zombie eventually reveals that the only thing that can satiate it, and stop the pain is (you’ll never guess) eating human brains. Superb.

The strange thing about Return of the Living Dead is that I don’t think it’s as good a horror film as it is a comedy. There is gore aplenty, but it just isn’t frightening, and that’s despite it having one of the most fantastic zombies that this schlock junkie has ever seen- the absolutely incredible Tarman:

Fuck CGI. Who needs it? The Tarman is an amazing zombie, and to be honest, all the scary scenes in the film revolve around him. Not gross, because there’s plenty in this film that is downright fucking minging, but actually scary.

Return of the Living Dead is also cleverly meta-referential before postmodernism was even a sordid fantasy knocking around Kevin Williamson’s empty cranium. I’m pretty certain this is the first zombie effort where the characters attempt to kill a zombie by nailing its head to the floor only to wail “but it works in the movie” in abject defeat. Sure, as a device, postmodernism has been subject to severe overkill, but this was made in the 80’s.

Overall, would I recommend it? Yes, but not as a horror film. I suppose if you are 12 and haven’t a fucking clue then it will scare the pants off you, or else make you throw up. However, I rate it extremely highly just for the comedy and the totally unexpected moment of pathos where the infected worker puts himself in the cremation machine.

Incidentally, and amusingly, Return of the Living Dead completely outgrossed Romero’s Day of The Dead in the box office. This is funny by definition. Not that box office is any indication of quality at all, don’t get me wrong, but that a clear homage did better than the latest volume of it’s inspiration. Either that or it is proof that Romero was losing it by then.

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

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