BRAAAAAAIIIIIINNNNNSSSS!!! The Return of the Living Dead Series. Part 1: Jarv looks back at Return of the Living Dead 1-3.
Next up on my quest through horror movie series is the incomparable Return of the Living Dead. The original Return of the Living Dead (here on referred to as ROTLD)was one of my first Vault reviews from way back in the Summer of 2009, and to be honest, it doesn’t read anywhere near as well now as I thought it did. I followed this with ROTLD 2 in November 2009, and again, it’s not my most sophisticated piece of criticism ever. I finally took on ROTLD 3 last year, as part of my quest to watch every Brian Yuzna film ever made, and the review is a bit better. But what is Return of the Living Dead, I hear you ask?
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
As noted, that was not my most sophisticated review ever, and when I rewatched it recently, it appears that I was ludicrously harsh on it. Christ knows what I was thinking of. However, the film itself is an absolute gem, a true minor classic well worth rehabilitation.
Originally intended to be a continuation of Romero’s Dead series, Return of the Living Dead had an incredibly difficult genesis. Tobe Hooper was meant to be directing, except he managed to get himself fired early in the production process, so in a panic the studio turned to Alien writer Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon took the original humourless version, and rewrote significant portions of it, before turning in one of the most anarchic and gleefully rip-roaring zombie films of all time.
I love this film. It’s superb. The idea is that two numpties in a dry-cleaning shop discover a barrel of mysterious Army chemicals (Trioxin) and in an act of fuckuppery manage to open it. Next thing you know the chemicals have bought the dead back to life in the local graveyard and infected a group of partying punks. Carnage and shenanigans ensue before the US Army wipes the town off the map with a nuclear weapon.
This film is a blast. It’s a riot, actually. Laced through with intentional humour and postmodern to its rotting brain, Return of the Living Dead is one of the standout horror-comedies from the 1980’s. There’s so much here that’s genuinely hilarious, from the names of the main characters to the zombies themselves. Brilliantly, and I do stand to be corrected on this, I do believe that ROTLD was the first time that sentient zombies ever took to the screen. This can, and frequently is, a rotten idea (looking at you Romero), but here O’Bannon plays it straight for laughs, so there are sequences such as the Zombies using the ambulance’s radio as a kind of Undead takeaway service (“Send more Brains”) and almost every scene has at least one genuine laugh.
Furthermore, one of the hallmarks of the series was that it produced some of the greatest zombies ever to grace the screen. Each film has one standout monster, and in the original that was a blackened killing machine that was later dubbed “Tarman”. Tarman is a stunning monster, a sublime effect that still looks incredible to this day- who needs CGI when you can create practical beasts like this?
Overall, this is a simply awesome film and one of the finest beer-fuelled zombie extravaganzas out there. In an act of cheeky balls, they released it in direct competition with Romero’s glum Day of the Dead, and Return of the Living Dead absolutely thrashed it at the box office. O’Bannon’s little zombie film was a triumph, and I heartily recommend it- I’d almost go as far as saying that Return of the Living Dead is unmissable, and if you haven’t seen it, watch it as soon as possible.
Inevitably a sequel was commissioned, as is always the way with successful horror films, and, again as is always the way, they produced a watered down version blithely hoping that lightning could strike twice.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2
I can see the thinking here. The original ROTLD made loads of money and went down as a minor classic. However, there was good reason for this: it was smart, funny, contained buckets of gore and nudity and above all else was both fun and imaginative. In all honesty, a sequel would have been a good idea. However, something went horribly wrong. In retrospect, it’s obvious what happened: when it the time came to make the sequel, the call was made to treat the original film as a template, to basically copy it wholesale but add new characters. This was a mistake.
Carrying on from the first film, we’re introduced to three horrible kids who blunder across a barrel of Trioxin (probably the single most important feature of ROTLD films). Zombies are unleashed and carnage should, in theory ensue. However, this doesn’t happen, and instead lameness and boredom ensue. I, honestly, cannot believe they took the imagination and panache of the original and basically tried to rehash it, because this sequel is nothing short of a disaster.
The first mistake was the rating. The original was a “hard” 18- in that it had massive amounts of messy violence and shit loads of gratuitous nudity. It was, in every sense, intentionally aiming at schlock- almost at exploitation. Here, though, there were a number of blunders made. Firstly, to try to rope in the teen drive-in audience they decided to focus the film around young-ish kids. As soon as a film does this, you’re into the badlands of boredom because that automatically (bar a few extremely odd cases, such as The Pit) guarantees a total absence of nudity. Secondly, if you cast a kid as the main character you remove the tension from the film. Whereas the original was brave and bold and taut as piano wire, the sequel has a kid in the lead, and only very mean-spirited films kill a kid. As ROTLD is meant to be fun, this ensures that we already know our survivor. As soon as survival horror goes down this route the film falls flat, because there’s as much tension there as there is in Adele’s knicker elastic, and ROTLD 2 is no exception.
Not only is this gelded ROTLD, but it’s also astonishingly unimaginative. The single best scene of the film is the Zombie impersonating a doctor, but we saw that in the Original. Worse, though, was that they thought that Tarman was an iconic monster- he isn’t, he’s just a cameo in the original, so recycled him wholesale and made him a major plot point. To follow a film as gleefully inventive as Return of the Living Dead with a film as bland and uninspired as this is a hanging offence in my book.
Overall, I hate this film. I despise it actually. It’s as boring and bland a cash-driven failure as could realistically be imagined. An exercise in predictable tedium with only the briefest slivers of entertainment, I have to say that ROTLD 2 is absolute fucking shite of the lowest order and I do not recommend it at all.
Most of the time fuck ups like this are franchise killers, but it’s fitting that as a zombie franchise Return of the Living Dead didn’t die that easily. In all honesty, pretend part 2 doesn’t exist, and skip straight on to…
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 3
Now we’re talking. This, actually, is what should have happened with Part 2. Firstly, Brian Yuzna was hired for directing duties, and he’s one of the masters of low-budget horror. Secondly, and more importantly, they went for a tougher and meaner film, but thirdly, the imagination is back. The tone is different, in that ROTLD 3 is not a comedy, but instead we have the first attempt in the series to make a “proper” horror film, and it works wonderfully well to wash the rank taste of the second out of my brain.
ROTLD 3 is basically Romeo and Juliet as written by the Maquis de Sade. A first-rate B-Movie cast (Sarah Douglas and Melinda Clarke being the stand out performers) battle through a clunky script dealing with the transformation of Julie (Clarke)into Goth-queen BDSM zombie nightmare after a motorcycle crash and an ill-advised experiment with Trioxin, before a bleakly nihilistic final act puts the kibosh on any romantic notions.
This isn’t a comedy. There is, honestly, nothing at all funny here. What we have instead is a “proper” horror movie. Yuzna took a gamble by draining the laughs out of ROTLD, but he knew damned well what he was doing- he’s aiming for a far more grim and nihilistic vibe and has a couple of trump cards to play to help him achieve this. He wisely makes Julie the centre of the film, and as Screaming Mad George was in charge of the effects Yuzna knew that he’d get zombies the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a ROTLD film, and boy did George deliver.
The zombies here are spectacular, from the gruesome metal-braced freak to the undoubted star of the film (and arguably the series), the unstoppable Julie. The fully transformed girl is one of the all-time great zombies, a bondage inspired nightmare of chains, piercings and broken glass. She is, frankly, stupendous and Yuzna was wise to make her the focus of the film. He’s also lucky that Clarke puts in the single best performance in the series here, and between actress and make-up something truly magnificent was born.
Nonetheless, ROTLD 3 isn’t a great film. There are serious problems at script level, with characters acting to service the demands of the plot rather than the plot following character. In particular, Curt, the male lead has to display the mental faculties of a lobotomised goldfish for the action to move on, which becomes frustrating. There are also irritating inconsistencies on display, most of which revolve around Julie, and furthermore much of the dialogue leaves a lot to be desired.
Overall, I like this film and feel that it’s unfairly maligned. However, I’m not insane enough to pretend it’s even in the same league as the stone-cold classic that is the original. There’s plenty to recommend here, and as such I’m approving it, but be warned about the flaws, and don’t expect comedy. Instead, watch it for the stunning zombies, in particular Julie, Bondage Queen of the Undead.
Strangely though, having come back to form so strongly with Part 3, the series went into extended hiatus. However, in the early 21st Century, Sciffy acquired the rights and decided to make parts 4 & 5 back to back. I’m looking forward to these, in fact I’m drooling with anticipation like Adele waiting for her pizza delivery. Although chances are that they’ll suck- the gap is too big, they were shot in Eastern Europe (always a bad sign) and they’re Sci-Fi Channel.
Overall, Return of the Living Dead is a pleasant and entertaining survival horror blast. Forget the pompous social commentary that other zombie franchises indulge in, and kick back for some laughs, some visceral horror and some truly incredible make-up.
Next up is Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis, which has a plethora of negative reviews on the internet. I’m hoping it’s better than its reputation.