Sunday, January 29, 2012

Return of the Living Dead, The (1985)

Directed by:
Dan O'Bannon

A comic spin on George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) based - at least in part - on contributions from several Romero movie alum; Night co-writer John A. Russo, Night co-producer Russell Streiner and Rudy Ricci, who co-wrote Romero's romantic comedy THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA (1971), this managed to carve its own path and proved to be pretty influential in its own right. Originally slated to be directed by Tobe Hopper, O'Bannon got the job instead and did a major re-write on the project's previous materials; adding most of the humor to the film himself. It also happened to be released the same year as DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), Romero's third installment in his "Dead" trilogy. Upon release, instant and perhaps unfair comparisons were drawn between the two films, with Return clearly coming out on top. Being the #1 box office draw the week it debuted, it not only managed to pummel Day (a flop by comparison) at the box office but also received a much-warmer reception from both audiences and mainstream critics. Roger Ebert, for instance, awarded Return with a 3 star "thumb's up" while Day received a discouraging 1 1/2 star "thumb's down." Regardless of the initial reaction nearly thirty years ago, both films have gone on to become very popular and respected films within the genre.

Though I like both movies a lot, I might even have to agree with the general consensus that Return is the more successful of the two, but I only say that judging both by what they were intended to be, not by directly comparing them. Day is a serious, apocalyptic horror tale, whereas Return is a comic spin on zombie films. Romero's film is bleak, gory, claustrophobic and dialogue-heavy. It has some very interesting ideas and is a thoughtful and entertaining film, but suffers from an uneven cast, with several key players giving grating, distracting, over-the-top performances. On the other hand, Return does an impressive balancing act, delivering plenty of laughs (more prevalent in the first half) that somehow never manage to compromise the horror content (which take an increasingly tighter hold as the film progresses). Return is also inventive, clever, well-paced and benefits a lot from the casting of three veteran character actors (Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa), usually support players all, and giving them each a chance to shine in their respective roles.

Frank (Karen, giving a terrific comic performance here) runs the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky. After his boss Burt (Gulager) heads out for the Fourth of July weekend, Frank starts showing new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews) the ropes. Down in the basement are several metal drums, accidentally sent there by the military and each containing a shriveled corpse that Frank claims used to be living dead (Frank also claims that - wink, wink - Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story). One of the drums springs a leak, spraying Frank and Freddy directly in the face with a chemical called Trioxin, which knocks them both unconscious. When the two finally come to, they're deathly ill and notice that things in the warehouse that were dead before have miraculously been brought back to life... including a cadaver they have stored in the freezer! They, with help from Burt (who's called back in to help), dismember the corpse with a hacksaw and get nearby mortician Ernie (Calfa) to burn the remains in his crematorium. With the evidence now gone, everyone breaths a sigh of relief... at least temporarily.

The fumes from the crematorium head straight up into the sky, where they cause a sudden thunderstorm. The rain (which contains traces of the toxic chemical) coats the ground at neighboring "Resurrection Cemetery" and bring the dead crawling out of their graves. Freddy's girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and some other friends just so happen to be there hanging out and end up getting in the middle of things. Unlike most earlier zombie films, the zombies here can talk, are clever enough to lure victims into their clutches (one even uses a police radio to call in more paramedics and cops at one point) and are not so much interested in eating humans as they are feasting on human brains. After all, "It hurts to be dead." Return is also noteworthy for featuring fast-moving, agile zombies who don't just shuffle around, but actually chase after victims. (The number of people who run around claiming that 21 DAYS LATER... [2002] created "running zombies" - and these are people who should know better - is insane!)

Eventually, the military gets wind of what's going down in Louisville and decide to do exactly what the military probably would do in real life if something like this were to occur.

Of the cast, Karen gets most of the laughs (my favorite bit is when he starts beating a revived "split dog" with a crutch!), though both Gulager ("I hit the fucking brain!") and Calfa have their moments. And when the film becomes more serious in tone, all three actors adjust accordingly and smoothly to the material. Another standout in the cast is Linnea Quigley. Playing the role of a morbid punkette named Trash, she does a memorable dance atop a cemetery crypt, is killed and returns from the dead as a zombie... all the while sans clothing. This role turned Quigley into one of the most beloved female horror stars of the last thirty years, though she would seldom get such a high profile movie as this one. Another of the actresses, Jewel Shepard, also used this film to launch her career as a "Scream Queen," though to date she's amassed only a handful of genre film credit and never the lead role. Others in the cast include Miguel A. Nunez Jr. and Mark Venturini (who both had roles in FRIDAY THE 13TH V the same year), John Philbin and Brian Peck.

Some of the zombie make-up is a little minimal and forgettable (every once in awhile a non-made up zombie extra can be spotted amongst the crowd), but the featured effects are solid. The oily, skeletal "tar man" zombie (who escaped from the broken military canister) and a rotten half woman zombie are especially good. There's also a great soundtrack, featuring songs from The Cramps ("The Surfin Dead"), The Damned, Roky Erickson, SSQ and others. Debuting director O'Bannon had already scripted the huge hit ALIEN (1979), and even had some prior experience with zombies, having written the sleeper DEAD & BURIED (1981) a few years earlier. It's a shame he hasn't had the opportunity to direct more because Return and his next effort, the Lovecraft-inspired THE RESURRECTED (1991), are both well above average.

As with all successful horror films, a handful of variable sequels followed. The awkwardly-titled RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, PART II (1988) had some great zombie make-ups and brought back Karen and Matthews (playing different roles), but the humor was mostly obvious and juvenile and the characters were irritating. Brian Yuzna's surprisingly good RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III (1993) was a serious, tragic love story punctuated with black humor and loads of gore (some of which caused ratings problems). The dreadful RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 4: NECROPOLIS (2004) and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 5: RAVE TO THE GRAVE (2005), which were filmed back-to-back in Eastern Europe and have more in common with brainless action-oriented zombie movies such as RESIDENT EVIL (2002) than their namesake, put the final nail in the coffin for this franchise.

Laurel Entertainment's Richard P. Rubinstein filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to try to prevent the filmmakers from using "Living Dead" in the title. A longer workprint version was unearthed in the early 90s, which ran 24 minutes longer than the theatrical release. In 2011, the two-hour retrospective documentary MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD was released and featured interviews with nearly the entire cast and crew.



spookyx3 said...

fun watching this again. hadn't seen ROTLD for more than 20 years, although i'd read john russo's novelization in the meantime. the book explains freddy's been sort of scared-straight after witnessing the grizzly fatal OD of a friend, trying to turn his life around by taking a job with the medical-supply company. IIRC, it somewhat bizarrely credits real-life spies "the cambridge five" with causing the outbreak (!!) by purposefully redirecting the trioxin barrels to an unsecured location.

funny seeing this stuff on blu-ray and catching all the little background details you missed before, like the note on the wall of the office, "B U R T I S A S L A V E D R I V E R..." formatted like an eye-chart. in HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS, they filmed a scene at fred ray's house and you can see his bookshelf. he had both bojarski's lugosi bio and arthur lennig's (wonderful) THE COUNT.

gonna check out the MORE BRAINS doc, soon. sometimes it feels like these film/entertainment-related talking-head retrospectives account for most of the english-language films i've seen since the early 2000s.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

The more I think about it, the more I think this is probably the best zombie film of the entire decade. Day of the Dead and Re-Animator are both in the discussion but I honestly think I enjoy this a bit more.

Ever get a chance to check out the More Brains doc? I enjoyed it a lot, except it gave me a bad impression of Jewel Shepard, someone I didn't pay much mind to before viewing it. I can also go without ever seeing Brian Peck again for obvious reasons. Otherwise it was really good.

spookyx3 said...

i saw MORE BRAINS in 2017; what'd she say?

> Day of the Dead and Re-Animator are both in the discussion

there are few real candidates after 1985, AFAICS. remind me, does NIGHT OF THE CREEPS qualify? something else i need to rewatch.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

According to the other actors, she was trash talking cast members and complaining the whole time and it was caught on her microphone. No one seems to have enjoyed working with her and no one has a nice thing to say about her.

On another note, I have no clue why she was ever considered a Scream Queen. She was only in a couple of horror films and aside from Return the parts were small yet she always gets grouped in with Brinke, Linnea, etc.

Creeps definitely qualifies! It's good but I've always preferred Day, Return and Re-Animator.

spookyx3 said...

dug out my (unread) copy of shepard's 1996 autobiography, FWIW: "all through rehearsals, everyone in the cast had been friendly and supportive, feeling like a family, but now [during three weeks of night-shoots] we were getting on each others' nerves. ... it got to the point where we could hardly walk, and it took more and more makeup to hide the dark circles under our eyes. we were all starting to identify with the walking dead in the screenplay." also sounds like dan o'bannon was under a lot of pressure, hard to please, continuously screaming. i think the doc covers when he and clu gulager almost came to blows because dan didn't think he was acting scared enough in one scene.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I wouldn't mind reading her autobiography or her Invasion of the B Girls book. I did glance a bit at her website and she seems to be a pretty good / humorous writer. I was a bit surprised most of the cast and crew didn't like working with her. The doc does indeed cover some of the tensions between Gulager and O'Bannon. I think Gulager was a last minute replacement for someone else and wasn't involved in any of the script reads or anything so he didn't get to bond with the rest of the cast.

Doubt any of the actors on that set had it as bad as Linnea, though! I think I remember her saying she either got or almost got hypothermia running around in the cold rain naked.

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