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Return of the Living Dead

by on September 19, 2010
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I was astonished when, in recent years, I kept hearing 1985’s “The Return of the Living Dead” referred to as a comedy. Sure, I thought, there are plenty of schlocky moments, silly humor and camp dialogue. This is, after all, a movie in which one of the main characters does an impromptu striptease in a graveyard, and spends the rest of the film naked — even after she’s turned into a zombie.

But a straight-out comedy? This was one of the seminal movie experiences of my teen years, a turning point where I realized that cheap, bloody horror films can be as integral a part of your cinematic diet as Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen and Ridley Scott.

Speaking of Ridley Scott, the progeny of “Living Dead” is interesting. Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for 1979’s “Alien,” directed by Scott, stepped behind the camera for this film. John Russo, who co-wrote the screenplay for George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” had a dispute with his old partner.

They resolved their differences by essentially splitting the zombie canon between them, with Romero’s subsequent pictures using the suffix “of the Dead,” while Russo’s would be branded “of the Living Dead.”

These two writers, O’Bannon and Russo, got together to create what is, for my money, one of the all-time great zombie flicks. The disturbing violence, which somehow managed to muster an R rating from the MPAA, coupled with some terrific creature effects (on a budget of $4 million), and the aforementioned naked zombie girl combined to make an indelible imprint on my impressionable young mind.

The series would go on to spawn four sequels, none of which O’Bannon or Russo had anything to do with — not that they were missing out on any glory.

Romero has enjoyed something of a revival in the last decade, which has lead to the Living Dead movies being denigrated as inferior castoffs from the Church of Zombiology. I don’t know why; I think “The Return of the Living Dead” is vastly superior to Romero’s “Day of the Dead,” which came out the same year. And 2005’s “Land of the Dead” was so uninspiring I haven’t even bothered to watch the other two that have come out since.

“The Return of the Living Dead” has finally received a sumptuous Blu-ray release. If you’re a fan of this movie, or just zombie flicks in general, this edition falls into don’t-miss category.

It comes with a making-of documentary, a featurette on designing the film, another featurette about horror films of that era, special zombie subtitles and theatrical trailers. There are also two separate commentary tracks — one by O’Bannon and production designer William Stout, and another by cast and crew.

O’Bannon cheerily admits in these extras that he intended the film as a comedy, but in their commentaries the cast talk about playing it straight. (With the notable exception of James Karen, whose over-the-top theatrics added a bit of hammy hot sauce to the proceedings.)

Despite the director’s opinion, I still regard it as a genuinely horrifying movie that happens to have a lot of humor in it, rather than a comedy.

The zombies of “The Return of the Living Dead” depart in ways great and small from the classic, Romero-style zombie.

The most noticeable of these is the first known appearance of “fast” zombies. Until then, zombies were always slow, shuffling creatures. That was part of their appeal as monsters — they weren’t very fast, and any able human could outrun them, but they were relentless.

There has since come to be a great debate among horror devotees about “fast” vs. “slow” zombies, though at this point only Romero still appears to be employing the slow kind. Even the 2004 remake of Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” featured fast zombies.

O’Bannon and Russo’s zombies are also much more intelligent. They retain their ability to speak and reason, at least to a limited degree. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a zombie gets on the CB of an ambulance and tricks the dispatcher, asking her to “send more paramedics.” In another, a green female zombie — well, her top half anyway, the rest of her having been hacked off above the pelvis — is strapped to a table and interrogated.

Why do you eat brains, she is asked. “The pain … the pain of being dead,” she moans. Eating fresh human brains makes the pain go away, at least for awhile. This would differentiate these zombies from classic Romero ones, which were essentially cannibals who feasted upon the entire body.

Another thing to note is that in “The Return of the Living Dead,” being bitten by a zombie does not turn you into one — only exposure to a deadly chemical developed by the military. In this way, the infestation of zombies is somewhat limited. Even though the gas can be spread through the air or seep into the ground through rain, the outbreak won’t be exponential.

Also, these zombies are more resilient to damage. Piercing the brain or beheading the zombie does not stop them. The individual pieces keep coming after you. (Though I’m not sure what a disembodied foot would gain from killing, since it has no way to eat and thus relieve the pain of being dead.) They can only be destroyed by being completely reduced to ash, melted in acid, etc.

Of course, in the end the military solves its little problem by nuking the entire town of Louisville, where the story is set (though it was shot in Los Angeles).

The film just looks terrific in hi-def, and I noticed several details I’d missed before. For example, the half-zombie leaks spinal fluid from her “tail” during her interrogation, forming a nasty little clear pool of goo. Linnea Quigley’s famous nude dance on a grave included a modesty insert to cover her most private regions. (In the commentary, she refers to it as a “plug” … yargh!)

And the Tarman — the deliciously slimy zombie/skeleton — has never seemed more repulsive. I was surprised to learn that it was not an animatronic piece like I always thought, but an actor (Allan Trautman) wearing a special suit. For his beheading scene, they simply hired a shorter actor who had to wear the same, smelly outfit.

O’Bannon and Russo may have intended it as a comedy, but I still don’t put “The Return of the Living Dead” in the same category as “Shaun of the Dead” or “Zombieland.” It’s just too damn gory, too scary and too frackin’ good to be dismissed as a zom com.

Movie: 5 Yaps
Extras: 4.5 Yaps