Impulse Buy Theater - Return of the Living Dead
I remember when the remake of Dawn of the Dead came out and many a zombie fan were critical of the "fast zombies" depicted therein...which, was to be expected. Not only did this violate what was established in the original film but it also flew in the face of the convention set forth and adopted by nearly every single zombie movie (there are exceptions of course)...which, naturally was established by the writer/director of said original Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero. Strangely enough, this is not a new debate. Well, alright, I'll admit, I'm probably a little late to the party on this one, but the seeds of this debate were sown back in 1985 when Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead hit cinema screens. This wouldn't be the only cinematic convention that O'Bannon's film would challenge...all the while establishing one of its own that really sticks with us even into present day.
The genesis of the project is interesting in and of itself and in what is becoming routine on the site, I'd highly encourage picking up the Shout! Factory collector's edition release of the film to delve deeper into this. In the interest of keeping this review at least kinda-sorta brief, I'm not really going to plumb the depts...instead just opting to point out the highlights and then move on to the film itself. With the success of the original Night of the Living Dead, obviously a sequel was in the offing. Here's where the copyright thing comes into play. You see, due to a failure to properly copyright the film, almost immediately after its release it became public domain. Not only did this impact any additional cash flow from home media or TV airplay, but this now allows for any other copyrighted work to make reference to it with no fear of legal repraisals. In essence, ANYONE can make a sequel or a remake of the film (and there are a fair number) and anyone can distribute a copy of the film (hence all the DVDs/BluRays out there with varying degrees of quality). But let's focus a bit here. [That'd be a rarity. - Ed.] Night of the Living Dead would serve as the basis for two film franchises, Romero's '...of the Dead' series and the Return of the Living Dead series initiated by John Russo, co-writer of the original NotLD and friend to Romero. The two parted company after the success of their collaboration, each wanting to take a different direction. Romero's path is pretty well known and not the the topic of this review. Russo would team with another NotLD alum, Russ 'They're coming to get you Barbara' Streiner to get Return underway. The film didn't get much in the way of traction until it was bought by producer Tom Fox and would eventually land on O'Bannon as both director and writer. While, prior to this, I had not seen any of O'Bannon's directorial work, well...there's no questioning his output as a writer: Alien, Total Recall, Heavy Metal and Lifeforce among them. But he also had a hand in helping with Jodorowsky's failed attempt at making Dune as well as helping out with the effects from Star Wars. So, when it comes to genre film, I'd say his bone fides check out just fine. His approach to the film was to take the kernel of Russo's idea and gear it more toward humor and satire...and that's made evident throughout the picture. Certainly not in an overtly slapstick fashion and rest assured this certainly passes as a horror film on its own merits.
This is a good time as any to segue into the plot. The film opens in a medical supply warehouse where seasoned veteran Frank is showing new hire Freddy the ropes of the youngster's new job. This eventually leads to "What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen here?" "Did you ever see that movie, Night of the Living Dead?" And this little exchange sets up our premise. See, it turns out that NotLD was based on a true story…just like the events of this picture are. [We’re just going with what the movie tells us. After all, to quote from the film “Do you think the movie lied?” – Ed.] In the film’s mythology, in 1969 there was a chemical spill near a Pittsburgh VA hospital. The experimental chemical, 245 Trioxin, ended up seeping into the morgue in the basement of said hospital, reanimating the contents therein. As Frank tells the story, this reanimation was limited to muscular convulsions…the undead aspect being a creative liberty taken by the filmmakers. To further impress his young trainee, Frank offers “You wanna see ‘em?” They venture to the basement of the warehouse (which, it should be noted that everything we’re shown in the warehouse up to this point fully illustrates that this would be the absolute WORST place to be stuck in a zombie apocalypse scenario) and behold…there are the canisters. Frank takes it a step further, because this is a horror movie and idiots abound, opening the outer lid of the container to reveal a window displaying the contents…including one desiccated corpse. Freddy questions the structural integrity of said canisters, but Frank is confident, given that they were made by the Army Corps of Engineers, and gives the canister a good pound. Cue the gas…and the chaos.
Now, let's take a look at the writing in this film and the new zombie rules that go with it. Those of us that have sat through enough horror movies know the conventions and this includes the zombie sub-genre. The victims, particularly in the 80s, were always a very vanilla looking group of teens and every single bit of promotional material for this film lets us know straight away that this will NOT be the case here. Instead, we've got a bit of an 80s youth cross-section, a pair of punks (actually there's three), a pair of new-wavers (again, I'd say three because the black guy looks like he would fit in with the black guy that was in the Thompson Twins) and a pair of the aforementioned vanillas, Freddy being one of those...the other being his girlfriend Tina who REALLY stands out in this group. Actually, she stands out in the movie too...for being what I felt to be the most annoying person onscreen. While I must admit that I'm not certain that this is due to the writing or the actress's performance, given the satirical nature of the piece, my guess would be to lean toward it being how the role was written. Late 70s and 80s horror films popularized the concept of the "final girl"...most notably Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween but there are countless examples present...and as such, said "final girl" is the character that we, as the audience, should be rooting for. Tina, from her language ("Oh, fudge!") to her attire (clad mostly in white) sends all the signals that she's going to be the final girl...and holy hell, I couldn't wait for her to die! In another eschewing of convention, the story doesn't focus solely on the kids...instead Frank, Burt (the owner of the medical supply warehouse) and Ernie (the mortician next door...and yes, those two do indeed allude to the more famous Seasame Street duo) remain present in the film for its entirety, much to the film's betterment. One last positive note about the writing is that it's fairly smart and, if you're paying attention, you'll be given plenty of clues as to how things are going to turn out...from the easy (Linnea Quigley's Trash character flat out tells you how she's going to die) to the slightly veiled (Frank hints at how he's going to end up going) to the downright clever (Ernie suggesting that Burt had acted precipitously). The problem that O'Bannon runs into though is that I felt he ends up writing himself into a corner with only one possible way out. Granted, this being an 80s film and the spectre of nuclear annihilation being everpresent, this isn't necessarily bad...but it ends up making the film awfully damn bleak.
This is where we get into the new zombie rules...and hopefully this illustrates my point. First off is the one that even people who haven't seen the film know: zombies eat brains. What most don't know is why they do it (and this bit falls under the positives of O'Bannon's writing)...you see, these zombies can feel themselves rotting and, not surprising when you stop to think about it, being dead hurts. A lot. But the endorphins produced within living brains kind of takes the edge off. That being said, you can see here that we are well off the Romero-beaten path: these zombies feel. Not only that, but they think, speak, use tools and can problem-solve...skills the undead in Romero's film really wouldn't start to display until later in the series (Bub in Day of the Dead but gradually becoming more widespread as the series progressed...Land, Diary and Survival). Speaking of Romero, while his films show that severe head trauma or decapitation was enough to kill or render the reanimated corpse still once more, the zombies here remain animated even through dismemberment. Since we're on the theme of movement here, this is as good a time as any to bring up the fact that yes, these are fast zombies...not the shamblers that make up most of zombiedom. The only way to truly kill them is complete immolation...burn them until there is absolutely nothing left. In a way, this makes sense because, as the movie points out, how can you kill something that's already dead...but this also makes the horde nigh unstoppable. Think about that...fast movers that need to be completely incinerated...how the hell do you even entertain the notion of surviving that??? Thankfully, O'Bannon creates a limitation: a zombie bite won't turn you...only exposure to the chemical mentioned earlier, 245 trioxin, will do it. Maybe I should have put 'limitation' in quotation marks because, as the events of the film unfold, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that humanity is, in no uncertain terms, completely fucked. See what I mean? Bleak!
There are a few odds and ends I'd like to point out. First off, composer Matt Clifford's score does its very best to emulate John Carpenter's electronic style and meets with some degree of success. The songs inserted into the film, however, well, they're standard 80s movie fare but that's not my point of contention. My beef is that whoever mixed the audio ended up putting more emphasis on the music than on the actors' dialog in some scenes and as such, you get dialog muffled by blaring music when it should be more balanced...with more of a focus on the dialog than the music. My last nit-pick...although this might be due to the low budget...but footage from the initial zombie outbreak is reused in its entirety at the end of the film. The coda of a film typically is where it stamps itself into the viewers mind and makes the strongest impression that serves as the basis of what said viewer is going to say to his or her friends as they leave. For me, to use repeated footage as your coda...well, that ends up leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
Although the plot ends up writing itself in the corner and there are times where it is very clear that this film is low budget, O'Bannon's characters make this film work and keep the viewer invested in spite of the very bleak finale. That, and Linnea Quigley's dance on the tombstone make this film one worthy of tracking down. For zombie fans, sure, this is pretty unconventional, but at least you'll be informed behind the whole BRAAAAINS thing. Personally, watching the film I found myself to be purely in the Romero camp when it comes to zombies but, to put it in comic book terms, just because one might be a DC fan doesn't necessarily mean that one can't check out a Marvel book or film from time to time. In other words, sure, these aren't the zombies we're accustomed to, but given the strength of the characters and how BRAAAINS has become part of the zombie zeitgeist, any fan of the genre owes it to themselves to check it out.