If you find a way to get into the groove of this film and wend your way through the cheese, it will reward you with some very nice moments.
Written and Directed by Dan O’Bannon
Starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Jonathan Terry
The Return of the Living Dead is one of the films I had a chance to watch so many times in life. I never made it quite through, particularly because watching it alone as a teenager doesn’t lend itself to understanding tongue in cheek humor. My friend JoDo watched it this week and told me I should try it again. This morning I heard the Screen Crush podcast covering the same. I figured it was a sign. So I went swimming, then watched the film.
First of all, I got to hand it to Dan O’Bannon. His version of horror and humor is above many films of its time. There is some cheesy and manly dialogue that apes the attitudes of the time. We’ve got earnest and dumb Frank (Karen) showing the even more earnest and dumb Freddy (Mathews) the ropes, one hour before the end of the workday before the 4th of July weekend.
As they work, Frank tells Freddy that the movie The Night of the Living Dead (of which this is one of two sequels, due to a copyright issue) is mostly true. While Freddy is aghast, Frank decides to show him proof, and then chaos ensues. The way this happens is so dumb, it’s brilliant.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends decide to party in the cemetery next door while waiting for him to get off of work. They’re going to have to wait a long while.
The special effects for The Return… border between brilliant (1/2 Lady Corpse and Tarman Corpse) to a wasted opportunity (yellow man corpse and everyone crawling out of their grave, with bodies in tact). Freddy’s punk friends get eaten, then seem to resume as whole zombies. It saves on the budget what it takes from common sense.
The film is at its best when the old guys (Gulager, Terry, Karen) ham it up, Police Squad-style. The irony is they first offered Gulager’s role to Leslie Nielsen. The depiction of the punks is painful, with a few decent results here and there. There is a lot going on in this film that has more to do with one’s depth of understanding of the in jokes that come at the genre’s expense.
One of the more obvious is Ernie (Calfa), who with his picture of Hitler, German handgun, and Nazi fight songs playing in the background, is supposed to be a WWII war criminal in hiding. It’s no coincidence he’s a mortician who knows how to burn a body.
Another one takes place when Frank and Freddy are panicking in the office. If you look behind them, the eye chart has a special message for their boss, Burt (Gulager).
This is the first zombie film to emphasize the ghouls need to eat brains. The scene with the 1/2 corpse lady goes so far as to explain why.
What for so long seemed to be just a throwaway film turned out to be a nice historical nugget. If you find a way to get into the groove of this film and wend your way through the cheese, it will reward you with some very nice moments.
(*** out of *****)
From Ebert’s original *** review:
“…What’s the bottom line on a movie like this? If you are below a certain age, I suppose it’s scary, and the R rating is richly deserved. To hardened veterans of ghoul movies, however, a sort of connoisseurship develops…It’s kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style. It is.”