Return of the Living Dead (1985) – Horror Film Review

This pseudo-sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is an effective mix of zombie horror, punk rock, and black comedy. Beginning with a jokey pre-title card, claiming that this is a true story, the film tells us that the George Romero classic is a fictionalized account of actual events that occurred as the result of an army experiment gone bad. Through a “typical army fuck-up,” some of the zombies from that incident have ended up in a medical supply house, encased in airtight canisters. Of course, it isn’t long before one of those canisters is opened and all hell breaks loose. After that, the film runs on pure energy as the basic situation humans besieged by the living dead) plays out with a minimum of plot, relying on the amusing reactions of the characters and upon the inventiveness of the special effects.

The script throws in some punks (friends of the new worker at the medical warehouse), partly to provide some more victims but mostly to set the tone. Their intimidating makeup, wardrobe, and hairstyles foreshadow the zombies that will appear later, and their cynical attitude informs the film as a whole, which strikes a somewhat nihilistic pose regarding the fate of the characters – whose inevitable doom is treated as a sick joke.


The standout among the cast is James Karen, who overplays his role as Frank, long-time employee at the medical warehouse; his broad performance hits exactly the right town in the context of the outrageous scenario. Almost as good are Clu Gulager as Burt and Don Calfa as Ernie (yes, they are named after the Sesame Street characters), who are somewhat more subtle than Karen but still seem to realize the humor inherent in the scenario.

Writer-director Dan O’Bannon refashions zombie mythology to suit his own needs. These living dead corpses eat brains, and the familiar methods of killing them (a bullet through the brain) do not work; only complete obliteration of the entire body will do the trick. O’Bannon’s zombies are capable of speaking, and they are also considerably faster and more agile than Romero’s ghouls (although this sometimes makes little sense, considering how decomposed some of them are).

The most remarkable visual innovation is the Tar Man, a decayed zombie who flesh seems to have liquefied, leaving little left on the bones (a difficult effect to achieve in the days before computer graphics). There is also a remarkable scene wherein the human character strap a bisected half-corpse onto an autopsy table and try to get it to explain why the dead are attacking the living. And of course, there is the memorable gross-out moment when one zombie is scene eating the brain out of a human skull.

Ultimately, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is an amusing, punk variation on the familiar zombie theme, but it’s no match for the original. It manages to be both scary and funny, and it establishes its own unique identity, separate from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. But it feels a bit like a talented filmmaker goofing around with familiar clichés. The self-awareness adds to the humor but undermines the seriousness of the horror and erases any of the resonances that reverberate throughout Romero’s zombie films – you’ll have fun being scared by RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, but you won’t be shocked, alarmed, or disturbed.

TRIVIA

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD began life as a direct sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. George Romero, who directed and co-wrote that 1968 film, came to an agreement with co-writer John Russo, allowing Russo to use the “Living Dead” title, while Romero was left with simply “the Dead” (as in DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD). Russo’s scripted RETURN, which he hoped to direct, but when independent producer Tom Fox purchased the script, he offered it to director Tobe Hooper (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE). Dan O’Bannon (ALIEN) was called in to rewrite the script with Hooper in mind, but Hooper wound up directing the big-budget LIFEFORCE instead (ironically, also written by O’Bannon). With the director’s chair vacant, O’Bannon was offered the job. He has since said that if he had known he were going to direct, he would have written a somewhat different script, more tailored to his own strengths than to Hooper’s.

Although O’Bannon’s script was always filled with humor, the standard talking point when the film was releasedin 1985 was that most of the cast had thought they were making a serious horror film and could not understand why James Karen was playing his role so comically. The producers of the film likewise claimed that re-editing had transformed a “horror movie with some comedy” into a “comedy with some horror.”

Because RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was a modestly budgeted film, the production could not afford the services of one of Hollywood’s premier makeup artists (like Dick Smith or Rick Baker). Instead, they hired William Munns, who had provided low-budget makeup effects for several small films around that time (e.g., THE BOOGENS). Director O’Bannon was so unhappy with Munn’s work that Munns was fired, and Kenny Myers came into to finish up the project (additional makeup effects, such as the talking half-corpse, were supplied by Tony Gardner). Most of Munns work remains in long-shots and group-shots; his version of the decapitated zombie is almost entirely replaced except for one brief cut of it pinned to the ground. Strangely, one of the makeup highlights in the film is the Tar Man; except for a few insert close-ups, the version scene in the film is entirely Munns’ work.

In order to avoid a possible X-rating, makeup man William Munns supplied a flesh-colored bikini-shaped prosthetic device to cover Linnea Quigley’s groin during her nude striptease in the cemetery. The result made her resemble a hairless “Barbie doll” (in Munns’ words).

The production was designed by William Stout, who book of dinosaur drawings inspired Michael Crichton to write JURASSIC PARK.

While trapped in the attic, pursued by a relentelss zombie, Ernie holds a frightened girl and slowly moves his pistol toward her head, as if planning a mercy killing (to spare her the agony of being eaten alive). Actor Don Calfa got the idea for the scene from John Ford’s famous Western, STAGECOACH, in which John Carradine raises his gun to the head of a woman to spare her a fate worse than death (being captured – and presumably raped – by Indians).

The film was followed by two theatrical sequels (although the second one received only a token platform release before heading to video). Neither one was as successful as the first, and the franchise died out, until two direct-to-video sequels were produced twenty years later in 2005.

DVD DETAILS 

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD has been released on home video, including DVD several times. The 2007 Collector’s Edition DVD features a widescreen transfer with Dolby Stereo 2.0, Spanish Mono, and French Stereo, Closed Captioning, and options for English or Spanish subtitles. The disc includes several bonus features:

  • Cast, crew, and undead audio commentary
  • “Remembering the Dead: Cast Recollections” featurette
  • “From the Underground: The Rise of Horror in the ’80s” featurette
  • Zombie subtitle stream (places subtitles of the zombies’ “thoughts” on screen during the movie)

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). Directed by Dan O’Bannon. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; story by Rudy Rici, John A. Russo, Russell Streiner. Cast: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthew, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Miguel A. Nunez, Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

3 Responses to “ Return of the Living Dead (1985) – Horror Film Review ”

  1. [...] cut of Stuart Gordon’s FROM BEYOND, a Collector’s Edition of Dan O’Bannon’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, a double bill disc of two Amicus films from the ’70s based on old horror comics, TALES FROM [...]

  2. [...] to DAWN OF THE DEAD (which was re-titled ZOMBIE in Italy). Dan O’Bannon crafted the ersatz sequel RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1985. More recently, the videogame RESIDENT EVIL has spawned a trilogy of films. Romero was [...]

  3. [...] Film Festival tribute to actor Clu Gulager this week, beginning with a double-bill tonight of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and FEAST (the later directed by Gulager’s son John). The screening of RETURN will be [...]

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