Director: Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Don Calfa, Clu Gulager, James Karen, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph
Runtime: 91 minutes
I’m surprised at how much comedy has creeped into the movies I’m discussing. I realized that another of my favorites is a horror-comedy: Return of the Living Dead, a re-imagining of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It actually refers to Romero’s movie as based on real incidents, and says that things happened differently, but that the basic idea of the dead returning to life was in fact real. This film not only changes the story behind the appearance of zombies, making it the result of a government experiment gone awry, but also pictures zombies as fast-moving, unkillable killing machines (destroying the brain won’t work).
It starts with three men working at a medical supply warehouse. Frank (James Karen) is training new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews), while their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager) leaves early to start the 4th of July weekend. Frank makes the mistake of showing Freddy some U.S. military canisters that mistakenly got shipped there—canisters that contain the chemicals that originally brought corpses back to life, as well as one of those corpses. Of course, the canisters rupture, spilling the chemicals all over the warehouse, and reviving the corpse.
Chaos ensues as they call back Burt to try to cover up what happened, and destroy the zombies (besides the one from the canister, a body stored in the warehouse for shipping to a medical school has also revived, along with split dogs, and a wall of preserved butterflies). They go to Burt’s friend, Ernie (Don Calfa), who works at a mortuary and has a crematorium. Burning the bodies would seem a sure-fire way to get rid of all the evidence—except that the ashes come down on a graveyard, and aided by some on-cue rain, revive all of the graveyard’s inhabitants.
While this plays on a lot of zombie movie tropes—a group of people trapped inside a building, with fruitless attempts to escape, and living people who are slowly turning into the living dead (Frank and Freddy breathed in the chemical), there’s also much departure. As already mentioned, the fast-moving zombies are different than the usual lumbering kind, and these zombies won’t die: even if you cut them into pieces, the pieces will still come after you. The comedy also offsets the usual solemn bleakness of these kinds of films. The cast is diverse—three older men and an eclectic group of 80s stereotypes looking to join their friend, Freddy. No single character is of central importance—it’s more of an ensemble piece—and everyone adds their own layer of charm and fun. The ending, while fairly nihilistic, ends things with a detached, morbidly tongue-in-cheek final image of a zombie emerging as one of the songs from the movie’s deathrock/punk soundtrack blares into life. The soundtrack is one of the most fun things about the movie, as it changes the whole feel of seeing a horde of zombies descending on their victims.
Some of the effects are pretty gruesome, but there’s so much off-beat humor that nothing is really unsettling. The greatest scenes are where we see the zombies attacking in hordes, overpowering anyone who tries to help the isolated characters (ambulances, police), and we see them spreading out to attack surrounding areas, suggesting they could quickly spread through the world if not unchecked. There were a number of sequels, but none of them manage to quite capture the quirky spark of this horror-comedy classic.