Friday, March 27, 2015

Cult Classics from Dimension X: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

I'm frequently asked to name my favorite zombie film, and despite my affection for Romero (and Dawn of the Dead in particular), my answer is always the same.  It's The Return of the Living Dead, the 1985 ode to punk rock and dead people who won't stay buried that never fails to thrill or amuse me.  Not only is this Dan O'Bannon feature my favorite zombie flick, but it's one of my favorite horror movies in general.  Hell, we can take that one step further, for it's truly one of my favorite movies from any genre.  It's a fast-paced nightmare loaded with black humor and wonderful dialogue, and it benefits from the presence of a talented cast highlighted by Clu Galager, James Karen, and Thom Mathews.  They make the most of the material and the twisted frightfest that ensues is a disgusting descent into madness and terror where no one's brain is safe.

Dan O'Bannon made a nice mark in the horror genre (Alien was his idea and he contributed to a number of horror films over the years) but directing The Return of the Living Dead was surely his finest hour.  The picture moves at a frantic pace, the characters are well-drawn and the performances are top-notch, the effects are massive, the score is killer, and the movie greatly benefits from a perfect ending.  What did he do wrong?  I can't think of anything.  O'Bannon gave us a wildly different take on the zombie sub-genre that can be seen as a bit of a trendsetter in a great many ways.  Long before fast zombies became so popular, the undead were racing around in this gory delight.  Additionally, the diverse and rebellious cast of characters and the lack of a clear-cut hero or heroine are both noteworthy and admirable.  Finally, the humorous aspect of the picture is probably the biggest reason that The Return of the Living Dead is so beloved by so many, and it generates a wealth of laughter despite the fact that it takes itself seriously.  It isn't hokey or silly, it just showcases gifted performers portraying characters who come apart at the seams and rant and snarl at one another as things get progressively worse.  The picture also has a gift for irony.  I think it's a shame that O'Bannon didn't direct more movies, but he knocked this one out of the park.

These punk rock kids just want to have a good time.  Don't we all?

The acting in The Return of the Living Dead is absolutely terrific.  There are so many memorable performances and so many cool characters that it would be hard to pick a favorite.  Thom Mathews and James Karen are fabulous as Freddie and Frank, and their antics never get old.  Clu Galager is on fire as Burt and his various rants are all highlights of the picture.  Miguel Nunez may steal the show as Spider, but there's also Don Calfa as Ernie, the kooky mortician who wears a sidearm and is surprisingly quick on the draw.  The way these characters (and many more) argue with one another, cutting lines short and yelling over top of each other, is riveting and gives the piece an authentic feel that is often lacking from movies where the staging is a bit more deliberate so far as the dialogue is concerned.  There are so many classic exchanges, so many great lines, and so many big moments.  The cool thing is the lack of a singular hero makes this a true ensemble piece, meaning there are plenty of worthwhile bits to go around.  It's a big cast that works very well together, and everyone gets their moment. 

The soundtrack rules!  It's definitely in my Top 10 so far as soundtracks go.
I am such a fan of the soundtrack for this movie that I've devoted an entire blog to it.  You can read it here.  For the purposes of this piece, I just want to acknowledge how important it is to the movie.  The notion of melding a zombie film with punk rock music (and a bunch of punk rock characters) was such a cool decision and it works so well.  Additionally, while many movies have cool soundtracks but fail to make the best use of the great tracks at their disposal, the music is essential to The Return of the Living Dead.  Several of the best scenes would suffer greatly if the songs that accompany them were removed.  It's hard to think of a movie with a better soundtrack that was used to greater effect, but if such a film exists, it's probably one of QT's flicks. 

In closing, I can't recommend this one enough.  I love horror films (you already knew that) and the zombie sub-genre in particular (you already knew that too), and I truly believe that this is the best of the bunch so far as brain-munching shenanigans are concerned.  There's so much to love and it's so damn fresh.  It is gruesome, tense, and frightening, and yet it can be absolutely hilarious at times.  The soundtrack rocks, the direction and the editing are stellar, and the cast is wonderful.  The Return of the Living Dead is the most entertaining and the zaniest film in a long line of horror classics that will not die, the cinema of the undead. 

The Return of The Living Dead Trivia

While it is widely believed that the presence of a pair of pals named Bert and Ernie is a gag, Dan O'Bannon has stated that he was actually oblivious to the existence of the beloved muppets with the same names who reside on Sesame Street.

Ernie (played by Don Calfa) is a nazi in hiding.  His use of German, his musical preferences, the photo of Eva Braun he keeps in his morgue, and even his choice of sidearm are among the clues to his secret identity sprinkled throughout the picture.

When Trash does her striptease, you're not actually seeing full frontal nudity.  Linnea Quigley wore a plastic application for that sequence that concealed her private parts.  

Clu Galager was a last-minute addition to the cast and he apparently wasn't all that easy to get along with.  According to various reports, he was prone to temper tantrums and violent outbursts on set.  There are even claims that the effects team secretly swapped a rubber pipe for the real one he was wielding at one point during the film because his peers were afraid that he would lose his cool while armed with a lead pipe.

While John Russo (co-writer of the original Night of the Living Dead) wrote a script entitled Return of the Living Dead and receives a story credit for this picture, it is believed that very little of his material was used.  O'Bannon thought Russo's script was too serious and too closely resembled Romero's work, so it was re-written as more of a satire.

Some of the cast members portraying zombies actually chowed down on raw calf brains during filming.

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