Return of the Living Dead
For years both The Return of the Living Dead and its sequels have been considered second-rate when compared to the "of the Dead" films of George Romero. This is understandable because it's true: nothing in the zombie film cannon can compare to Romero's films. His are the work against which all others are measured. I saw Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead in high school yet hadn't revisited it until this Halloween season. While my recent viewing hasn't altered my opinion that it's still inferior to the Romero films, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's a highly entertaining film in its own right.
I'm not sure the film's humor really landed with me as a teenager, quite possibly because I was expecting something less goofy and more scary. The film is packed with thrills and chills, certainly, but it's the near-slapstick humor that really hooked me this time. Part of the fun here is watching the actors ratchet up their panic and frenzy as the zombie horde begins attacking and, famously, eating brains. First, we're introduced to young punk rocker Freddy (Thom Matthews) and his older foreman Frank (James Karen) at the medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky. Besides a graveyard, this location is where most of the film's action takes place. This mismatched duo are a couple of bumbling fools and they unleash the toxic gas that will reanimate corpses and instigate the "Return of the Living Dead" in the film's title. Frank and Freddy might be painted as buffoons, but they're highly entertaining buffoons. They almost immediately lose their minds when they see the first cadaver come back to life (wouldn't you?) and the film's high-pitched performances are off to the races at this point. Abbott and Costello call in the owner, Burt (Clu Gulager), and what ensues is one of the most hilarious scenes in horror history, I dare say. Burt attempts to decapitate the zombie but fails. Repeatedly. Like the film itself, it's a gruesome scene laced with plenty of potent black humor. Frank, Freddy, and Burt engage in a lot of nonsensical shouting and screaming in this and other scenes, and without fail it's brilliant.
Meanwhile, Freddy's punk rock friends are cavorting in the aforementioned graveyard, like you do. This allows Trash, played by the legendary Linnea Quigley, the opportunity to strip naked and dance awkwardly atop a gravestone. Don't ask why, it really doesn't matter. It's likely the film's most well-known scene (I wonder why); one assumes VHS copies were often worn down at that point in the tape due to repeated pausing and rewinding. IMDb has a fantastic trivia section on the film, including this tidbit on the gravestone dance:
When shooting Trash's (Linnea Quigley's) grave stone dance, she initially was completely naked and showed pubic hair, as was more the norm in the early 80's. However, producer Graham Henderson visited the shoot that day, and according to himself and others, threw a fit, yelling at Dan O'Bannon that "You can't show pubic hair on television". Dan sent Linnea away and had her completely shaved, which coincidentally, Linnea herself found to be the most embarrassing part of the whole thing. Then they did another shoot, to which Graham Henderson cried out "Oh god it's even worse, you can see everything!". At this point they sent Linnea Quigley over to Bill Munz and William Stout, where they made an alginate crotch piece, resembling the bottom of a g-string and glued it on. According to Linnea, this was a bit of a problem, since every time she had to go to the bathroom, they had to remove it. Because of this, there are no shots of Linnea with a completely naked crotch area.
Were you disappointed that Linnea's crotch area wasn't completely naked in the film? Well, then that story tells you who to blame: producer Graham Henderson (who sounds like a peach). This is so insane it makes my brain hurt. Besides that infamous moment, Quigley has plenty of other memorably bizarre scenes; it's an intensely watchable performance by the iconic scream queen and I'm not just saying that because she's naked for much of it. There's this gem of a scene between Trash and Spider:
Trash: Do you ever wonder about all the different ways of dying? You know, violently? And wonder, like, what would be the most horrible way to die?
Spider: I try not too think about dying too much.
Trash: Mm. Well for me, the worst way would be for a bunch of old men to get around me, and start biting and eating me alive.
Spider: I see.
Trash: First, they would tear off my clothes...
Trash resides in another orbit, you might say. Here's another beauty:
Spider: [after gang pulls up to warehouse] Man, what a hideous, ugly place!
Trash: I like it! It's a statement.
Did I say she resides in her own orbit? I meant she resides in her own galaxy.
The punkers' names are so punk rock, man: Spider, Trash, Suicide, and Scuz. I think I knew a Scuz in the 1980s, for sure. If you're looking for a one-two punch of laughably inaccurate punk rock caricatures, watch this and another cult classic I reviewed here, Class of 1984, one after the other. The punk kids in this film have the cliched look down: from today's perspective they look ridiculous and I suppose in 1985 they still looked ridiculous. Of all of them, Suicide (Mark Venturini) is the one most committed heart and soul to this punk rock thing—"This is a way of life!" he admonishes Trash while she gyrates against him in the graveyard (she likes to dance). Spider (Migel A. Nunez Jr.) is really the one of these goons you root for to survive this zombie apocalypse. The man needs some new friends, clearly. Then there's Chuck, who hangs with these degenerates but is actually a man of high style and refined taste in his checkered suit and proto-Vanilla Ice hairdo. This exchange with Casey (Jewel Shepard), who sadly isn't given a cute punk nickname, is another highlight:
Chuck: Hey, Casey, do you like sex with death?
Casey: Yeah, so fuck off and die.
Chuck's question raises more questions than it can possibly ever answer. But who among us hasn't asked someone that, right? I asked it of a girl once and got the same answer. Now I'm thinking she'd seen this movie.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also single out Don Calfa as Ernie, the pipe-smoking mortician. Like Trash, Ernie cuts his own path. I found myself dying to know the man's backstory and wishing that a prequel film had been made starring the character. Calfa plays him as weirdly sincere and off kilter. His performance is riveting. He whispers half of his lines in a deadpan monotone that makes you strain to hear him above the din of the other characters who are always in a perpetual state of flipping out. His shock of white hair and magenta mortician's smoke would make a killer Halloween costume. Is there an Ernie action figure out there? Complete with Walkman and pipe? Someone let me know because I want it.
Why this movie didn't click with me as a kid I'll never know. I mean, it has zombies eating brains and people screaming at the top of their lungs in nearly every scene. No matter, I now appreciate its charms wholeheartedly. And it's not only the zombies eating brains, goofy punk rock kids, Linnea Quigley and Don Calfa stealing every scene they're in, and Clu Gulager turning into a full-on action hero that make this one appealing. The ending is unforgettable and shockingly nihilistic. So if you used to dismiss The Return of the Living Dead also, give it another shot this Halloween season. You'll be glad you did.