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John’s Horror Corner: Return of the Living Dead (1985), a zombedy forefather and an unforgettable 80s B-movie-turned classic.

June 23, 2020

MY CALL: A delightfully goofy zombie movie and among the very first zombedy films, this is a classic that should be in every horrorhounds collection. It also holds up rather well. MORE MOVIES LIKE Return of the Living Dead: Looking for more gory 70s-80s zombie fare? Try Dawn of the Dead (1978), Zombie (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), Day of the Dead (1985), Re-Animator (1985), Return of the Living Dead II (1988) and Flesh Eating Mothers (1988).

You’ve gotta’ love the comedic chutzpah to put on the screen: “The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.” Then, early in the film a character refers to the events of Night of the Living Dead (1968) as being based on a true case. It’s so cheeky. I love it. These bodies evidencing the events of 1969 reside in the basement of a medical supply company warehouse manned by two nincompoops Freddy (Thom Mathews; Friday the 13th part VI, Return of the Living Dead II) and Frank (James Karen; Poltergeist, The Unborn, The Willies, Girlfriend from Hell).

Unfortunately, the cadaver storage barrels aren’t very secure and one releases a toxic gas which (in a roundabout way) makes its way into the atmosphere animating the dead, including the cadavers in the warehouse. With the necrotic gas in the atmosphere, a little rain over the nearby cemetery brings a taste of Armageddon as corpses animate and rise from their graves. Meanwhile Freddy and Frank are freaking out, call in their boss Burt (Clu Gulager; The Willies, The Initiation, A Nightmare on Elm Street part 2, Piranha 3DD, From a Whisper to a Scream) and the three of them wander into some shenanigans to cover up this undead mess.

The cult icon among the zombies is the tar man. He shambles towards Tina (Beverly Randolph; Death House) like the jangly man and speaks what he wants to eat: “brains!” Yup, these zombies are more cognitive than Romero’s. They speak, run, use tools, solve problems and are incredibly self-aware even as to why they want to eat brains.

In other news, long after their exposure to the toxic gas, Freddy and Frank are very sick, and lack a pulse! So following Dawn of the Dead (1978), we have a slow zombification/transformation process as their bodies slowly die and they comically whimper.

The budget is clearly limited—e.g., when Trash is surrounded by zombies that are basically just a bunch of extras covered in mud, or a totally undecayed healthy human arm reaching out from the grave soil. As it turns out, most of the zombies are mud-covered extras. It’s just that the zombies that matter are getting all the effects budget. The gore is decent, but most deaths are reduced to seeing someone swarmed by zombies before cutting the scene. Still, there’s gore to be enjoyed in several scenes. There’s skullcap-piercing brain bites spurting blood or chunks, thick oozing brain matter, and the more showcased zombies (e.g., tarman and the female torso) exhibit awesomely grotesque detail.

Among the more memorable characters are the punks Trash (Linnea Quigley; Night of the Demons, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Creepazoids, Pumpkinhead II) and Spider (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.; Friday the 13th part V, Leprechaun 4: In Space). Linnea Quigley has her famous (and provocative) grave-dancing scene and Núñez provides most of the amusing lines.

Director Dan O’Bannon (The Resurrected) proved successful with his more humorous unofficial follow-up/sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). This film really embraces its own hysteria. From their realization of zombies to their own degeneration from the infection, Frank and Freddy are an emotionally riotous mess, often whining or moaning or crying in pain.

The movie ends with a moment of social commentary as the military firebombs the zombie outbreak, unknowingly creating the atmospheric effect that would create an even more widespread outbreak! See you at the sequel…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2020 9:28 am

    This movie knows exactly what it is. Love it!

  2. July 5, 2020 10:25 am

    I loved this movie too. As the previous comment says, the movie knows exactly what it is, and I’ll add that is totally unapologetic. Thanks for the review, seeing that boom box made my day! I remember wagging one of those around as my friends and I made our way to the park to play basketball, showing how cool we were as Back in Black blasted….

    • John Leavengood permalink
      July 5, 2020 1:45 pm

      I feel like even today walking onto a scene playing Back in Black should still be a valid metric for coolness… as long as the onlookers are old enough to recognize the song.

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