RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
INTRODUCTION: A HISTORY OF THE LIVING DEAD
Return of the Living Dead (1985) is often confused with being a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, but it’s not. That was the first true zombie film directed by George A. Romero. The copyright was never properly filed on Night of the Living Dead, and thus it entered the public domain. Nevertheless it was success, so obviously a sequel was going to be made, two sequels actually. At the same time, George A. Romero and co-writer John A. Russo split and each made their own sequels. It is said that they did this so Romero would have the “Dead Series” and Russo would have the “Living Dead series”. Russo ended up making a book called Return of the Living Dead and that was later turned into a movie. The director Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien and Total Recall), didn’t want to encroach upon Romero’s work and wanted to change the title. The producers fought him, thinking they would be able to capitalize on the success of Night of the Living Dead, and thus make more money. They won the fight and the title stayed, but O’Bannon injected comedy to the movie to distance itself from Romero’s more serious films. They attempted multiple times to contact Romero and offer him a role as producer but he never answered back. Return of the Living Dead first began production at the same time as Dawn of the Dead even though the films came out 7 years apart: Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Return of the Living Dead (1985). Dawn of the Dead is considered a true horror masterpiece but would you believe that Return of the Living Dead is really good too?
There is a long conversation about Night of Living Dead within this film and unlike many zombie movies, it is more than willing to say the word zombie. I’ve never understood why most zombie movies are afraid of saying it. It’s as if they think that using the word takes power away from them. This was parodied excellently later on in Shaun of the Dead.
Return of the Living Dead does not take itself seriously at all. That is my favorite aspect of the movie. It is completely self aware of how ridiculous it is and has fun with that. The acting is appropriately over the top to match the style of the film, as well as the special effects. Classy practical effects dominate the show here, the zombies look great and they follow the old concept of designing each zombie as if it were a person who died, rather than just a dirty bloody person. There are some standout effects such as the mostly decayed zombie that gets interrogated and the ever impressive “Tar Man”. The visual style, including the zombies, were inspired by E.C. Horror comics like Tales From the Crypt. The film’s signature zombies had a lot of time invested into them and are very memorable.
The adult actors are all great: Burt, Ernie and Frank are all solid characters, and Ernie played by Don Calfa is one of my favorite horror movie good guys. The other section is the teenagers. The casting process was not strict with them. In fact signs were put up on local message boards listing the roles and saying a few specific requirements, such as “Must be willing to shave head.” Some of them can be a little annoying, but then you have the characters of Trash and Suicide who are hilarious. “You think this is a costume, nah, this is a way of life” is a quote that any fan of this movie will forever remember. Other quotes such as “Send more paramedics” can weed out the true fans. The character of Trash walks around naked for most of the movie. I first saw the TV version of Return of the Living Dead and it was censored to hell. Her character is pretty much just a floating blur the entire movie. It wasn’t until I got the DVD that I realized there was another character in the movie. The producers thought her nudity was jarring and thus she wears a barbie skin colored flat crotch piece for a good portion of her performance.
This film is not a flat out comedy, so don’t go in thinking it is, but it does have a great sense of humor and silliness that makes the movie a fun ride. The 91 minute runtime goes by very fast and when it ends it might leave you wanting a little more. Supposedly there is an alternate version of the film that adds an extra 24 minutes. That’s a pretty significant cut that was made and I’d be interested to see that extra footage.
I highly recommend Return of the Living Dead. It’s a zombie movie that belongs in every horror fanatics collection. For a long time this was unavailable on DVD, a fan campaign was actually started to make it available. Thankfully it is now for sale.
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