Return of the Living Dead (1985)

I'll admit that I don't quite know what to make of Return of the Living Dead.  The particular sub-genre of horror that the 1985 movie supposedly belongs to -- a horror-comedy hybrid sometimes known as splatstick -- contains some favorites of mine: Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Re-Animator, Dead Alive, and Slither.  I know that, in a roundabout way, ROTLD is descended from 1968's fundamental Night of the Living Dead, although John Russo, who co-created zombies with George Romero, had his script for ROTLD rewritten by Dan O'Bannon, who directed this goofy, hit-and-miss horror-comedy movie.  Return of the Living Dead scores fairly well across a number of audiences, and it has its place in popular culture, but it's just not to my taste.  I'll give it a shot, however.

The script mockingly calls attention to the far-out nature of the whole zombie premise, proclaiming at several points that everything is real, and giving precise times and dates events.  We begin at the Uneeda Medical Supply company's warehouse, where Frank (James Karen, "It's that guy!") is showing newbie Freddy (Thom Mathews) the ropes of the business, and they end up in the basement, eventually messing around with some "lost" canisters of chemically-preserved corpses, misplaced in the wake of the "original" zombie outbreak of 1968.  Of course, Frank and Freddy end up causing a leak, and the zombie-creating chemical is released into the environment.  Embalmed animals come to life, and the cadaver in the freezer is ready for dinner.
Don Calfa as Ernie

Newbie Freddy has a bunch of annoying teenage friends who are waiting for him to get off work, and they kill some time at the graveyard near the warehouse.  When the Uneeda boss finds out what Frank and Freddy have done, they take all their re-animated evidence over to Ernie the Embalmer (the excellent Don Calfa), who agreed to burn all the zombie parts in his crematorium.  This is, the chemically contaminated smoke that goes up the chimney is quickly returned to the ground by a sudden rainstorm -- returned in dead-reviving goodness right into the waiting soil of the graveyard.  Hey kids, your punk-rock-and-Stolichnaya party is over.  It's time to run or be eaten!

But, at this point, even as the action began to pick up, I found I lost interest.  The script is clever enough, and the production values respectable, especially in the effects department, but most of the performances are really awkward, and very few of the actors -- most of whom I'm sure weren't paid much at all -- can generate sympathy for their characters.  Nor do they succeed in making me really dislike them either.  Mostly, they seem to flail away at their lines, and all I could think most of the time was how uninteresting everyone was, even as they were running/screaming/dying.  James Karen does a decent job with Frank, and Don Calfa is strong -- but the rest of the ensemble appear to have no idea what they were doing.  So if the acting doesn't drive you mad, then you'll certainly be able to keep watching from one interesting zombie-feeding to the next.  Kill them already.  (Oh, scream queen  Linnea Quigley contributes several revealingly compelling moments both pre- and post-zombification, but I'm not going to be posting those screenshots here.)

"Who doesn't like this movie?  Who wouldn't love this face?"
Still, there's several noteworthy songs on the soundtrack -- numbers from The Cramps, The Damned, and SSQ -- and the makeup effects, as mentioned, are excellent, and it's one of the Saturn Award nominations that makes any sense now.  All in all, whatever my reaction might be, the film did reasonably well at the box office (relative to its $4 million budget), and had enough franchise mojo to produce four sequels, a healthy convention sideline for many cast members, merchandise, a definitive history, and, reportedly, a retrospective documentary.  I guess, in the end, the joke's on me.  Ooh, I got that one.  Ouch.

No comments:

Post a Comment