Return of the Living Dead
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Zombies are, generally speaking, serious business. The intent of zombies is to scary, of course, as with any monster in horror, and for many, many years that was how they were depicted. Growing out of Voodoo legend, and then popularized with the very specific take by George Romero (which became the de facto take on zombie lore), the zombie was always mean to scare. The horror comes from how similar to us they are, and what the zombie (and the apocalypse they cause) actually means about humanity.
But what if that wasn't the only way to tell stories about the dead. Released in 1985 -- the same year that Romero completed his own trilogy of serious zombie horror with Day of the Dead -- John Russo's Return of the Living dead was meant as an alternate take on the zombie lore. If Romero's Dead trilogy could be seen as the true successors to the zombie crown of Night of the Living Dead 1968, Return had just as much technical claim to that legacy. Russo had worked with Romero on the first film, and he had retained the rights to anything bearing the name "Living Dead" in it. His films could have been up there with the Romero series... save for one thing: his zombies were funny.
At the time, creating a zombie comedy was seen as quite subversive. I remember growing up not only with the Romero movies but also these newer, funnier films (a trilogy at the time kicked off by this first Return film) and the kids (teens and younger) that watched this movie (and its sequels) thought the movie was an absolute blast. Zombies that were funny? Who could come up with such an ideas. The movie worked because it was a counterpoint to what Romero was making, a very different vision that took the piss out of those stuffy old zombies.
Thing is, time hasn't been as kind to Return of the Living Dead as one might hope. In the time since this film came out there have been a lot of zombie movies, not only from Romero but everyone else that could pick up a camera and slap some gore on their actors. Hell, funny zombies were done by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead, and I would argue its done a damn sight better, too. That film maintained a bit of that Romero subversiveness, using zombies to comment on the human condition while still finding a way to have a laugh. In comparison to what's come since, Return of the Living Dead feels corny, even stodgy.
The best part of the film is its go-for-broke attitude when it comes to the zombies themselves. Animated, on accident, when too hapless idiots break up a tin of military gas, the dead all around the city quickly start to rise. Those two morons, Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews), try to hide the evidence, bringing in their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), to help. See, the idiots work at the Uneeda medical supply warehouse and all the cadavers, split dogs, dead butterflies, and everything else in the storehouse come to life. Those bodies have to be eliminated, so they burn them at the local mortuary, but that only sends the infected smoke into the air, where it spreads further, raising more dead.
While this plague quick spreads, Freddy's friends hang out at the cemetery waiting for Freddy to get off work. Most of them, of course, die. And then the paramedics arrive to aid the dead, and the dead eat them. Then the cops show up to find out what happened to the paramedics, and the dead eat the cops too. Things quickly begin to spiral, and it's only the intervention of the Army that can save the day, assuming they can contain it all properly. Instead, they nuke the city. It's the only way to be sure, right? Well, yeah... until the smoke settles once more.
The zombie effects in the film, from that first set of the dead at the Uneeda warehouse, through to all the bodies, corpses, limbs, torsos, and everything else, that all looks great. The film does a solid job of using the practical effects of the era to craft some pretty solid looking zombies in all stages of decay. While the Romero films certainly did zombie effects better, Return of the Living Dead should be congratulated for even getting in the same ballpark on a shoe-string budget of only $4 Mil. It's really nicely done.
The movie also raises an interesting idea: the dead can't be killed because they're already dead. This is a marked change in mythology from the Romero films where a shot to the head (or any severing of the brain/spinal connection) would drop the corpse in an instant. Here, damaging the dead does nothing, and even disconnecting limbs doesn't stop them from continuing to crawl along. The only way to kill the dead is to burn them to nothing, but then their plague continues on, forever. That's dark, and a bit bleak, and in the right context would make for a pretty scary film.
Return of the Living Dead, though, is not that movie. It is, at it's core, a horror comedy and it's the comedic aspects of the film that really betray it. There's a slapstick quality to the film, a jokeiness to the zombies that stops the horror from landing. It's not good comedy, mind you, or at least it isn't nearly as funny as it once was. What seemed subversive and amusing at the time feels ho-hum now. I didn't really laugh much during the first two acts of the film, which laughs were expected, simply because it all felt so rote and silly.
But then, when the film made a marked turn for horror by the third act, I found it hard to get invested then, either. The movie struggles to make you care about the characters, in large part because it didn't invest much in them in the early going. I barely know anything about Frank, or Freddy, beyond the fact that they're a couple of idiotic lunks. Freddy's girl Tina doesn't get much better treatment, acting like a Final Girl without any of the development needed. The film wanted to glide by with its comedy, and then take a turn for the darker so that you were caught off guard, and that could have worked if it invested more in the characters that mattered... and was funnier.
Instead what we have is an uneven film that, honestly, feels like it was proud of itself for being the first to think of zombies as a source for comedy. That idea was pure at the time, but less so now, leaving the film a lot less interesting after all these years. I like the ideas in Return of the Living Dead, and there's even a sequel that I think works really well (the third one, as it does the two things I needed from this movie, invests in its characters and commits to a tone). This first entry, though, falls pretty flat. There's a structure here that could work, but Return of the Living Dead just didn't pull it together in the long run.