“Frankly Burt, I think you acted precipitously in cutting up the corpse.”
–Ernie

“Zombie butterflies are, like, the worst.”
–acquaintance’s reaction to a certain scene in this film

This cult film from 1985 turned the zombie craze upside down and inside out, long before it really existed. It also invented (certainly, it mainstreamed) the notion that zombies crave, specifically, human brains.

It’s also frequently hilarious.

They’re back from the grave and they’re ready to party!
–Original tagline

(But they’re not family-friendly).

Title: Return of the Living Dead (1984)

Cast and Crew

Directed by Dan O’Bannon
Written by Rudy Ricci, John A. Russo, Russell Streiner, and Dan O’Bannon

James Karen as Frank
Clu Gulager as Burt
Don Calfa as Ernie
Thom Mathews as Freddy
Beverly Randolph as Tina
Linnea Quigley as Trash
John Philbin as Chuck
Jewel Shepard as Casey
Miguel A. Núñez Jr. as Spider
Brian Peck as Scuz
Mark Venturini as Suicide
Jonathan Terry as Colonel Glover
Cathleen Cordell as Colonel’s Wife
Allan Trautman as “Tarman” zombie
Cherry Davis as Half-corpse zombie
Drew Deighan as Paramedic #1
James Dalesandro as Paramedic #2
William Stout as Homeless Man

Available at Amazon Prime.

Premise:

A brave group of filmmakers and actors attempt to prevent the Zombie Apocalypse Craze by showing, years earlier, how stupid its tropes are.

Some corpses, remaining from the True Story that inspired Night of the Living Dead, accidentally get shipped to a Medical Supply Building, situated next to a mortuary, across from a cemetery.

An ill-assorted group of young people arrive, looking to party.

The contamination escapes. Hilarity ensues.

High Points:

Despite its self-aware doofiness, Return of the Living Dead manages a number of Haunted Attraction-style frights. Most of these consist of jump-scares and standard horror movie suspense-creating shenanigans, but they’ve been staged effectively.

The Tarman, this film’s most iconic zombie, combines make-up, prosthetics, and movement into a memorable character, unlike anything seen years later in The Walking Dead.

Low Points:

It’s difficult to criticize this film, since the campy acting, Idiot Plot, and contrived setting are quite deliberate. I do have a word about the acting, however. The performances vary, from a level of camp/parody that could almost pass (or actually could pass) for serious acting in a low-budget horror movie, to a broad, over-the-top ridiculousness that no one could miss as parody. As much as I enjoy Return of the Living Dead, I think it would have worked better with consistently balanced performances. The more nuanced (relatively) acting draws you in occasionally, before something reminds you that, no, we’re really not supposed to take anything here seriously.

The Scores:

ERNIE: What the hell are you doing with a bunch of rabid weasels?

BURT: That’s what I was trying to explain to you here, Ernie. They came in as part of a shipment. Of course, they weren’t supposed to be rabid.

Originality: 3/6 Although riffing on Night of the Living Dead1, Return of the Living Dead takes its own direction, giving us quick-moving, intelligent zombies who crave braaaaaaaaaaaaains.

Effects: 4/6 Most of the zombies are people in old clothing, partially disguised by make-up and shadows. However, they’ve constructed a few key zombies from excellent practical effects. I’ve already mentioned the Tarman. We also meet a half-corpse puppet that looks artificial, but impressive nonetheless.

Acting: 4/6 It’s difficult to assess performance in a parody. I refer you to my Low Point. That said, I’m not certain fans of this movie would want Linnea Quigley to play “Trash” any other way.2

Production: 4/6 Is it a flaw or a bonus that the cemetery look so entirely like a constructed set?3 In any case, this film looks pretty good, despite an obviously limited budget.

Story: 5/6 The story is stupid, propelled by characters who make idiotic decisions. In other words, it’s exactly the story the writers intended. I give it a bonus for being less overtly metafictional about its tropiness than many other, later horror spoofs. Actors do not wave their hands and point out the absurdities with clever quips; the script simply presents horror-clichés in ways that make those absurdities difficult to ignore.

Emotional Response: 5/6 The film strikes a good balance between horror and humour.

Overall: 5/6

In total, Return of the Living Dead receives 30/42

Notes

1. Despite the involvement of two Night of the Living Dead alumni and a direct reference to that film, Return of the Living Dead is not a licensed sequel, and Romero expressed surprise and confusion when fans started asking him to include references to “brains” with his autograph.

2. Although not her first film, Return of the Living Dead established Linnea Quigley, helping to set her on a long-time career in horror and exploitation films.

3. Its artificiality makes it look like a soundstage. According to sources online, they assembled it in an orange grove. Rumours that they shot in such-and-such an actual cemetery are so obviously false that I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers started them.

September 30: Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (JD)

October 6: Suspiria (Alex)
October 7: The Seventh Victim (JD)

October 13: Friday the 13th-a “Make Me Watch It” Podcast (Blaine)
October 14: Hereditary (JD)

October 20: Hausu (Alex)
October 21: Eye of the Devil (JD)

October 27: A Quiet Place (JD)
October 28: Alone in the Dark (JD)

October 31: Halloween 2018 (JD)
Return of the Living Dead (JD)