Return of the Living Dead review

Dan O'Bannon's take on the Living Dead is a classic in Duncan's house. It's very much a film with brains, he argues...

Imagine if you will an eleven year old boy, running around the house away from his father. The boy isn’t running out of fear though, he has a massive smile on his face and is laughing hysterically out of nervous excitement. His father pursues him, but it isn’t a conventional father/son chase, as this particular father happens to be shouting “BRAINS!” at the top of his voice.

Such is my own nostalgic love for The Return of the Living Dead and such has been the widespread appeal amongst horror and zombie fans over the decades since.

Amazing how one simple word – “BRAINS!” (though it must always be typed in capitals and with at least one exclamation mark on the end) – has been so thoroughly adopted over the years and will forever be associated with zombies, regardless of how much of a zombie puritan someone might be.

I use the word puritan as most people are more than aware now, that merely defining a zombie movie these days has become an increasingly difficult task. Some amongst us won’t acknowledge 28 Days Later as a zombie movie at all, partly on account of the fact that zombies running is physically out of the question, but then (albeit begrudgingly) approve of Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead.

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The standards set by George A. Romero, which have essentially become a strict zombie movie code for do’s and don’ts ever since, also mean that destroying the brain will end a zombie’s undead life. The beauty of Dan O’Bannon’s take on the Living Dead movies is that it simply doesn’t matter: the rules, like the zombies, are simply thrown to the wind.

The zombies in RotLD not only run, they jump and show all kinds of dexterity. In one scene the fantastically gooey Tarman zombie even uses a pulley system to force open a locked door to get at his newly found “LIVE BRAINS!”. Not only can these zombies operate anything a human can, they can also talk, and talk they do to great comedy effect especially in the much loved “Send more paramedics” scene.

It’s amazing in fact, how so many people forgot how recklessly the Romero rules were completely abandoned, more amazing that the very same people who hate the idea of zombies running are inclined to love RotLD and not even question it. Why? Because it’s so much damn fun.

Originally an idea conceived by John Russo (co-screenwriter of Night of the Living Dead) and intended as project for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s director Tobe Hooper, it became involved in legal wrangling regarding the use of Living Dead in the title with Romero’s lawyers. By the time all was resolved Hooper had left the project and in O’Bannon’s hands it became an entirely different movie.

Indeed, right from the start Night of the Living Dead is referenced in a conversation between two of the main characters, Freddy and Frank, leading to Frank’s explanation that Romero’s movie was real but had the facts altered out of fear that the military would sue.

The references always seem affectionate though, as though tipping a hat in respect before running amok and throwing large amounts of laughs, gore and nudity at the screen while playing loud punk rock at full volume.

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One of RotLD’s greatest strengths is the sheer speed at which it cracks along, it doesn’t feel like a single second is wasted in its well timed 91 minutes, providing constant entertainment. The laughs come through not just the zombies themselves, but through the variety of straight played performances throughout and some fantastically sharp dialogue. Initially Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Matthews) seem like level headed characters, but end up going through all kinds of performance stages such as panic, near death and then, in one case, a total zombie transformation and an aggressive one at that.

Holding most of the performance weight on their shoulders though are Burt (Clu Galager – whose son incidentally directed the fantastic Feast ) and Ernie (Don Calfa), who give extra strength to a cast that would have otherwise mostly consisted of forgettable teenagers running round in post-punk garb, having their brains munched on.

Burt and Ernie (I won’t bother to point out their double act namesakes) remain for the most part the calm amongst the storm, a nice contrast against what I’d forgotten was such a large amount of screaming and wailing, but it’s the dynamics between various characters that keep things so lively and fresh (no pun intended).

Mention should also go to the effects. So what if some of them may look a little dated? By and large you just can’t beat good old fashioned blood and gore. Combining some great effects with some less impressive ones I actually find works better for the slapstick comedy anyway, for example when the first sign of re-animation happens to a split dog, a comically bad effect in which it only moves as it’s being physically bashed. It’s then followed up by a totally naked corpse running around, then getting axed in the head and decapitated, which is both a surprise and impressively violent. Also the range of different styles of zombie is fantastic: there are skeletal zombies, half rotted zombies, dripping zombies, fresh zombies and by having so many different kinds in one movie it means there’s a zombie for everyone. Which brings me to the naked zombie.

I couldn’t have written anything about RotLD without mentioning Linnea Quigley, mostly because I love her. Here at Geek we celebrate the impact that certain people at a certain age can have upon the young and influential. Linnea Quigley is one who impacted on me heavily.

Playing Trash in RotlD she has the rare honour of actually showing full frontal nudity and then proceeds to spend the rest of the movie naked, after most of her clothes are conveniently left behind in the panic. Strangely her zombie form is actually the most interesting too, her mouth extends to get a good sized bite at various brains and there’s something almost vampiric about her make-up, which is still slightly alluring – although that could just be a deviant streak in me.

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The most interesting thing about RotLD though, is that for a movie that spends much of its time flouting and breaking Romero’s rules in order to distance itself, it actually adds additional depth to the zombie mythology. As Freddy and Frank slowly transform they describe the physical changes they are feeling, giving a slight insight into what it may feel like to have your body shut down and then revive itself, leading to quite moving scene involving suicide no less. The headaches they describe also connect with one of the most interesting revelations from the mouth of captured zombie, that eating brains makes the pain go away, giving reason to their rabid desire for grey matter.

There are other levels to RotLD, such as the military satire, resulting in quite a shocking and fitting ending, but for the most part the film works best as non-stop entertainment, ticking every horror box on the way while keeping the humour thick and fast throughout. The only negative aspect to the film is that Dan O’Bannon never went on to direct more Living Dead movies or for that matter much of anything else.

I for one would have liked to have seen more from him.