RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)
Director: Dan O'Bannon
In my Night of the Living Dead review, I mentioned that Night was the first movie that came to my mind when I thought of great Creature Feature movies. If you're reading this, you've stumbled upon the second movie that comes to my mind: a little movie called The Return of the Living Dead. Released in 1985, it beat George Romero's Day of the Dead as the zombie movie of choice that year, and has become one of the more popular cult classics of the last twenty years. How well does it hold up? We'll see.
Freddy (Thom Mathews) has just started a new job at the Uneeda Medical Supply company, conveniently located near a rundown old cemetery, and Frank (James Karen), a fellow co-worker, is showing him the ropes on his first night. After their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), leaves for the night, Frank starts telling Freddy a story about how Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story. He goes on to explain that the government threatened the filmmakers, forcing them to change various bits and pieces so it wouldn't match what really happened. What really happened, you might ask? A chemical spill in a government medical facility brought all the bodies in the morgue to life, but it was all covered up.
Naturally, Freddy thinks Frank is full of crap. Frank shushes him, telling him that some canisters that hold the re-animated bodies are in the basement. He goes on to explain that the government took all the bodies from the morgue, stored them in big oil-drum canisters, and shipped them off to a research facility. Due to a snafu in the paperwork, a few of the canisters were dropped off at the medical supply company instead. Frank takes Freddy down to the basement to prove it, and he smacks one of the canisters to show how strong they are. This proves to be a horrible mistake, as the canister cracks open, and a burst of noxious chemicals spew into their faces.
The chemicals end up re-animating a "split dog" and some butterflies, as well as a cadaver locked in cold storage. They freak out, eventually calling Burt to help them deal with the cadaver. Burt suggests hitting it in the brain, since it worked in every other zombie movie. Stabbing it in the head with a pickax and sawing its head off don't work, so they eventually decide to hack the body into pieces and take them to Ernie (Don Calfa), who works at the mortuary next door. Why? The mortuary happens to have a cremation furnace, that's why. They convince Ernie to burn what's left of the cadaver, but the smoke from the furnace pumps into the nearby cemetery, where Freddy's girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and a group of their friends are partying. The smoke re-animates the dead bodies in the cemetery, unleashing an army of brain-eating zombies that Freddy and his friends must escape.
Honestly, The Return of the Living Dead is some of the most fun I've ever had watching a movie. It's got lots of great looking makeup effects, and it has a perfect combination of both horror and humor. It serves as an homage to classic zombie movies of the past, but has fun at their expense as well. That can be obviously seen in a moment where Burt, Freddy, and Frank realize that their pickax-to-the-brain attack on the cadaver didn't work. Frank's response: "But it worked in the movie!"
The acting is better thane expected as well. James Karen and Thom Mathews turn in good performances (so good they brought them back for the sequel as extremely similar characters), as do Don Calfa and Clu Gulager. Almost all of the punks, especially Miguel Núñez and the late Mark Venturini, are great as well. However, I was less than impressed with Beverly Randolph, but that's just a minor gripe.
The zombie makeup is excellent, especially for a low-budget movie from the mid-80s (the best examples being the Tarman and the Half-Lady). They're also different from the slow-moving, lumbering zombies that became the norm over the years. These suckers can run, talk, and they're clever too. It's definitely a nice breath of fresh air. The punk element is a nice addition as well, just because all the punk songs on the soundtrack make the movie that much cooler. Plus there's one punk, played by Linnea Quigley, that's absolutely naked in 98 percent of her scenes. As you can imagine, she became a B-movie "Scream Queen" thanks to the role.
Overall, I'll give The Return of the Living Dead a full five stars for being one of my all-time favorite movies. A fine mixture of dark humor and horror with great one-liners, an awesome soundtrack, and a totally unexpected ending, I recommend it for fans of both zombie movies and low-budget B-movie thrill rides.
Final Rating: *****