The Return of the Living Dead (1985) *****
It seems a safe bet to me that the past twenty years have seen the production of more horror movies (or at least films that bill themselves as horror movies) than any previous pair of decades since the birth of the cinema industry as we know it. We are talking, after all, about a time period in which enough money was being pumped into the market by both producers and consumers that even a completely useless piece of shit like Witchcraft could spawn as many as eleven sequels. So it seems a bit funny to me that we haven’t seen a commensurate increase in the number of horror movie stars on the scene. There is literally no one active in the genre today who commands the kind of name recognition that Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, or Christopher Lee did in their respective heydays. I mean, sure— the fans know who Bruce Campbell and Lance Henricksen are, but most folks who don’t head straight for the horror section when they walk into the video store will likely know them only (if at all) from their occasional forays into television. A few major names pop up if we adjust our criteria to account for the fact that the increasingly extreme nature of the movies themselves in the years following the demise of Hays Code has pushed most of the horror genre underground, but even then the picture doesn’t change all that much. The last two decades still don’t show anybody like Karloff, Lee, or Peter Cushing— highly capable, utterly professional, completely serious actors who, for whatever reason, chose to make their living by appearing in horror flicks. Go a step or two down the thespian food chain, and one might argue that we have a plausible successor to Vincent Price in Robert Englund, while I’m also tempted to think of Jeffrey Combs as the Robert Quarry of the 80’s and 90’s— like Quarry, Combs is an actor with quite a bit of talent who has spent the bulk of his career being wasted in thankless, minor roles by filmmakers who apparently don’t know a good thing when they see it. And if you’ll permit me to go way off into left field for a moment, I’d like to make the case that Bela Lugosi also has a modern heir— or heiress, if you want to be picky about it. Laugh all you want, but I’m talking about Linnea Quigley.
This is the part where you tell me I’m out of my fucking mind. The part where you say, “Okay, El Santo, I’d buy it if you wanted to call Linnea Quigley ‘the American Lina Romay’ or some such thing, but what in the hell could make you see her as any kind of successor to Bela Lugosi?!?!” I realize this looks rather unlikely on its face. Lugosi, admittedly, was not a beautiful girl who built much of her career on an unflinching willingness to take off her clothes at the slightest suggestion, and not even a crushing morphine addiction was enough to get him to do porn. But Quigley and Lugosi have in common the defining, central secret of their success. Neither one is what I’d call a good actor, but both are able to completely dominate virtually any movie they appear in through sheer force of personality. Exhibitionist scream queens are a dime a dozen, but how likely are you to stumble upon a movie you know is going to suck, and then watch it anyway just because Brinke Stevens or Michelle Bauer is in it? Exactly. Linnea Quigley, on the other hand, was what finally got me to rent Silent Night, Deadly Night— I thought it was a pathetic waste of celluloid, but for the ten minutes that Quigley was on the screen, I was a happy man. More than her stunning body and the enthusiasm with which she shows it off, it’s her charisma and screen presence that made her a star. By the same token, do you suppose any but the most neurotic of completists (me, for example) would bother with the likes of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla if it had been, oh, I don’t know… J. Carol Naish Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla instead? So perhaps you see my point. And even if you don’t, I’m sure you see the point behind my choosing this particular movie review as the vehicle for putting forth that eccentric thesis. The Return of the Living Dead, after all, was Linnea Quigley’s ticket to the big time.
To this day, the uninitiated are still being confused by this movie’s title. With a name like The Return of the Living Dead, you’d expect it to be some kind of entry in George Romero’s zombie trilogy, and there are more than a few details in the script that encourage such an identification further. And if I’m remembering what I’ve read correctly, that really is how this movie was originally conceived— as something like an American Zombie/Zombie 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters. Producer John Russo (Romero’s partner on Night of the Living Dead) brought in Tobe Hooper to direct and Dan O’Bannon to write the screenplay, but both men had qualms about such a callous show of disrespect for Romero (who had already been more than sufficiently screwed by the distributors of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead); they quite rapidly re-cast the film as a sort of parodic tribute, built around the conceit that Romero’s movies had been based on actual events. Hooper then got offered a much larger paycheck to direct Lifeforce and backed out of the project, leaving O’Bannon to take over the director’s chair in his stead.
The film begins with what must surely be the most shameless exploitation movie lie since “They’re men turned inside out— but worse, they’re still alive!!!!”: an intertitle claiming that “The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.” One of those “real organizations” is the Uneeda medical supply company of Louisville, Kentucky, owned by one Burt Wilson (Clu Gulager, from The Hidden and The Initiation). On the evening of July 3rd, 1984, longtime Uneeda employee Frank (James Karen, of Hercules in New York and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster) is spending his last couple of hours before quitting time showing the new stock boy, Freddy (Thom Matthews, from Nemesis and Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives), the ropes. Here are the wheelchairs, there are the prosthetic limbs, these are the split dogs for use in veterinary school (eww…)— that sort of thing. Oh, and let’s not forget the cold storage locker where they keep the fresh cadavers. This is a zombie movie, you know, so there just has to be at least one fresh cadaver lying (or in this case hanging) around somewhere.
A bit later, Freddy asks Frank what was the weirdest thing he ever saw while working at Uneeda, to which the older man responds by asking Freddy if he’s ever seen Night of the Living Dead. According to Frank, that movie has a basis in actual fact, though it was much altered in Romero and Russo’s telling. Here’s what really happened: Back in 1969 (note that this puts the incident a year after the release of the movie supposedly derived from it!), the US Army was evaluating a pesticide called 345 Trioxin, a product of the Daryl Chemical Corporation, for use as a weapon in the nascent drug war. The research was being conducted at one of the Army’s medical centers, and when one of the canisters of 345 Trioxin spilled, the chemical seeped down into the morgue, where it unexpectedly returned several of the corpses to a reasonable facsimile of life. After quite a struggle, the reanimated corpses were subdued and packed up in airtight metal drums to be shipped over to Daryl Chemical for further study. The whole business was hushed up, of course, but in what Frank calls a “typical army fuck-up,” those drums were mistakenly shipped to somewhere other than their intended destination— to Uneeda Medical Supply, as a matter of fact. Indeed, they’re still down in the basement… would Freddy like to see them? You bet your ass! In the process of showing off his little private freak show, however, Frank slaps one of the drums; because he does so at the exact moment that he’s trying to reassure Freddy that the drums don’t leak, one of the weld seams naturally splits, spraying pressurized 345 Trioxin vapor all over the two men. And while the two of them are unconscious from inhaling the fumes, the ventilation system sucks the noxious gas up and distributes it all throughout the building. Good thing they’ve only got one fresh cadaver in that locker, huh?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Colonel Horace Glover (Halloween III: Season of the Witch’s Jonathan Terry) is coming home from a hard day at work. Glover is the man in charge of the Army’s efforts to relocate those drums that are down in Uneeda’s basement. Considering that the things have been down there for most of fourteen years, his unit obviously isn’t doing a very good job. The only real point of this scene is to acquaint us with the notion that the Proper Authorities are indeed on the case, and that the means exist for summoning Colonel Glover 24 hours a day, no matter where he may be. And the Proper Authorities, as we know from the works of George Romero, are not our friends.
Back in Louisville, several of Freddy’s pals are trying to figure out what they’re going to do for fun tonight. Now before I go any further, let me say a few words about this bunch. Spider (Miguel A. Nunez Jr., from Carnosaur 2 and Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning), Scuzz (Brian Peck, of Children of the Corn III and Angel 4: Undercover), Casey (Jewel Shepard, from Christina and Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom), and Trash (Quigley, from Savage Streets and Fairy Tales) are all more or less stereotypical 80’s movie punk rockers. So, for that matter, is Suicide (Mark Venturini, another member of Friday the 13th, Part V’s Expendable Meat buffet), the guy with the car to whom the crew turns for transportation once they’ve made their plans for the evening. Chuck (Children of the Corn’s John Philbin), on the other hand, is a painfully square guy in a checkered suit, while Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), is very much the Girl Next Door type. The evidence of my own adolescence strongly suggests that Chuck would find the punk rockers much too intimidating to approach, while Tina would never under any circumstances “lower” herself so far as to speak to any of these people. But this was the mid-1980’s, and adults didn’t know about that sort of thing yet.
In any event, a consensus eventually emerges that the kids’ best bet for action is to head over to Uneeda and meet Freddy when he gets off work. Of course that won’t happen until 10:00, so they’ve got a couple of hours to kill. At Scuzz’s suggestion, they break into the cemetery adjoining the Resurrection Funeral Home across the street from the medical supply warehouse so as to have someplace more exciting than the inside of Suicide’s ‘64 Cadillac to pass the time. (Passing the time, incidentally, involves Trash performing a striptease on top of a crypt. She’ll spend the whole rest of the movie more or less completely naked.) Do any of you suppose that this could possibly be a good idea?
Frank and Freddy get their first inkling of exactly how far from good it is when they regain consciousness. Upon returning upstairs, they are confronted first with a reanimated split dog and second with the revived fresh cadaver in the freezer. Freddy closes the combination lock on the freezer door, but that goes only so far toward solving the problem. Frank calls Burt for assistance, and the boss rushes to the scene immediately. The question, of course, is how does one kill something that’s already dead? Burt, having seen Night of the Living Dead, suggests that destroying the zombie’s brain might do the trick. With that in mind, he has his employees release the zombie from the locker and wrestle it to the ground, so that he can bash its head in with a pickaxe. The zombie doesn’t die. Burt tries decapitating it with a bonesaw. It still doesn’t die. Finally, Burt has an epiphany: his lifelong friend, Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa, from Necronomicon and Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town), runs the funeral parlor. If they brought the zombie over there, Burt might be able to talk Ernie into using his crematorium on it. It takes a bit of convincing, but Ernie eventually agrees, and the zombie (which has by this time been sawn up into about a dozen little pieces) is reduced to a tiny pile of completely harmless embers.
Yeah, but what about the smoke? That zombie’s tissues had been thoroughly impregnated with 345 Trioxin, and the smoke from its cremation is going to be loaded with the shit, too. The plume of toxic smoke mingles with the clouds that have been gathering overhead for some time now, setting off an electrochemical reaction that triggers a fierce thunderstorm. When the rain falls to earth, it brings the 345 Trioxin with it, saturating the ground to a considerable depth— something on the order of six feet, as a matter of fact. Deep enough, in other words, that every stiff in the cemetery gets a good, sound soaking and comes to life. By this point, Freddy’s friends have begun wondering just what in the hell is taking him so long, and Tina has gone over to Uneeda to find out. Thus she gets to be the first one to meet the exceptionally foul zombie that had been bottled up in that canister Frank accidentally split open before, and the first one to discover the other ways in which these zombies differ from the ones Romero filmed back in the 60’s. Like their counterparts in Umberto Lenzi’s City of the Walking Dead, these zombies are as fast and as agile as living humans, and they’re just as smart, too. In fact, as Suicide inadvertently demonstrates when he and the others follow Tina into the warehouse to escape from the stinging, chemical-laced rain, just about the only point of resemblance between these zombies and Romero’s is their carnivorousness. The shambling sack of putrescence from the canister gobbles down Suicide’s brain (which the living dead like to eat because the endorphins it produces kill the pain of decomposition) the moment he walks into the basement, and it is only because the zombie is so busy with its dinner that Tina and the others are able to escape. Then again, it isn’t likely to be much of an escape, because the tenants of the cemetery have by this time finished digging their way free, and the entire city of Louisville is poised to be overrun by virtually indestructible cerebrophagous ghouls. Besides, it just wouldn’t do to make a movie that simultaneously honors and pokes fun at the Romero zombie trilogy and give it a happy ending.
If you’re looking for a zombie movie with a sense of humor, the only way to do better than The Return of the Living Dead is to go straight to Sam Raimi. Not even Dead Alive/Brain Dead offers such a perfect mix of laughs and gut-munching (or in this case brain-munching) mayhem and does it with such style and self-assurance. Comedically, this movie features a marvelously twisted sense of humor and a wealth of hidden sight gags with which to reward the attentive viewer. My favorite example of the latter is probably the optometrist’s eye chart hung on the wall in Frank’s office, which reads “Burt is a slave driver and a son of a bitch who [at this point the letters get too small for my rapidly deteriorating vision to deal with],” but the back of Freddy’s jacket surprised a laugh out of me too, and I’d be remiss in not calling attention to what may be the world’s first midget zombie. As for what’s going on in the foreground, the sick joke most people remember best is, understandably, the moment when one of the zombies takes a break from scarfing down the ambulance driver’s brain, picks up the vehicle’s radio handset, and orders the hospital dispatcher to “send more paramedics.” There’s so much warped wit on display here, though, that I have a very hard time picking a single standout bit.
The Return of the Living Dead also works extremely well as straight horror. As both writer and director, O’Bannon fiddles around with the formula just enough to give his film its own distinctive personality without turning off an audience that comes to a zombie movie looking for a certain specific experience. O’Bannon’s intelligent, vigorous, nearly unstoppable zombies are a striking change from the mindless, lumbering creatures you usually see, directly addressing the question that more and more fans had been raising by the mid-1980’s: how big of a threat would a Romero-style zombie really pose to a well-armed, level-headed person who had gotten over the initial shock of seeing the dead come to murderous life all around him? Meanwhile, O’Bannon’s conscious avoidance of many of the horror genre’s more frequently used visual cues gives his film a unique look without drawing attention to how he’s doing it. The Return of the Living Dead is also blessed with an excellent cast and top-notch special effects and production design teams. Linnea Quigley mostly gets by on charm and enthusiasm (although I have to say I’m impressed at the way she has Trash’s tough-chick façade fall apart once the paranormal craziness starts up), but the actors and actresses with bigger roles are, to a one, an extremely talented bunch. And as for the physical aspects of the production, I’ve only very rarely seen so little money spent to such great effect. It’s hard to believe that Colonel Glover’s house and the outside of the Uneeda Medical Supply building are the only sets in the entire film that weren’t totally fabricated, and the zombie makeup is some of the best you’ll ever see. Ignore the awful sequels, and go take advantage of the fact that the original Return of the Living Dead has finally been reissued on home video after years of legal limbo stemming from licensing disputes over the soundtrack.
Oh, and guys… here’s something to torture yourselves with the next time you can’t get a date: Somewhere in the world, probably in southern California, is a man who was Linnea Quigley’s boyfriend at the time this was made…