Sunday, May 21, 2006

Return of the Living Dead

1985, directed by Dan O'Bannon

Let us commence with a brief summation of why RotLD is among the finest zombie movies ever made.
  • It opens with this legend: “The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.” This begins the film with ABSOLUTE THRILL-POWER.
  • Tar-monster is one of the scariest zombies ever. He makes my Top Five list. They hired a mime to portray this tall, shimmying slime monster, and he moves as though his bones are liquified.
  • This is where the brains fetish started. Prior to this movie and its emphasis on human brains, zombies ate any part of humans they could reach. You’d be surprised how few films offer brains as a specific driving force, though it’s one thing everyone associates with zombies. All thanks to this little gem of a film. This significance cannot be underrated.
  • Relentless, inexorable, undefeatable evil. EVERYTHING dead returns to life—dissection specimens, butterflies pinned to boards. Zombie dogs! Zombie bugs! There is no escape. But most importantly, there is no shortcut to zombie destruction here. Decapitation, destroying the brain, cremation — these zombies don’t die.
  • Zombies can think, act, and speak, though they’d prefer to just dine. “Come in, dispatch. Send more paramedics,” might be the grandest zombie plan ever.
  • Linnea Quigley nude. A lot. There you go.
  • If you don’t want to watch the whole film, the credits roll over a selection of Greatest RotLD Moments, telling the story in brief, hilarious snippets! And it ends on a very meta question — please enjoy the irony!

This review must open with a personal story. I saw this movie at a slumber party around 1989. My twelve-year-old self was traumatized. It would be thirteen years before I watched another zombie film! Even then, I only watched 28 Days Later because I’m a Danny Boyle fan—and the zombie content inspired nasty nightmares. After several insomniac months I realized I had to confront this fear. I began to rent zombie movies in hopes of finding the initial movie — in particular, one scene—that had scared me so badly. By the time I rented Return of the Living Dead I’d seen enough good zombie movies to spark my enthusiasm. So sixteen years later I returned to this film with appreciation for the genre as well as the psychological satisfaction of confronting my primal zombie fear. Thanks, RotLD. You made me the self-styled zombie queen and scholar that I am today.

RotLD is camp horror. Laughs outnumber screams. But laughing at these characters inspires goodwill faster than drama might so the audience’s sympathies are engaged early. I also genuinely like the older male characters; I could find myself getting a little teary-eyed at the slowly dying man who knows he’ll soon be a zombie and reverently removes his wedding ring before locking himself in the crematorium. Character stereotypes are saved for the young Brat Pack types, including a mohawked Molly Ringwald lookalike and poor Linnea Quigley, whose clothes keep falling off.

The scene that ripped my poor 12-year-old mind apart and placed within it zombie trauma timebombs that would go off 13 years later underscores the inexorable evil of these zombies. I think it’s also where the funny-scary nature of the movie turns into pure horror. Survivors trapped in a funeral home capture half a decomposing zombie. Strapping her to an embalming table, they proceed to interrogate her while her exposed spine leaks fluid across the metal. The pain of being dead, she moans, is only lessened by eating living brains. So there’s no hope and no escape, only swarms of fast, hungry zombies. It’s still a bit brain-bending, if you ask me; most other zombie interpretations offer some hope of killing individual zombies (destroying the head, usually), outwaiting the threat (28 Days Later), or even living in relative harmony with them (Shaun of the Dead).

How hopeless is the zombie plague in this movie? Headshots don’t work—a pickaxe through the skull only pins it to the floor. Decapitation? Now you have a headless zombie running around. Even sawing it into pieces won’t help; the pieces live on. Cremation destroys the body but releases the zombifying chemical into the air. Hiding doesn’t help… they can smell your brains.

Only solution? Nuclear bomb. Oh, silly U.S. Army. Didn’t we learn anything about releasing the chemicals into the air? Next up: Return of the Living Dead part 2!

Zombie explanation: Military chemical. The title, of course, implies a continuation of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Original bodies from that plague were stored in the basement of a medical supply company. Container failure releases the gas (and some zombies) into the doomed city of Louisville.

Contribution to the zombie canon: Indescribable! This is essential viewing for zombie fans. Here’s where the brain-eating concept of zombies begins.

Favorite moment: Some of the lines just kill me—“Rabid weasels.” “Send more cops.” “I can smell your brains.”

Favorite zombie: Tar monster is fantastic—he moves as though he has twice the joints of a living human, and all of them are double-jointed. Shining with slimy decay, he’s slightly more skeletal than zombielike but nevertheless terrifying.


Anonymous said...

Great post for a superb movie.. Recently I also wrote about this film in my blog (sorry but it is in spanish) I hope you can visit it.. I will come back for more zombie classics. What about Lucio Fulci´s Zombie 2?


Diego said...

Thanks for post review about this amazing zombie movie ever!!