“Not one more preppy!” vowed writer-director Dan O’Bannon when talking about the victims from The Return of the Living Dead, his tongue-in-cheek, splatter-laden homage to George A. Romero’s zombie pictures. Fed up with the generic Barbie and Ken-style actors that were getting sliced up wholesale in 1980s fright flicks, he fills his zombie movie with a group of snarling punk rockers (“What do you think this is, a fucking costume?” grouses one of them, whose studded leather jacket and lip chain define his character, “This is a way of life!”) and a soundtrack of West Coast punk music. The punk attitude, a combination of posturing and self-destructive irony, is a fine match for this most postmodern of zombie movies.
The film opens with one of the punk kids, Freddy (Thom Mathews), trying to clean up his act by getting a job at a warehouse where they store biomedical supplies and a few top secret military canisters that happen to contain the zombies from Night of the Living Dead. His boss, Franke (James Karen), is a blue collar chatterbox who says that Romero’s movie was based on an actual zombie infestation. To prove it, they go down to the basement, where they accidentally open a canister’s seal and let the creatures out. Zombie gas spreads over the local cemetery and crematorium, and before you can say “fast moving zombies” our heroes are holed up inside a funeral home fending off the creatures with guns and axes. Bullets to the brain don’t kill them (“But it worked in the movie!”), and the monsters actually talk. One of the running gags of the film is that whenever paramedics or cops show up to provide aid to the victims, they are instantly slaughtered by the undead, who get on the radio and actually say, “Send more paramedics! Send more cops!”
O’Bannon’s filmmaking techniques are simple and resourceful, with shots following the actors around the room in consistent medium shots as they volley rapid-fire (and quotable) dialogue off of one another. It’s the zombie movie Howard Hawks never got to make, and frankly it’s less Rio Bravo than His Girl Friday with all the ribald humor on display. Well acted, with endearing characters from both the punk contingent and the middle-aged office guys. Linnea Quigley achieves instant B-movie stardom as the punk chick who, in the cemetery, has a brief monologue about how she dreams about old drunken men attacking her and ripping off her clothes before she strips naked and dances around on top of a tombstone. “Aw, man,” says one of her pals, “she’s taking off her clothes again!” Suffice to say, this small offering from the horror genre is a hoot to watch, with never a dull moment.
MGM did a surprisingly good job on such a small movie, maybe because of its loyal cult following. It looks and sounds like it was made yesterday.
Full audio commentaries by Dan O'Bannon and, on a separate track, several members of the cast, get into how the movie was made on such a low budget and the difficulties between the director and his cast. O'Bannon, the writer of Alien, was a frustrated writer for many years, and Return of the Living Dead is very much the product of the man's tense, meticulous attention. Remarkably, none of that tension shows up onscreen. There's a featurette where they discuss the making of the film, with very little crossover anecdotes from the commentary tracks. Clu Gulager, who punched out O'Bannon at one point during the filming, now waxes sentimental about the project and admits, hey, this Return of the Living Dead movie was "a work of art." Less interesting is a documentary about 1980s horror pictures that offers multiple clips from genre classics and sound-bite interviews from genre veterans Stuart Gordon and John Landis, among others, but it doesn't offer any new information about the films other than repeating the mantra that when the Republicans are in office, horror movies tend to thrive.
Here's a bit of saucy punk dialogue that sums up the movie. Boy: "Hey Casey, do you like sex with death?" Girl: "Yeah, so fuck off and die."