It boggles the mind to think that within the span of a mere three months of the summer of 1985, two new and very different films penned by Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon were released. The first film was Lifeforce, an abysmal cheapy Cannon scifi exploitation flick whose incompetence has long been excused as a product of its troubled production history. The second film is The Return of the Living Dead, a cynical, canny and very hip parody of George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. The former film is directed by super-hack Tobe Hooper, most famous for directing the influentially grody Texas Chainsaw Massacre and for nominally helming Poltergeist; the latter was directed by O’Bannon himself, who had no prior experience directing a film and would only direct one afterwards and with good reason (his 1992 Lovecraftian horror flick, The Resurrected, is almost as chintzy as Lifeforce but not nearly as preposterous).
Accordingly, if you admit to enjoying Lifeforce, you’ve got some serious ’splainin’ to do while if you declare love for The Return of the Living Dead, you can bask in the aura of a misunderstood and maligned genius that O’Bannon has propagated for years. In the years after Alien came out, O’Bannon’s singular auteurship over the projects his name was attached to came into doubt. This is more than likely something that could only happen in the science fiction community, a strange post-adolescent Never-Neverland where fanboys suspect foul play when the screenwriter of a standard-bearing favorite like Alien doesn’t live up to their expectations and cranks out lackluster or even abominable subsequent work. As a result, O’Bannon’s tried to claim as much credit as possible for accredited work except for those he considered to be real clunkers. Happy to have been the co-writer of John Carpenter’s Dark Star and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, yes, but not Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried, which he claimed he was only listed as one of the contributing screenwriters of to lend it street cred, and especially not Lifeforce.
Lifeforce is a dog. There’s no getting around that. Based on Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires, the film follows the aftermath of the HMS Churchill—“a joint American/English venture” as an omniscient narrator mysteriously booms out after the film’s opening title sequence—that investigates a mysterious craft in the head of Haley’s Comet. The ship they find is shaped like an enormous penis: 150 miles long and at least 2 miles wide, according to a nervous member of the ship’s crew. Once the crew has boarded the mega-dong, they find the “desiccated” corpses of huge bat-like creatures and three naked humanoids, one notably played by the comely Mathilda May. The crew’s findings apparently make the ship happy and cause its “umbrella”-like tip to expand in anticipation. If you think the sexual imagery is hideously blunt now, you really are overestimating this film’s ability to perpetually sink to an astounding new low on a regular basis.
The Churchill’s crew goes missing and is only retrieved after the USS Champion is sent out to save their sex-starved asses (though the astronaut who murmurs “I’ve been in space for six months and she looks perfect to me” is admittedly under a trance, I don’t think anyone could put those exact words into his mouth, sugar tits). Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) is actively interrogated by a host of military men, including Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth), a gung-ho angry young man who eventually loses his nerve once he sees first-hand the naked sex vampires from space that have come to Earth for the sole purpose of creating an incoherent metaphor for the fear of sex rampant throughout the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. Terror is, after all, the only appropriate response.
While it’s understood that Hooper’s production ran out of money before he could finish shooting everything he wanted to, there’s more than enough ill-conceived hyper-sexual images, plot and dialogue to condemn the film all on its own. Carlsen, the more, ahem, experienced of the two lead protagonists, teaches Caine why he should be afraid of May’s buxom “Space Girl.” That portentous message clearly has sunk in by the film’s agonizingly never-ending second half. When Carlsen tries to beat the location of the “Space Girl” out of one of her victims, he warns Caine that things could get violent and tries to shoo him out of the room by warning him that, “She (the “Space Girl”’s former host) wants to be beaten. She’s an extreme masochist,” to which Caine replies, “Oh, it’s quite all right. I’m a natural voyeur.” Caine later sweats up a storm and steels his nerve to confront the “Space Girl” but only watches in horror as Carlsen copulates with the “Space Girl” while standing naked, erect in a church. Until a medieval sword descends from the heavens and Carlsen impales both the “Space Girl” and himself with it, naturally by way of their hips. And don’t get me started on Patrick Stewart in drag.
It’s impossible to fully excuse Lifeforce’s torridness, nor dismiss O’Bannon’s attempts to distance himself from the project. Additionally, the film can’t really be enjoyed for it’s rubber-necking value. It’s just too steely-eyed in its ill-conceived ideas to be consistently campy. Clearly, at one point, the film was meant to be something of a prestige picture: Henry Mancini scored the film, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The film is also not a complete failure: the raspy, braying noises that the “mummified” victims of the “Space Girl” make are genuinely rousing and while the prosthetic make-up effects for the film make those zombie-like things look like something you’d see on display in a cheap wax museum, that automatically makes it better than 90% of the other nonsense Hooper cranked out. These intermittent signs of life suggest that Lifeforce is not a clunker just because Hooper and the gang ran out of cash, but rather because they couldn’t figure out how to fully realize what was already a ridiculous idea. They, not just Hooper, were creatively bankrupt before their venture even started filming.
That having been said, The Return of the Living Dead is in fact the real deal. O’Bannon invested a shrewd and wryly subversive absurdist streak to the humor in his zombie pastiche, making even the scenes that are meant to be scary effectively more surreal than spooky. Return is, after all, a comedy first and then a horror film. O’Bannon toys with the viewer’s expectations, knowing that they’re expecting another film in the mold cast by Romero’s Night, but instead giving them one that uses that same formula to throw the rug out from under its audience at every turn. If it weren’t so funny, Return would just be flat-out mean.
The Return of the Living Dead is set in a world where Night of the Living Dead was based on true events that were hushed up by the government. We’re told via the second-hand gossip of one of the less reliable characters that the director of Night, within the world of Return, was told he would have to falsify certain facts in his film so as to not make it too much of a documentary. This is the first sign that we’re no longer safely ensconced within the confines of generic cinema. There are no rules as to how to kill these monsters because we know already that they’ve been falsified: a bullet to the head won’t stop these monsters and neither will detaching their brains from their bodies (“It worked in the movie!” “Well it ain’t workin’ now.” “You mean the movie lied?!”). Instead, Return’s underlying logic is that now you’ve gone so far afield of the realm of logic where you expect certain sensible limitations to apply to something as senseless as walking corpses, that you should learn to accept that everything else is possible. A corpse can and does hop around without a head, some talk and one even explains irrationally why O’Bannon’s zombies crave brains, not flesh (“It takes the pain away,” a legless zombie explains as its eyes loll back into her skull and the lower part of her exposed spinal column slowly flicks back and forth like a cat’s tail).
O’Bannon knows the game that viewers expect him to play and uses that knowledge to create a playfully irreverent parody of the paradigm in horror films created by Romero’s zombies. Set in a medical supply warehouse, The Return of the Living Dead conspicuously presents the time of some of the film’s major beats in a facetious attempt to prove that events are happening in “real time.” These events of course didn’t really happen because they couldn’t and that’s precisely O’Bannon’s point. When bumbling warehouse employee Frank and his well-meaning but slack-jawed apprentice Freddy (James Karen and Thom Matthews) find what will become known in the series of rapidly diminishing returns that are the Return sequels as the “Tarman,” a zombie preserved and contained in a barrel by the military and then subsequently lost, O’Bannon expects us to fall back on our knowledge of Romero’s movies.
That’s because, for the most part, he follows them to a T. The dead come back, this time because of an infectious chemical released from Tarman’s barrel, the outbreak is discovered and purportedly contained after Frank and Freddy’s boss Burt (Clu Gulager) cremates the undead tissue with the help of Ernie the embalmer (Don Calfa). Going on the expectations we are spoon-fed, the viewer expects the movie to end here, but it doesn’t: a gaseous cloud spreads the revitalizing toxin over a cemetery, which of course just happens to be next door.
The next leg of the story is essentially carried by the interaction of the first group of ineffectual survivors with a second one composed of punk-ish teens duded up in flairs, leather, gerry curls, Mohawks and torn skinny jeans. This latter group nihilistically professes to love death and chaos in the first act, best expressed by the almost-never clothed Trash (Linnea Quigley) just before she explains to Spider (Miguel Nunez Jr.) her secret desire to be torn apart by old men: “Do you ever fan-ta-size…about being killed?!” Trash responds as anyone rational observer might: “Ne-vah.”
After Casey (Jewel Shepard), Freddy’s mewling girlfriend, Spider is the only identifiable teen amongst the group of faux punks. The rest are a bunch of empty-headed poseurs who receive a hard dose of unreality when the living dead return to eat them alive. Which is what makes the film’s pulverizing ending that much more damning: nobody makes it out of this apocalypse, not even the ones whose behavior marks them as perhaps deserving of a better fate than their more obnoxious peers. O’Bannon recalls the ending of Dark Star by having everybody bite the dust after the group use up their final lifeline and reach out to a covert government hotline, which results in the implementation of a pulverizing “contingency plan”: a giant, bullet-shaped A bomb. And even after that the dead still won’t stay dead, the offending gas seeping into the soil and causing the same footage we just saw of zombies rising from the dead to be resurrected at the twelfth hour. Some days you just can’t get rid of a corpse.
The fact that Return is somehow even more calculating and pessimistic than Night does not make it any less of an accomplished film. O’Bannon’s film turns on a dime, which is saying a lot considering how much of it is expository dialogue. At the same time, if you compare it to Lifeforce, you can’t help but see the sheer ludicrousness of his taking issue with Romero’s attempt to establish a kind of a logic for his flesh-munching creatures to abide by. Return is a love letter but an acerbic one, one that takes out its anger on Romero’s imitators and the lesser creative decisions that he made after Night (I’m sure the happy ending of Dawn of the Dead was on O’Bannon’s mind) than the bigger and far more admirably hazy picture that Romero originally drafted. Thankfully, O’Bannon knew what he was doing and created an accomplished homage in the process.
Still, the next time somebody tries to bring up the merits of Return, remind them that a little film called Lifeforce exists and watch them huff and puff and turn purple. Heck, tell them to watch the two films back-to-back since seeing in this case really is believing. Knowing that your genre idol is fallible is a bitch, but in this case it makes you appreciate his achievements that much more too.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, and the New York Press. He obsessively maintains a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.