With George A. Romero proving on a film-by-film basis that he no longer understands the culture he is attempting to satirise, now is the ideal time to rediscover Dan O’Bannon’s wickedly funny B-classic The Return of the Living Dead (1985). An unofficial sequel-of-sorts to Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, The Return… pitches itself somewhere closer to the director’s 1982 Stephen King collaboration Creepshow, a hyper-violent cartoon of a movie that juggles genuine scares with broad physical comedy.
Written and directed by O’Bannon, the film follows the tumultuous consequences of a chemical spill at a Kentucky medical supply warehouse that resurrects the inhabitants of a nearby graveyard, reprogramming them into brain-eating ghouls. The instigating blunder is set in motion by foreman Frank (James Karen), intent on impressing new recruit Freddy (Thom Mathews) with a wrongly delivered military drum containing a frozen flesh-eater: the inspiration, Frank enthuses, for Romero’s 1968 masterpiece. This leads to a series of increasingly hilarious misconceptions, including the correct way to dispatch the creatures – “You mean the movie lied?!” Freddie screams as a skewered head refuses to stop chanting for ‘delicious brains’ in a particularly memorable early sequence.
To label the film an out-and-out comedy in the vein of Peter Jackson’s early ‘splatstick’ efforts would undersell how skilfully O’Bannon amps up the sense of dread and of the inevitable failure of containment, the siege element of the narrative almost as claustrophobic and ably executed as the classic films to which it alludes – equal parts John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to Romero’s …of the Dead trilogy.
In fact, the most commendable aspect of the The Return of the Living Dead is its ability to combine horror and comedy rather than allowing the different elements to become intermittent and the tone inconsistent. A striking example is those who breathe in the toxic fumes, whose bodies die while they remain unknowing and conscious, only realising their predicament as rigor mortis starts setting in, reducing them to screaming cadavers until only brains will dull the pain. These perpetually wailing planks of human wood are a genuinely distressing sight, somehow rendered completely hilarious by the wonderfully deadpan cast.
The film divides its time between the hapless warehouse workers and a pack of abrasive punks who find their preoccupation with death becoming far too tangible as they do battle with the undead hoards. While the latter strand is by far the most iconic (including the infamous lap dancing zombie) it’s also the weakest, the cast struggling to match the comedic benchmark set by Clu Gulager and Don Calfa, who steal the film so completely that their absence is apparent on a scene-by-scene basis.
A piece of fluff compared to the towering achievement of Romero’s trilogy, The Return of the Living Dead is still a fantastic and unique entry into the zombie mythology (as well as the film that popularised the oft-wailed catchphrase ‘braiiins’) and, measured by its own ambitions, the film is a spectacularly crafted and perfectly formed piece of genre filmmaking.