Return of the Living Dead (1986) remains a vital part of horror movie history. Released in an incredible four week period that also saw Fright Night and Re-Animator hit theaters, it’s the belated result of a messy post-Night of the Living Dead divorce between co-creators John Russo and George Romero. Romero continued his zombie legacy with Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, while Russo answered back by selling his title rights to producer Tom Fox in exchange for a story credit.
Fox bravely handed the writing and directing duties over to Dan O’Bannon, a screenwriter (Alien, Dead & Buried) with no directing experience. The resulting film is a gleeful rock ‘n’ roll mockery of everything Romero’s franchise holds dear––in O’Bannon’s film, zombies drop jaw and mug for the camera, zombies slip around in wet graves for humorous effect, some zombies even qualify for a CB handle (“Send…more…paramedics!”) Despite any incidental blasphemy committed against Romero’s zombie legend, the party-hardy vibe helped Return rise to a respectable showing at the box office, especially for a horror comedy released in the middle of August.
O’Bannon’s multi-faceted narrative is awfully ambitious for a no-budget 80s horror comedy. It introduces almost a dozen different characters within the first few minutes and regularly changes perspectives. The action begins with Frank (James Karen), a veteran employee at Uneeda Medical Supply, giving new employee Freddy the guided tour. After showing off their supply of human skeletons and half-dogs, Frank coerces him into the basement (“Let me ask you a question: did you ever see that movie, Night of the Living Dead?”) to gaze at an Army canister full of 2-4-5 Trioxin, a deadly gas that turns both the living and the dead into brain-craving zombies. It goes without saying that Frank and Freddy manage to spray themselves with gas before the opening credits can even get warmed up.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s girlfriend Tina is cruising around Uneeda with a pack of spiky-haired punks that includes a frequently nude Linea Quigley. Tina’s waiting for Freddy to get off work, but in the meantime the gang kills time at the old cemetery––the boys drink and lament, Linea Quigley strips.
Back over at Uneeda, an infected Frank and Freddy confront their boss Burt (Clu Gulager), pickaxe a zombified medical cadaver that comes alive in the storage freezer, and hacksaw the corpse into decent-sized chunks. Ernie (Don Calfa), the owner of the crematorium next door, is skeptical when the trio shows up on his doorstep with writhing Hefty bags full of “rabid weasels”, but he reluctantly agrees to let them use his furnace for disposal. The resulting ash from the crematorium mingles with the rain clouds over Uneeda Medical Supply and creates what could be the first ever case of zombie acid rain.
Return of the Living Dead is a carbon-frozen image of American life in late summer 1986, a film of a very specific time and place. Aliens discovering this film in 2011 would almost certainly dismiss our planet as too stupid to approach. It’s a movie that hasn’t aged particularly well, with some goofily over-the-top performances and inconsistent gore effects. But this is one of those rare films that has everything horror fans hold dear to the genre: blood, boobs, humor, camp, the whole package. It’s devoted fans are legion, and for good reason. Like Night of the Creeps or Fright Night, it’s pure, unadulterated entertainment, the way nature intended.