|Return of the Living Dead, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 27 August 2002|
After "Night of the Living Dead," director George Romero and producer John Russo ended their partnership. Romero had the right to make movies about the walking dead, but couldn't use the term "living dead" in the title. Russo, too, could make movies about the walking dead, but could use the phrase. He wrote a script that was a direct sequel to "Night of the Living Dead," but couldn't get financing. It went through several hands, finally getting a page-one rewrite by Dan O'Bannon, still hot from "Alien." O'Bannon had wanted to turn director, and this sequel-but-not-really was his best opportunity.
And he ran with it. From the outset, as writer-director, he makes it abundantly clear that this is not to be taken all that seriously. The first half is a ferociously inventive, grisly comedy; if it had held up all the way to the end, it would be a genre classic. But it becomes more serious as it goes along, and has an ending the equivalent of "and they all got run over by a truck." O'Bannon's script paints himself into such a corner that there's no way out other than a kind of nihilistic stoppage rather than a real ending. But getting to that point is a lot of fun. If you have a taste for very black comedy with occasional bursts of gore, change the rating above to four stars.
A stern title card reads "The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names a real names of real people and real organizations." Frank (James Karen, who's wonderful) works at a medical-equipment company, with skeletons here, "split dogs" there (real dog carcasses split and mounted on glass), braces, prosthetic limbs, etc. Boss Burt (Clu Gulager) has gone home, and Frank is explaining the ins and outs of medical supply company work to eager-beaver newcomer Freddy (Thom Mathews). Frank asks Freddy "Did you see that movie, 'Night of the Living Dead'?" He explains how what happened was true, but that Romero changed everything around to keep out of trouble with the authorities. The unkillable walking dead got lost in transit, however; in fact, there are some of them in the basement.
But no sooner has Frank shown Freddy the rusty containers of living corpses than there's a terrible accident, and the corpse-reviving gas invades the local atmosphere. A couple of corpses, including the spectacularly well-done "tar man" (Allan Trautman) and some split dogs, come back to life and immediately attack Frank and Freddy. They manage to pen them up, and phone Burt for help. His best thought is to take them to the nearby mortuary, which has a cemetery attached, and get undertaker Ernie (Don Calfa) to help them dispose of one of the corpses. (At first, Burt tells Ernie that the squirming bundles he wants to put in the crematorium are "rabid weasels.") But in an ingenious plot twist, all this does is revive all those corpses out there in the cemetery -- and they come back to life hungry for human brains.
Things become more complicated when a carload of punks, buddies of Freddy, arrive. They party in the cemetery, where Linnea Quigley gets lusciously naked, and stays that way. The actors were encouraged to step on each others' lines, with the result that these scenes are lively and fresh, even today.
This bunch of walking corpses is different from the usual; generally, they shamble along slowly like zombies, never speaking. Their reflexes are slow -- they're dead, after all -- and you really can outrun them. But in "The Return of the Living Dead," the reanimated corpses are very lively and quick, and can talk if they have enough left above the neck to do so. ("Send more paramedics.")
Even at 91 minutes, long for this sort of thing, "The Return of the Living Dead" maintains a fast, even pace; if anything, it's somewhat overplotted in the first 2/3rds. I don't think much was gained by having Freddy and Frank turn into the walking dead themselves. Also, O'Bannon makes the walking dead so threatening and unstoppable that he eliminates all hope for his characters: there simply is no way out of the situation. A writer needs to allow the possibility of hope, not to remove it.
The print is crisp and clean; the sound is mono, but well-recorded and, to a certain extent, remixed for this DVD release. A lot of lines were improvised, including during post-production looping.
There are two versions of the film on the disc, the pan-and-scan version and one that's letterboxed, the preferable way to view the film. There's a recently-made documentary with O'Bannon and production designer William Stout that's very interesting and informative. Also, the two do a commentary track on the feature; O'Bannon may say "here we/they go" a few times too often, but the interaction between him and Stout is lively and yields lots of interesting information. The bonus material also includes a PG-rated trailer and one that was rated R; they're quite different from one another.
The cast is enthusiastic and lively. James Karen, a generally underused actor, is really a standout as friendly Frank, delivering his lines with a kind of naive relish that's infectious. Clu Gulager matches the straight-faced, dry approach of the humor with a straight-faced, carefully controlled performance, as does Don Calfa. All of the punk kids are good.
This was really the first all-out horror comedy in years; previously, there had been some comedies with horror touches, and some horror movies with comic elements, but "The Return of the Living Dead" scrambles together the horror and the comedy in rewarding ways. It must have done quite well at the boxoffice, since it generated two sequels of its own. ("Return of the Living Dead 3" is worth seeing; "Return of the Living Dead 2" is not. The writers and director managed to do everything O'Bannon does here, and to do it all wrong.)
There have been many of these deconstructionist horror comedies since 1984, but very few other than the "Scream" trio have shown the authority and affection for the material that O'Bannon does here. He likes his characters, he likes the zombies, and yet refuses to take either any more seriously than he has to. He stumbles toward the end, but until then, "The Return of the Living Dead" is a lot of gruesome fun.