Friday, March 13

A Classic in Retro: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)


Directed by Dan O'Bannon
91 Minutes / HBO/CANNON Video (under Weintraub Distribution) / Unmatted Full Frame

1985 was an outstanding year for fringe Horror. Captain Rhodes had an aneurysm over Frankenstein. Dr. West taught the dead a little decapitated cunnilingus. A reluctant Horror icon discovered his footing as a vampire killer. Demons took to razor nipple teasing while enjoying blood with their popcorn. Fulci seemed in the middle of a old man's breast ogling dream while Argento was playing with chimps and bugs.

Yet the titans of the era were off-note. Freddy had a panache for throwing down on Weber grills while fans pondered just what was so queer about Jesse. Jason was probably chillin' in the Hamptons while an impostor was playing forest hockey with teen blood. Worst off, Halloween fans were still in sequel limbo trying to figure what the fuck child-mutilating pumpkin masks had to do with The Shape.

But then there's The Return of the Living Dead. Dan O'Bannon's wunderkind of comedic zombie horror that launched countless virginal yet gore-soaked sails into genre fandom. It's a film that strived through years of soft obscurity and coveted ex-rentals to drive the midway point of the Reagan era to be something of a quiet watershed moment for the horror genre.

Arguably, ROLD has two huge attributes that propel it to the ranks of the finest undead flicks-- first, the cast. Everyone is, without question, spot on. It's one loud ass flick, especially once Hell's earthen wear starts to clang. Everyone's screaming, cursing decisions, slapping each other, dying--and it all holds the viewer in a spell like a lapdog. Aiding the realism is the fast and loose fashion the scenes are played with actors bolting around, accidentally tripping over their own feet, and treating props with wanton abandon. O'Bannon and company were wise in their creative orgy to hang their confidence on the actor's shoulders. One imagines this respect was commanded and expanded to all by the film's three anchors, Clu Gulager, James Karen, and Don Calfa. Also Linnea Quigley never looked better on-screen than she does here. I love her to death, but it seems everywhere else she looked like a fan of the China white.

This barreling train of frustration and pensive realism lends itself well to the comedy. The second aspect that keeps it in good company with Romero and the like. For the most part, no farcical slapstick can be mined; situational laughs rule the day. Just like the tone set by the cast, the comedy is presented in a way not to fart in the face of the viewer in contempt of their intelligence. The screenplay understood that if the audience bought into the characters; the comedy would flow naturally. Though strangely, the source of the terror provides the most belly yucks; from the midget zombie, the naked yellow medical corpse, and the demands to "send more cops."

The zombies. I always chuckle when I hear die-hards spouting off about sprinting fleshrots or what ascribed level of intelligent they should be held to. I prefer shamblers, but it's amazing how we forget just how many of the then strict "Romero-rules" are shattered here. Verbal communication, the use of tools, running, remembrance of the past life, and trickery upon the living are all employed. Of course, this is just a contemporary horror comedy at heart, but it's even funnier after the bitchfest over the running in Dawn '04 or Romero's brainy dead in Land.

This film holds a special place with me; being amongst my earliest of horror memories. Remember when local network affiliates had the balls to actually air horror? Yep, me too, and this is how ROLD entered my life. The film was rare as hell (even at the video stores) at the time; however, my local FOX network repeatedly threw it on the boob tube during their weekend afternoon creature feature double feature presentations. It had to be a favorite of whoever ran the board since I can't recall any other regular (Shock Waves, Waxwork, Squirm) getting nearly as much play. Eventually I bought a bootleg VHS and after much outcry from the fanbase--finally a DVD surfaced...and then resurfaced. The film honestly gets better with each viewing, but I do hate the numerous and senseless audio changes O'Bannon made to the DVD. This tape represents the original audio and soundtrack mix in all its Hi-fi glory.

Film: 9/10
VHS Picture: 7/10
VHS Sound: 7/10

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