Friday, April 14, 2006

Return of the Living Dead

“They're back from the grave and ready to party.”

Since Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis arrives on DVD next week, now seems like a good time take a look back at the movie that started the franchise.

After the completion of Night of the Living Dead, director George A. Romero and screenwriter John Russo both came away from the project with sequel rights. Romero of course went on to make Dawn of the Dead (hailed by many as one of the greatest horror films of all time) and Day of the Dead (a flawed effort, but still worth a peek).

Russo made his sequel initially in the form of a novel called Return of the Living Dead. Russo wrote several B grade horror novels of widely varying quality throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Eventually the film rights ended up in the hands of writer/director Dan O’Bannon. Feeling Russo’s script was too similar to what Romero had done with Dawn of the Dead, O’Bannon wrote his own script, which took a more light-hearted approach to flesh-eating dead folks. Interestingly, story credit is still given to Russo, Russell Streiner (best known as Johnny from Night of the Living Dead), and Rudy Ricci (another Romero mainstay who, among other things, played a biker in Dawn of the Dead). I can’t say what Russo and company’s screenplay may have been like, but the final film bears no resemblance whatsoever to Russo’s snore-fest of a novel.

The film opens at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse. Frank (James Karen) is showing new employee Freddie (Thom Matthews) the ropes. During the tour of the facility Frank reveals that Night of the Living Dead was loosely based on true events. It seems the army created a nerve gas that, as an added bonus, could revive the dead. Due to an army snafu, several canisters of once reactivated dead folks packed in their own tangy reanimating juices were delivered to the warehouse and have been collecting dust in the basement.

One of the canisters ruptures, giving Frank and Freddie a face full of reanimation gas and allowing the chemical to escape into the ventilation system, reviving a corpse in the warehouse freezer. Burt the warehouse owner (Gulager) arrives and decides the best way to dispose of the walking dead guy is to drive a pickaxe through his head. Good try, but we quickly learn these aren’t your father’s walking dead. Destroying the brain doesn’t work like it did in Night of the Living Dead (“You mean the movie lied?” asks an anguished Freddie).

Burt decides to hack up the zombie, cart it to the crematorium conveniently located across the street, and no one will be the wiser. Again, good try, but the smoke from the burning zombie seeds the clouds overhead with the reanimation chemical. A convenient rainstorm spreads the chemical over an equally convenient cemetery, where conveniently enough Freddie’s punk friends are waiting for him to get off work.

All this proves to be pretty damn inconvenient for the living members of the cast. Soon dead folks are clawing their way out of the ground and they’re pretty damn hungry. Unlike the undiscriminating zombies of Romero’s films who would gorge themselves on any old hunk of warm flesh, these guys are after brains and brains alone. After all, these are the kinder gentler walking dead of the Reagan Era.

Horror and comedy make for a difficult mix. Usually they go together as well as ice cream and mayonnaise, the humor diluting the horror and vice versa. Return of the Living Dead is a fun little bit of fluff, but at no point does the film work perfectly. While some of the main zombies like Tarman, the half-zombie, and Linnea Quigley’s nude zombie are eye-catchers, most of the background zombies are unimpressive, often looking like no more than people covered in mud. The first zombie who comes out of the ground, in what should be one of the pivotal moments of the film, is laughably cheap looking.

The pluses ultimately outweigh the minuses, however. The aforementioned Tarman is a creepy, gooey example of pre-digital effects. The story moves at a good clip, thanks to a strong cast, particularly James Karen and Clu Gulager. The eighties punk soundtrack is excellent and available on CD. The gang of punk kids is cartoonishly entertaining, and Linnea Quigley is naked throughout much of the movie. It could be worse, friends. It could be much worse.

1 comment:

Diego said...

Thanks for post this review about this amazing movie!!;)
The history by John Russo,Rudy Ricci and Russell Streiner is amaze ever!!

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