The Return of the Living Dead (1985) is an anarchistic horror-comedy, one that is both a continuation & a transformation of the zombie sub-genre. The religious overtones of the European zombie & the social commentary of the American zombie have been done away with in favour of an apocalypse, which is just a dumb warehouse clerk away. It is aware of its place as a sequel (of sorts), acknowledging the significance of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), while displacing it as ‘only a movie’ with little to teach the protagonists as they fight the zombie hordes. After all, that film was only ‘inspired by true events’ whereas Return is supposedly the real deal; the adopted brother comes home to make good.
The zombies of Return have not only crawled out from the grave, but out of the repressed nightmares of a generation raised on E.C. Comics & the paranoid sci-fi of the 1950s. The government response to the ‘real’ 1968 outbreak is to seal the corpses in barrels & hide them around America. Of course, the paperwork isn’t always done correctly, so some of the barrels end up at Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse. After an accidental opening, with deadly Trioxin gas spraying everywhere, we find out that the rules of Night don’t apply here. All bets are off. The use of a classic punk soundtrack & the inclusion of punk characters is no mere attempt at attracting a sub-culture. It demonstrates the savage nihilism of punk culture, which is fully embraced by writer/director Dan O’Bannon. This is an all out fun ride into hell. Return of the Living Dead is the cinematic equivalent of a deranged punk concert, which should of course end with the roof being pulled down on our heads.
It is easy to forget that zombies didn’t always crave human flesh, let alone the ‘BRAAAAINS’ of paramedics. The flesh-eating zombie is a fascinating and particularly modern creation, one that has continued to develop in multiple directions in a brief period of time. Once upon a time the zombie genre was like a country town, a place where everybody knew everyone else & tracing lineage was as easy as pie. The modern, flesh-eating zombie made its cinematic debut in Night of the Living Dead, a shockingly violent film for a generation raised on giant ants. It embraced the subversive possibilities of horror as social commentary, raising spectral images of Vietnam & prefiguring the horrors of the Kent State shootings. Inspired by the vampiric creatures of Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend, to a greater degree than the bug-eyed victims of voodoo as seen in White Zombie (1932) & I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Romero’s living dead, referred to as ghouls in the film, are roused by radioactive fallout from a crashed space probe. Later films in Romero’s series would move away from a direct explanation, simply suggesting that ‘when there is no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth’. Since then there have been viruses, religious conspiracies, & most importantly, to The Return of the Living Dead, simple scientific/military incompetence.
Night of the Living Dead would itself inspire sequels, imitations/thematic continuations, remakes, re-edits (including colourisation, a dodgy 30th anniversary re-edit by John Russo, a Romero-approved remake by special effects artist Tom Savini, & a 3D knock-off), all thanks to its public domain legal status. The European success of Romero’s first sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), produced & re-edited for its continental release by Dario Argento & re-titled Zombi, led to an explosion of European gore-fests through the early 1980s. The genre quickly turns from Dawn’s biting satirising of consumerism to embrace the Grand Guignol horrors of decay & dismemberment. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), originally titled Zombi 2, in order to cash-in, embraces a semi-surrealist tone in which graphic nightmare images overpower narrative & meaning. If you want to see a zombie fight a real shark, this is the place to go. It was a golden age of gore & mind-numbing images, with zombie fans clamouring for the few films available on censored VHS copies. Now, with Bill Murray appearing in a zombie film, well, you know things have changed. It has become a sprawling genre, dominated by no-budget, straight-to-DVD features & occasional mainstream forays. However, before all this, when it was still a strange little hybrid-genre, there was The Return of the Living Dead.
While praise is heaped upon George Romero for his ground breaking work on Night of the Living Dead, it is often forgotten that he had a co-writer on Night: John A. Russo. In the 1970s, Romero & Russo were involved in a court case in which Romero agreed to a ‘quit claim’ in which Romero retained the rights to the word ‘Dead’ while Russo retained the rights to use ‘Living Dead’, & all connection between the two would thenceforth be severed. The rights to ‘Living Dead’ were then purchased by producer Tom Fox, who first attached Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) to direct, only for him to drop out when rewrites delayed proceedings. This gave screenwriter Dan O’Bannon the opportunity to step in & make his directorial debut. O’Bannon had made a name for himself writing such classics as John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) & later Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990). However, while Alien had the greater cultural impact, many genre fans consider The Return of the Living Dead to be his greatest achievement.
The Return of the Living Dead screens first in a double bill at the Astor Theatre this coming Monday 30th May, 7.30pm. Following a twenty minute interval will be Night of the Comet (1984).
Written by Ben Buckingham, a regular contributor to our E-news.
Ben is also taking his sweet time completing a degree at Melbourne University while lurking and working around the cinema going haunts of Melbourne. He is addicted to Italian cannibal cinema and enjoys traumatising friends and loved ones with atrocious cinema.
 Followed by Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), Survival of the Dead (2009)