“Return of the Living Dead” (1985)
“They’re back from the grave and ready to party!” I’m obviously a huge fan of George Romero’s zombie films, especially “Dawn of the Dead,” but I really grew up with Dan O’Bannon’s “Return of the Living Dead.” Loosely based on the novel of the same name by John Russo, writer of “Night of the Living Dead.” John Russo and George Romero had went their separate ways and an unique court ruling allowed each to produce their own sequels to “Night of the Living Dead.”
Since George Romero beat John Russo to the punch with “Dawn of the Dead,” director Dan O’Bannon, who had written “Alien” and was now replacing Tobe Hooper on this movie, wisely took a satirically approach to the material. These zombies were fast and could even vocalize. It did not matter if you destroyed their brains. In fact, they feed solely on human brains… Brains! Brains!
Frank (James Karen) is mentoring naïve Freddy (Thom Matthews) in a medical supply warehouse, run by Burt (Clu Gulager). Frank enjoys frightening Freddie and explains to him that “Night of the Living Dead” is based on true events. While showing off, Frank accidentally unleashes 245 Trioxin, a chemical which can reanimate corpses. They are also knocked unconscious by breathing in the Trioxin. After they awaken, they call Burt for assistance in dealing with the zombie they have cold storage. They assume that the rules of George Romero movies will apply, but destroying the brain does nothing to this zombie. The entire carcass must be obliterated, so they go across the road to a mortuary and ask Ernie (Don Calfa), the mortician, if they can use his crematorium. Though this is never mentioned in the film, over the years it has been deduced that Ernie is a Nazi in hiding. An odd creative choice for a comedy.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s demure girlfriend Tina (Beverley Randolph) and their punk rocker pals, Spider (Miguel Nunez), Trash (Linnea Quigley), Suicide (Mark Venturini), Chuck (John Philbin), Casey (Jewel Shepard), and Scuz (Brian Peck) are all hanging out at the nearby cemetery. Trash stripteases on top of a crypt as they pass the time. Tina is in no way impressed by Trash’s performance and goes by herself to the warehouse to see if it is the end of Freddy’s shift yet. There, she encounters a real slimy zombie known as the Tarman (Allan Trautman).
Ernie disposes of the zombie in the crematorium. Then, smoke from the chimney above causes acid rain, spreading Trioxin all over the cemetery. The punks seek haven from the rain and run to the warehouse. Tarman kills Suicide and they retreat to the cemetery, where dozens of zombies are waiting for them. Trash gets engulfed by zombies, which is ironically how she fantasized about dying, while the others split up. Chuck and Casey hold up in the warehouse. Spider, Tina, and Scuz go to the mortuary.
Freddy and Frank are showing signs of infection. Paramedics have been called and it is revealed that Freddy and Frank are already dead even though they are conscious. These paramedics are killed by the zombies outside, then Burt, Ernie, Spider, and Scuz secure the mortuary. Tina is hysterically because of Freddy’s condition. Scuz is the next to bite the dust. Ernie ties the decayed female zombie, which killed Scuz and has had its lower body severed, to an examining table. The zombie explains that eating brains relieves the anguish of being dead. An eerie scene. Suicide and Scuz remain dead, but Trash comes back as zombie and eats the brain of a hobo.
Freddy and Frank finally become full fledged zombies. Freddy is intent on eating Tina’s brain, but Ernie throws acid in his face, dissolving his eyes. There is still humanity left in Frank. He removes his wedding ring before committing suicide in the crematorium. Burt and Spider escape in a squad car, forced to leave Ernie and Tina behind because of the sheer number of zombies, and go back to the warehouse, where they find Chuck and Casey. Burt decapitates Tarman with a baseball bat and calls the police, who are being overrun by zombies, including Trash. Burt then calls the military on an emergency line. The number was on the side of the tank that stored Tarman. Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry) is in charge of keeping the existence of Trioxin under wraps and will succeed by any means necessary.
The military responds by dropping a bomb on the city. Freddy had just busted into the attic where Ernie and Tina were hiding when the devastation begins and every character is wiped out. All the military accomplished was to cause more acid rain and spread the Trioxin. Likely, this grim ending was not meant as setup to a sequel, but rather an ironic conclusion to this punk rock / horror / comedy. “Return of the Living Dead” was more successful than George Romero’s “Day of the Dead,” so Dan O’Bannon had bested the father of modern zombies at his own game in 1985.
Clu Gulager co-starred in “A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge” that same year. Thom Matthews starred in “Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives” and both he and James Karen returned for “Return of the Living Dead, Part II,” playing different characters. The sequel was released in 1988 and was not nearly as clever as the original. The humor was more on the nose this time. There was even a Michael Jackson look-a-like zombie featured during the climax. “Return of the Living Dead, Part 3,” which was released in 1993, is a zombie romance. Melinda Clarke starred as a young woman killed in a motorcycle accident and brought back to life by her boyfriend with the Trioxin, but now she feeds on human flesh. Two straight to basic cable sequels premiered in 2005 and starred Peter Coyote, but I’ve never watched them as each sequel became less and less comparable to Dan O’Bannon’s original.
Rest in Peace, Dan O’Bannon 1946 – 2009