Directed by: Dan O’Bannon
Written by: Rudy Ricci and John Russo
Starring: Clu Gulager, Don Calfa
Man, that shouldn’t crack me up as much as it does. 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead has the zombies telling us exactly what they need.
There is no doubt The Return of the Living Dead was always meant to be classified in the ‘So bad, it’s good’ genre of horror films. It will never be selected for preservation in the Library of Congress like its predecessor, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead; the plot is wafer-thin, the acting is atrocious, the animatronics is comedic and most of the zombies are just dudes whose faces have been plastered with mud.
The sum of the parts is greater than the whole, I guess – the end result has entertained millions of viewers over the last 32 years and remains popular today.
The movie starts at a Louisville, Kentucky medical supply warehouse where Freddy (Thom Matthews) is on his first day, being shown the ropes by manager Frank (James Karen). Among the stores are human and animal cadavers and skeletons.
Frank tells Freddy that the events in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead were based on real events, and that he has proof. They make their way down to the basement where Frank shows him a sealed military barrel with a transparent top within which sits an inanimate zombie. They accidentally release the gas from the barrel and are knocked out cold.
They wake feeling ill to find the barrel empty and assume that the zombie must have liquefied upon contact with the air. When they go upstairs, though, a cadaver from their freezer attacks them. After trapping it in a room, the pair calls the warehouse owner, Bert (Clu Gulager).
The three men manage to behead the corpse and dismember it before taking the body parts to the mortuary next door run by Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa).
Meanwhile, Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), has made her way to the area with her friends. They decide to while the time away in a nearby cemetery until Freddy gets off work. Tina goes to the warehouse, unaware that Freddy is in the mortuary in the opposite building.
In the mortuary, Bert convinces Ernie (Bert and Ernie – this movie kills me!) to cremate the dismembered cadaver. The smoke from the cremation contaminates the clouds and the resulting acid rain drenches Tina’s friends. They decide to go to the warehouse, too.
They arrive just in time to save her from being attacked by the barrel zombie (Tar Man) but lose one of their own. Locking it in the basement, they run outside, only to be attacked by the undead horde which has risen after the contaminated rainwater seeped into their graves.
In the mortuary, Frank and Freddy are deathly pale and feeling very unwell. Ernie calls the ambulance. The two paramedics who arrive inform them that they have no pulse or blood pressure and that their body temperature equals the room temperature – essentially, they are dead but with functioning brains.
Outside, Tina and her friends get split up – she and two others run to the mortuary while another two end up back in the warehouse. The paramedics go to their vehicle and are set upon. The same fate befalls police officers arriving at the scene. The zombies actually radio in, asking for more responders.
Reunited with Freddy and appalled at his condition, Tina tends to him and Frank while the others fight off the zombies trying to break into the mortuary. The group wants to isolate Freddy and Frank before they ‘turn’ but Tina decides to stay with them.
Frank knows what’s in store and chooses to cremate himself. Freddy turns and tries to attack Tina who then hides in the attic with Ernie. Outside, the zombie plague has breached police lines and is spreading.
Bert manages to get back to the warehouse using the squad car and calls the number on the side of the barrel which held Tar Man. He is patched through to an Army colonel who, unbeknownst to Bert, activates a protocol that sends a small-yield artillery nuke straight into the center of the scene. The officer reports to his seniors that the situation has been dealt with and that the only side-effect is a little acid rain…
The Return of the Living Dead abandoned most of the ’zombie rules’ laid down in Night of the Living Dead. These zombies go straight for the ol’ grey matter instead of chomping on flesh. Not only can they outrun you, they can foresee, plan and use technology as well as machinery in their quest for more braaaiiiins.
John Russo who co-wrote the original also wrote the novel on which this movie is based. He stuck with the black-guy-surviving-till-the-end-before-being-killed-anyway like in his earlier collaboration with George A. Romero.
His script also features the cliché ‘slutty girl dies first’ angle. It had been so long since I last watched this movie that I forgot that Linnea Quigley’s character, Trash, actually spends about 80% of her screen time gallivanting about with no pants on.
That’s just a heads up in case you thought Comedy Horror = Family Comedy Night like me. I can’t look my mom in the eye anymore.