The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
It is Freddy's (Thom Mathews, Friday the 13th 6: Jason Lives) first day on the job at the Uneeda medical supply warehouse in Louisville Kentucky. While down in the underground room with Uncle Frank (James Karen, Muholland Drive), they unintentionally set free a nerve gas from these military canisters accidentally shipped to the warehouse years ago. Little do they know that this gas called The 2-4-5 Trioxin has the influence to revive the dead, turning them into swift running, brain famished ghouls. To the benefit of the deadly gas, next door to the supply warehouse is a cemetery. And within the graveyard is a partying group of punk rockers and preps, along with Freddy's non-cursing, goody two-shoes girlfriend Tina. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cemetery, it's time for brains, punk rock, split dogs and gratuitous nakedness; it's time for the Return of the Living Dead!
The king of all 80s zombie horror romps has been loyally restored to a fine-looking DVD format, thanks to MGM. Return of the Living Dead is generally a take-off off of Romero's classic Dead movies, but it truthfully has some appealing rudiments of it's own. First off, there is no call for even trying to shoot these animated creeps in the head; they will just keep on coming. Secondly, unless you are an all-star track runner, you better get a fast car to get away from these zombies; since they sprint and tackle their victims in large groups, which makes a getaway very difficult. Most of all, and for the advantage of humans, you only have to look out for your brain in this series. They most likely won't bite into limbs or your chest. They only need brains to eradicate the pain of being deceased.
For an extra low budget film, Return of the Living Dead was directed incredibly well. A lot of the close-up shots dealing with communication between the characters were filmed with a short lens camera, to give the scenes a flat look. These types of settings are generally still shots, meaning the camera doesn't move around or up close to the stars. A lot of the shots were prepared in just one camera view, which provides for the film a wonderfully restricted look. It's a strange sense of claustrophobia, which captures a pleasant charm for the viewer's eyes. For chase scenes, more wide ranged camera views are shown, almost convulsive, as if you are running right behind the disaster-prone characters. The setting is supposed to take place all on the same block, however it wasn't possible in reality. Some of the scenes just right outside the door of the mortuary were filmed twenty miles away. It almost looks authentic, bearing in mind, when you are peeping out the door of the mortuary it is actually through a door being held up by crew members.
Some of the most legitimate camp acting is offered on screen in Return of the Living Dead. Clu Gulager (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) is a pure mastermind in his role as Burt Wilson, the store manager of Uneeda medical supply. He got hired for this part the first day of shooting, and after being put into the clothes and makeup he basically distorted himself into this character. Not that he's a jerk, but he wants this nerve gas epidemic fully under wraps; and he is prepared to pursue this at all costs. The jobs done by Thom Mathews and James Karen are fantastic. Frank and Freddy are without doubt the most dramatic personalities in the film. The two of them are very comical together, but particularly miserable at the same time. Be sure to get a good look at what is written on the back of Thom Mathews' sports jacket; it's very amusing and punk rock at the same time.
Don't forget Don Calfa (Necronomicon: Book of the Dead) as Ernie Kaltenbrunner, who happens to be the embalmer for the cemetery located next door to the warehouse. He's almost unrecognizable in this role, mainly due to his hair color being completely bleached out for the role. Director Dan O'Bannon (screenwriter of Alien) wanted the character to have a pasty, pale look, due to being overworked; and it came out nicely. Scream Queen Linnea Quigley (Pumpkinhead 2: Blood Wings) plays Trash, a sexy punk rocker obsessed with being consumed by a gang of unclean, elderly men. This role hits well for a male audience. Dan O'Bannon states on the commentary if he knew how many women were going to flock out and see this film, he would have left out her scene from the cemetery sequence; or he would have at least put in a few scenes for women too. Her acting is appalling, but it always was.
Return of the Living Dead is nowhere near a gory film to the likes of other films it borrows from. The main makeup FX are done by William Munns and Kenny Myers (Return of the Living Dead 2, Friday the 13th Part 3). Unfortunately, you don't get enough close-up scenes of the zombies that have emerged from the grave. A couple of the open headshots with brains seeping out are exceptionally wicked, though. The big reason this is so ghastly is because authentic cow brains were used, and the actors had to eat them in actuality. It makes the brain eating scenes as valid as they could possibly look back when this movie was made. The best elements in terms of FX are the split dogs, Tarman zombie (who received the name due to his extra oily look), a scene of acid being thrown into the eyes of a zombie and the half-corpse zombie (FX done by Tony Gardner, Stir of Echoes, Army of Darkness); who actually gives off all of the factoids on why the dead eat brains.
There is no doubt that this movie accumulated a somewhat large cult following over the years; and that it deserves. It was the ideal zombie comedy for its time. Sure, when observed now it is easy to pick out all of the mistakes it has; but it still manages to be a lot of fun. Return of the Living Dead has generated two fairly successful and commendable sequels with a fourth one on the way; as well as rumors of a television series. The best thing now is that the original is no longer hard to obtain, and it's rather low-priced. The MGM DVD edition is presented in wide screen or full screen aspects, and they really cleaned this flick up. Thom Mathews' hideous rat-tail is easy to see now, plus additional things that were excessively shady on the video transfer. The sound has been enhanced too. For special features there is a commentary with Director/Writer Dan O'Bannon, production designer William Stout, a "Designing the Dead" featurette, conceptual art work by William Stout, TV spots plus a G-rated and R-Rated theatrical trailer. The commentary gives off a lot of good tidbits, such as the dissatisfactions from the director, as well as the things he liked. Check it out.