As Funny as the Grave

Blu-ray Review: THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD

Cert:15 – 91mins – 1984
Story by: Rudy Ricci, John A. Russo, Russell Streiner
Screenplay by: Dan O’Bannon
Directed by: Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Mark Venturini, Jonathan Terry, Allan Trautman

Whenever people talk of cult horror film Night of the Living Dead, one name always springs to mind: George A. Romero. As writer and director of five Living Dead sequels (to date), the Pittsburgh-born filmmaker has earned such epithets as “Auteur of the Dead”, “Godfather of all Zombies” and is credited as revolutionising the flesh-eating zombie sub-genre.

What you may not know is that the 1968 genre landmark – Romero’s first directing gig – was actually co-written with a man named John A. Russo. After Night’s success, the screenwriting duo came to loggerheads over how to continue the zombie series and parted ways, with Romero going on to realise his ever-expanding vision over the following four decades in Dawn, Day, Land, Diary and, most recently, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

While Russo’s name may have faded somewhat over the decades, he too was determined to proceed with his own follow ups to the zombie apocalypse masterpiece. 1984’s The Return of the Living Dead (which – in being released in direct competition to Romero’s Day – lead to a court battle between the former friends) is that alternative continuation of the Dead.

If you’re expecting a straight-up horror flick, then prepare to be disappointed, as Return is a very strange gore-fest/comedy hybrid which often presents itself as more of a parody of Night than a sequel. This wasn’t necessarily Russo’s initial intention, however, as the film – which first started out as a Russo-penned novel in the 70’s – went through numerous extensive revisions by a number of screenwriters before it became the beast it is now.

It was famed Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon’s “inspired” idea to infuse the grisly brain-chomping with satirical chuckles (and, oddly, full frontal nudity), so to set the film apart from Romero’s more sombre series (and he certainly succeeds in that sense!). O’Bannon set about a complete script overhaul before being offered the director’s chair.

Return opens with medical supply foreman Frank (James Karen) revealing to his new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews) that the plot of Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story, but the film’s writer was forced to change all manner of details to keep the truth under wraps. What really caused the corpses of the recently deceased to come back to life was a top secret army experiment gone wrong; the proof of which was accidentally sent to the very medical supply warehouse in which Frank and Freddy are now standing…

Frank leads Freddy down to the basement where, predictably, the rusty barrel containing the hideous rotting remains of one such zombie is “accidentally knocked over”, unleashing a toxic gas which infects the bewildered late-night employees and causes the dead to walk the earth once more. Uh-oh!

Meanwhile, a “zany” (read: dumb) group of Freddy’s foul-mouthed punk rocker friends decide to hang out in the conveniently adjacent graveyard (unsubtly called Resurrection Cemetery) where one of them (cult legend Linnea Quigley) – for reasons all her own – strips completely naked and rives around the tombstones gyrating against her curiously not-freaked-out friends. She is then content to stay fully exposed for the remainder of the film… classy!

Forgive my disparaging tone, there are touches of genius present: Frank and Freddy’s slow deterioration into the undead while blood pools in their bodies, rigor mortis sets in and paramedics remain baffled as to why they can’t hear a heartbeat is fiendishly original, while the manner in which the “virus” is spread by the smoke from an incinerated ghoul at the morgue sparking a toxic storm which then soaks into the cemetery’s soil is also unique.

Furthermore, the special effects are outstandingly twisted and impressively meticulous for a mid-budget mid-80’s production. Of particular note is the reanimated upper-body of a skeletal old woman whose severed spinal cord keeps flailing around the table and the infamous “Tarman” zombie who crawled out of the catalytic barrel and shambles about as if he is about to break in two.

However, this just isn’t the film I was expecting and it doesn’t hold a candle to even the weakest of Romero’s series. Loud, brash, crude and down-right peculiar, Return desperately wants to be laughed at, with the display butterflies and anatomy-demonstration “split dogs” in the supply warehouse also coming back to life. This kind of out-and-out wackiness may suit a post-pub audience who are looking for something stoopidly fun and brain-dead, but it just infuriated me that nothing was taken seriously while people were killed and the world went to hell.

I mean, what was the purpose of the opening title card declaring that everything on-screen really happened, when the filmmakers purposefully went for a luridly inauthentic slapstick tone? They even allude, in the opening scene, to the “writer” of Night of the Living Dead (but fail to mention him by name) when they knew there were two of them – or were they just being facetious about Russo’s often whitewashed involvement?

Further attempts to set this film apart see great – and, in my opinion, unfavourable – amendments to Night’s zombie lore… these zombies aren’t flesh-eaters, they feast on brains to overcome the pain of their death. Furthermore, they have overcome their rigor mortis and can run for their lunch, while only complete obliteration – rather than simply destroying the brain (“But it worked in the film!” Freddy cries when even beheading won’t do the trick) – will stop their inexorable pursuit for “Brains… More brains!”

Finally (and worst of all), these ghouls can talk!! This instantly diminishes the terror of the situation as it often feels like they are stepping out of character of the brain-dead, inhuman “other” – such as when the tactical zombies set up an ambush to ensnare more paramedics by radioing through the command “Send more brains!”, while the animatronic “half-corpse” is happy to hold an entire conversation with her human prey to provide a handy insight into the mind of the living dead!!

 

What also gnaws at me slightly is Russo’s repeated admissions in the interviews and documentaries present on the well-stocked 2012 “Limited Special Edition” Blu-ray that he and Romero never fell out and they are still friends despite the rivalry and legal wrangles which arose following their Night together. Yet Russo still finds extreme delight in Return’s initial box office triumph over Day of the Dead some 28 years earlier as if this somehow makes him victorious! He can deny it all he wants, but he just comes off as bitter that Romero got all the glory, without realising that the final much rewritten Return scarcely resembles his original plot in the slightest.

IN SHORT: A bewilderingly cheesy tour-de-force which is all too happy to cannibalise its own genre, The Return of the Living Dead may have its own cult of admirers, but I’m not among the throng. Russo should have stuck with his original staid plot rather than allowing other scribes to go for cheap laughs… Superb SFX, though.