The Return of the Living Dead

So, personal story time, DQ readers: I’m simultaneously fascinated by and terrified of death. Not of the physical act of dying in itself (although that also disturbs and intrigues me), but of the idea that once I’m dead, that’s it, my consciousness – everything that makes up who I am – will be gone. I’m actually a bit jealous of more spiritual people: they know what will happen to them in the afterlife, while I only have this vague hope my loved ones and I will continue to exist in some way that’s still discernible as us (not just in a vague “Oh, you’ll still exist, only without any sense of self”, for example).

This isn’t just me being candid. This fear of mine is partly why The Return of the Living Dead is one of my favourite movies, even as it’s also one of the few that has genuinely scared or disturbed me even as an adult. (Or perhaps it’s the other way around – maybe my fear can be traced to having watched this movie as a child? I remember taking a long time to fall asleep that night.) So, this being October, let me see if I can’t spread some of that around, eh?

Let’s start with some background info. First, there was Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 horror movie by George Romero. You probably know this, but this was the defining movie for the genre of zombie movies. Before this film, zombies were “proper” zombies, as in, people enslaved by voodoo; this was the first movie where zombies were portrayed as flesh-eating, reanimated corpses (even though, funnily enough, the word “zombie” is never actually used in it). It was written by both Romero and John Russo, who later wrote a novel called The Return of the Living Dead (set in a different continuity from Romero’s own “___ of the Dead” movies), and that novel, in turn, was adapted into the script for this 1985 movie by its director, Dan O’Bannon (although Wikipedia – always a credible source of information! – tells me the movie is quite different from the novel).

Now, I wanted to try a different approach for this article and to give a more in-depth review of the movie similar to Agony Booth’s text recaps. Let me know if it was ok, alright?

So, the movie opens with a disclaimer that the names and events portrayed in it are all true. Now, usually, I’d just roll my eyes at any horror film seriously trying to pass itself off as a “real story”, but the great thing about this one is that it isn’t seriously trying that (especially if you already know how it ends) – I mean, its name is The Return of the Living Dead, that pretty much kills any chance of anyone believing this is based on any kind of real event (…I hope).

At the same time, though, you won’t see any “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” signs of this movie being a parody anywhere. The premise is played completely straight, only it falls a bit short of being taken to the point of absurdity (like in most of Mel Brooks’ movies, for example). Sometimes there is tonal dissonance, in which you jump from unsettling horror straight to black comedy, but it’s deliberate on the part of the filmmakers and it never turns into a tonal clash – the comedy and the horror work together, not against each other. Admittedly, this isn’t to everyone’s tastes, especially considering how “Night” was straight horror.

Anyway, the movie starts at the Uneeda Medical Supplies warehouse at 5:30 PM on the eve of the Fourth of July. We have Burt, the company’s owner, talking with Frank, an older employee, and Freddy, the new kid. Burt leaves, fully expecting to just enjoy the weekend, and Frank starts showing Freddy how to do the job. Aside from some clumsy expository dialogue (I mean, Frank is telling his boss he still has an hour of work left and that he’ll be teaching the new guy; unless Burt is a really hands-off manager, he should know all of that already), these initial scenes are good: the three characters seem likeable enough (Frank has a habit of joking and telling wild stories, but he never really goes overboard with it), their dialogue sounds natural (aside from the aforementioned exposition), and we have the first taste of the movie’s brand of creepiness when Frank shows Freddy the supplies, which include skeletons, split dogs and a fresh corpse.

See, those might not seem like much (especially since, to be frank, the human skeletons are obviously plastic), but Frank keeps making these dark humour jokes (where do they get all those skeletons with perfect teeth? Skeleton farms in India! And they usually don’t have many cadavers stored there – they need to keep their inventory fresh) which should tickle our brains into some thinking. After all, where DO they get all those skeletons they have there (in the “Adults” section, implying there’s an “Infants” one) from? .And really, oral hygiene is a lot better in the modern age, of course, but how many elderly people are buried with a perfect set of teeth, especially back in 1985? So, were all those skeletons with perfect teeth people who died young for some reason or another? I’d argue this isn’t just a throwaway scene, but already the movie trying to make the viewer uncomfortable (particularly with the close-up and the camera panning over the corpse on the hanger).

Now, you might argue I’m reading too much into it because of my own feelings regarding the subject. Fair enough. But while I do have this hang-up about death, being uncomfortable in the presence of corpses is definitely not unusual. Some people wonder about the dead person (who were they before? Were they satisfied with their life before it ended?), others morbidly wonder about what the corpse itself represents (is that how all life must end, as an empty shell?), and there’s always the good, old gross factor (rotting meat, rotting meat!); some might even not see it as a big deal, for whatever reason. But I think few people would have no reaction at all to seeing death or the dead.

(By the way, one of this movie’s strong points is that the zombies really do look like reanimated corpses, except for the more fantastic ones, like the Tarman – and even those are actually few, unlike with the sequels. This helps make this movie into actual horror, instead of just a monster movie.)

Moving on, we cut to a collection of 80’s horror movie teenagers clichés! There’s the good girl who says “Fudge!” instead of “Fuck!” (Tina, Freddy’s girlfriend), the punk girl in skimpy clothing (Trash – no, seriously), the black hooligan (Spider), the punk guy who’s so punk he’s got a mohawk (Scuz), the bad girl (Casey), and the dweeb desperately trying to be cool (Chuck). They want to party!!!, but they don’t know where to go, so they decide to go with Tina to pick Freddy up, since he always knows where there’s a party (which is interesting, because both him and Tina seem quite dorky – for Hollywood, that is -, and yet, they apparently party just as hard as the others). Oh, and later they’ll be joined by the goth-punk Suicide, who looks like a violent thug but actually has a sensitive soul (even though he’s still a violent thug).

Let me go on a tangent here: this movie’s treatment of female characters is bad as usual, unfortunately. Not only is it’s exploitative as typical for an 80’s movie (the one girl visually coded as “slutty”, Trash, turns herself on by talking about death, takes off her clothes and dances naked in the graveyard – and apparently, she has a habit of doing stuff like that. “Let’s get some light over here, Trash is taking her clothes off again!”), but the only people who do anything in this movie, for bad or good, are men: Trash is the second one to be killed and later rises again as a zombie (still naked, of course), Casey gets separated from the others with Chuck and spends most of the movie offscreen, and Tina’s only role is crying while nurturing Freddy and needing to be rescued.

Oh, and there’s a decayed female zombie which is little more than a mummy, but of course her breasts remain full and perky. And yeah, I get that it’s supposed to be disturbing, but… Really? In a movie filled with the walking dead, did the makers really need to put breasts on a freaking zombie to disturb the audience?!

There is one good moment, though: Chuck is a creep who keeps making obnoxious passes at Casey, but when they have to run away from the zombies, they find a place to hide, and Chuck asks her if she thinks they’ll be rescued, and she can’t even answer, she just says she never liked him, but then begs him to hold her. There isn’t anything even remotely romantic about this scene, it’s just a very human moment between two terrified people who desperately need to believe things are going to turn out ok.

Anyway, back to Uneeda. Freddy asks Frank what’s the weirdest thing he’s ever seen working there, and Frank is all too eager to tell him. To sum it up: in this universe, Night of the Living Dead was based on something which really happened, but most of the details were changed due to pressure from the military. The cause for the zombies rising (which was left unclear in the original movie, except for a hypothesis of it being radiation from outer space) had actually been a chemical spill of Trioxin, and after the army controlled the situation, it shipped all those “dead” bodies and the contaminated dirt inside tanks and hid them… Only, a shipment was sent there by mistake (“Typical army fuck-up”, says Frank). Frank shows one of the tanks to Freddy, who suddenly grows very nervous that it might leak, but Frank assures him it won’t (“Hell, no! This thing was made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this thing doesn’t leak!”) and even hits it to prove his point – and it immediately starts leaking gas. Frank and Freddy fall on the floor, coughing horribly, and then the camera focuses first on the corpse inside the tank slowly melting away, then on the fresh corpse above coming back to “life”, screaming angrily, all the while the movie’s kick-ass main theme plays. (Seriously, go listen to it, it’s awesome.)

The scene after they wake up, looking like Hell, is incredible! At the same time as they have to deal with the realization that the gas reanimated all dead bodies in the warehouse – the split dogs, the butterflies, the fresh cadaver -, there’s this exchange between them:

Freddy: “Stupid asshole!”
Frank: “Watch your tongue, boy, if you like this job!”
Freddy: “Like this job?!

And then they just keep discussing options, while Frank continues to desperately cry “Think!”, until he just says: “What are we gonna do? [in the most obsequious tone of voice] We’re gonna call the boss.”

What makes it all even funnier is that none of it is played up for a “ha-ha” type of comedy at all, the movie keeps the focus entirely on their desperation and the horror of their situation. But let me sum things up further: Frank calls Burt, and Burt decides not to call the number on the tank because he’s afraid of being sued or even sent to jail; instead, they’ll “kill” the zombie (oh, yeah, in this movie, the characters actually do call zombies “zombies”) and try to get rid of the evidence.

You know, I can sympathise with Burt here. I mean, keeping those tanks all those years (14!), and then having an idiot employee break one of them? I can understand him being afraid of involving the proper authorities (and he’s fully justified in that, as we see at the end). What I don’t understand is why he didn’t just call the army all the way back when they first received the shipment – can he be that paranoid? And come to think of it, how did Frank even find out the true story behind the movie, was it in some kind of document which was sent along with the tanks?

Anyway, they try to kill the zombie just like in the movie, by destroying its brain, only they find out things aren’t like in the movie (Freddy: “You mean the movie lied?!”). These zombies (unlike 90% of the walking dead in the “___ of the Dead” series) are just as fast as humans (although they may be impaired in their mobility, depending on their state of decomposition when reanimated), smart enough to lay traps and act sneakily, are even harder to kill than Romero’s zombies (no matter what you do to them, they just keep on coming, even their severed body parts continue moving), and they specifically eat their victims’ brains (yeah, this is the movie which created the whole “Brains! Braaains!” thing). More about this last one later. So Burt gets an idea: they’ll chop it to pieces, and then take them to his friend Ernie (Burt and Ernie. O’Bannon swears this wasn’t on purpose), the mortician, so he can incinerate them in his crematorium. They do so, only for everything to go to hell.

See, the smoke of the crematorium carries the Trioxin with it, and conveniently enough, it starts to rain, carrying the Trioxin back down, soaking the graveyard dirt and even seeping through the coffins. The movie keeps going, but it intercuts with a scene of the corpses starting to moan under the ground, banging on their coffins, digging their way up… We still have to wait a bit for the full-scale “zombie invasion”, however, first there’s Tarman, the corpse that was inside the tank; it didn’t fully melt away, only its outer layer of skin did. (And it also stayed perfectly hidden, like some kind of zombie ninja, until Tina came down to the basement. Yeah, another plot hole, unfortunately.) They manage to lock Tarman in the basement (but not before it kills Suicide), and then…

And then… (Warning: NSFW because of nudity, Trash is wearing only an open vest.)

I love it! After exposing the audience to the grotesque Tarman (who immediately kills one of the main characters in an appropriately grotesque manner) and building all this tension regarding the undead who are crawling out of their graves, suddenly the tone shifts from horror to black comedy as the protagonists are chased around the cemetery while the lyrics “Do you wanna party? It’s party time!” blare away. This sort of thing will repeat itself a few times: there will be scenes fraught with tension, such as when the zombies are trying to break down the doors of Ernie’s funeral home, but the soundtrack will be darkly ironic in lyrics, music, or both. It won’t be like that all the time, though, there will be moments when the soundtrack becomes creepy again (and boy, can it be creepy!). (Also, note how, in spite of the cemetery looking like it hasn’t been used in a while, most zombies look like they’re in perfect condition. I suppose this is an acceptable suspension of disbelief, though; after all, we can’t have a zombie movie if the zombies aren’t a threat, even if not the main one!)

So, at this point, the movie takes its cues from the original Night of the Living Dead, and the plot turns to the standard “How can we survive when we’re stuck inside a building [in this case, Ernie’s funeral home] and there are something like 100 zombies out there?” fare. However, in “Night”, the real conflict was the characters’ inability to work together to survive (although the zombies were dangerous, too), whereas in this one, the focus is entirely on the zombies as a threat. To highlight the differences between both films: in “Night”, we see that the posse at the end of the movie has been managing to fight against the zombies and kill them; in “Return”, we have several scenes of the zombies overwhelming police officers (even a police barricade) with sheer numbers, thanks to them being invulnerable (of course, the effectiveness of firearms seems to be downplayed to increase the horror of the situation: none of the zombies hit by the police seem to suffer from any knockback, for instance).

(Another difference between these zombies and the original ones in “Night” is that they don’t infect people with their bites: Suicide, Scuz and many others have their brains eaten by zombies [whose bite strength seems to be superhuman, since they take bites off people’s heads like their skulls were nothing more than apples], but none rise again. Well, Trash does, but her body was left in the mud contaminated with the Trioxin rain; and while there is a police officer who does become a zombie, it may be explained by a new dose of Trioxin gas being released into the atmosphere and the chemical raining down once more.)

It’s during this portion of the film that the characters capture the mummy-with-the-boobs I mentioned earlier and interrogate her. It turns out the walking dead feel constant pain – they feel their bodies rotting. This is why they eat brains: it stops the pain, even if only temporarily (insert your own metaphor for drug addiction here). Let’s pause for a moment to consider just how horrifying that would be – to be dead, but still conscious, and feel yourself rotting away. Can you imagine? Brrr.

Also, remember when I said earlier that Frank and Freddy got sick from breathing in the Trioxin? Well, in a twist that will certainly surprise no one (even back in 1985 – the movie had been dropping hints the size of houses), they were both killed by the gas and are slowly turning into zombies themselves (“zombies” defined as not only reanimated corpses, but also those taken over by this ravenous hunger for brains – which so far, has included every one of said reanimated corpses). Throughout the movie, they’ve been displaying the symptons of what Ernie calls rigor mortis (I assume that’s a simplification by the writers, since they’re also suffering from algor mortis and livor mortis): splitting headaches, progressively paler skin, stomach and muscle cramps (to the point that, late in the movie, they can barely move, since any movement causes them pain), no blood pressure, pulse, pupillary response or reflexes, temperature of 70 degrees (“Room temperature”, as one of the paramedics says)…

(Frank and Freddy’s condition also results in Burt losing a lot of sympathy points. Right after they incinerated the first zombie, but before they became aware there were other zombies rising, they called an ambulance for Frank and Freddy, who were already feeling sick. The paramedics ask Burt what kind of chemicals they were exposed to, and he prefers not to tell them, saying “Well, I gotta make some calls [to find out], but I can’t do that until morning”. I mean, really, Burt? You can’t just take the paramedics to the tank? You’re going to put your company above their lives? And why don’t Frank or Freddy speak up at this point?)

So Freddy turns into a zombie, and although he’s still raving about the pain and how he must eat brains, he’s a lot more mobile now (which makes sense in-universe, since none of the zombies appear to be affected by rigor mortis anymore). He’s temporarily contained in the funeral home’s chapel after unsuccessfully attacking Tina, but is already breaking down the doors (I suppose this is feasible; a regular human who didn’t care about hurting himself could probably break down those doors), forcing the surviving characters (Burt, Ernie, Spider and Tina) to enact a desperate plan: Burt and Spider will try to reach the police car (which still has the keys in the ignition), pick up Tina and Ernie (who broke his right foot) and then get the hell out of Dodge. Unfortunately, while Burt and Spider do manage to evade the crowd of zombies outside (ah, Plot Armor! Thanks to it, zombies who usually act like a single-minded ravenous swarm suddenly turn into a mass of slow-moving, confused individuals) and get to the car, they can’t rescue Tina and Ernie and are forced to escape in the hopes of getting help. For their part, Tina and Ernie lock themselves inside the cellar to protect themselves from Freddy.

As for Frank, while everyone was busy with Freddy, he snuck out to the crematorium, where, in a genuinely sad scene (as in, it’s not only the situation which is sad, but the actor does make us feel for the character), he takes off his wedding ring, kisses it, prays for forgiveness, and then incinerates himself. (This might be the source of that new dose of Trioxin released into the rain which I mentioned before, although the movie doesn’t show it.) Poor bastard. Yes, it’s all his fault, but one of this movie’s strengths is that the characters are so endearing (except Trash, if you’re annoyed or worse by gratuitous fanservice); even violent thug Suicide dies because he rushes in to help Tina when he hears her scream. I snarked earlier about how the “kids” (their age is indeterminate, but I wouldn’t give them more than 20 years) are a bunch of clichés, but, with the exception of Trash (who’s only there so the film can have a naked woman onscreen), they all feel like characters, not just character types. Their dialogue, especially, sounds very natural (although Tina’s “Fudge!” is incredibly grating). So when they’re put in this horrible and terrifying situation (first Frank and Freddy are in horrible pain, then they have to face that their life is quite literally over, while the others are surrounded by threats with only the slimmest of hopes of escaping or getting rescued), it’s only natural to feel for them.

Frank’s suicide also raises some interesting questions about the zombie’s consciousness. We know even the “standard” zombies – corpses reanimated by the Trioxin – can talk (“Send. More. Paramedics.”), are smart enough to lay traps, and also display self-awareness (“I can feel myself rot!”), but we can’t judge how much of their pre-death personalities remains. What we do see and can judge are the following facts:

– A zombified police officer willingly attracts living officers to an ambush.
– Trash had some sort of death fetish and acted as if she were a lot more self-assured than Tina, for example, but she crumbles just as easily as the latter (and possibly more) when trouble starts happening (and I don’t mean only when they see the zombies, but even before, when the Trioxin rain – which burns the skin – starts pouring). Zombie Trash, on the other hand, doesn’t even moan or scream like the other zombies, she just goes after her next meals (with a much more confident gait than she had while alive even before crumbling).

I think it’s safe to say while the zombies are self-aware, their personality doesn’t remain the same (either because the process of reanimation itself changes it, or because the pain of being is so great they willingly forsake any moral compunctions they may have had while alive). But what about Frank and Freddy, the only living people who are turned into zombies (as opposed to first being killed and then rising as zombies)? Freddy’s personality changes in such a way that can’t be attributed solely to said pain (although he does claim, right before attacking Tina, that “[he] can finally see the one thing the one thing that can relieve this horrible suffering… LIVE BRAINS!”), I think, as he starts behaving more like an abusive boyfriend to Tina (“Now you made me hurt myself again! You made me break my hand completely off this time, Tina! But I don’t care, darlin’, because I love you, and you’ve got to let me EAT YOUR BRAINS!”). Frank, on the other hand, has obviously completed the zombification process (in spite of the rigor mortis which prevented him from moving even a muscle without feeling horrible pain, he’s seen with his full range of movement, just like all the other zombies), but retains his personality: he doesn’t attack anyone, says goodbye to his wife and even prays for forgiveness from God before ending his own unlife. Could it be the pain was too much for him? Or did he fear he would also lose control, like Freddy, and start attacking people?

Questions of consciousness aside, Burt and Spider only manage to reach the Uneeda warehouse, where they meet up with Casey and Chuck. They deal with Tarman once more, then Burt calls the police to ask for help, but that’s when the police barricade is overrun. Burt FINALLY calls the number on the tank, reaches General Glover (we saw him early in the movie, he’s an asshole-ish general in charge of looking for the missing tanks), and explains the situation. The military enact their contingency plan; and just as Freddy breaks through to the cellar and Ernie prepares to mercy kill Tina (another well-acted scene – you can see the conflict on Ernie’s face even as he makes this horrifying decision), the whole area is hit by a nuclear missile fired by the U.S. Army.

…I get the feeling this movie is slightly anti-military.

So, everyone within 20 blocks of the explosion was killed, including the zombies. All’s well that ends well, except for the main characters and all those innocents, right? Well, not really; you see, a lot of zombies being incinerated at once means there’s a lot of Trioxin being released into the atmosphere, and the rain just keeps on pouring…

And that’s The Return of the Living Dead. It was followed by two sequels at first, one which was almost entirely a comedy (and not even black comedy), and another which was straight horror with a good premise and some good moments, but it was badly written, didn’t have a cast of actors or characters even close to this one, had cheap production values (the zombies look more like Halloween costumes than actual dead people), changed the way the zombies work (which also caused them to lose a lot of depth), and relied too much on gore for my tastes (I mean, I’m fine with gore, but gratuitous gore annoys me). Many years later, in 2005, it had two more sequels; I haven’t seen those, but apparently they’re cheap gorefests made by SyFy (which was still Sci Fi back then, if I’m not mistaken), so I’m good with that.

You know, I just realized something: I said before how “Return” and “Night” differ in that the first one, the main threat is the zombies, while in the second one, it’s the characters themselves. When it comes to the causes for both scenarios, though, it’s the opposite: in “Night”, we don’t know and never find out what happened that caused the dead to rise; in “Return”, however, everything happened because of a series of stupid mistakes – the tanks being delivered to the wrong address, Frank messing around with them, Burt not calling the army before things escalated…

I’ve just rewatched this movie twice to write this article, and I still love it! Honestly, it’s not a well-plotted movie (see all the plot holes I mentioned above, for instance), and it’s certainly not scary on any intellectual level; like most zombie movies before and since, the premise simply doesn’t hold to close scrutiny (and I’m not even close to being a scientist). Let’s go over a few examples:

– Even if all it takes is a single drop of Trioxin-contaminated water to bring a corpse back to “life”, and even if all the wood in the coffins has already rotted away, wouldn’t it take much more than a single downpour for the Trioxin to trickle all the way down to the bodies?
– It’s explicitly said and shown that these zombies have the same strength level of regular people. Even assuming their muscles haven’t already rotted away, would they even be strong enough to dig their way out of their graves, even if they don’t care about destroying their hands? Also, if their strength is human-level, their bites won’t be that dangerous (unless they can infect living people and turn them into zombies).
– The zombies may be smart, but they’re still dominated by terrible pain and a ravenous hunger. Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to compete among each other for brains, instead of acting together in such perfect harmony?
– Maybe you can’t kill zombies, since they’re already dead… But are you telling me guns can’t stop half-rotted corpses, even if only by tearing them apart (yes, their pieces will still go after you, but it’s a lot easier to escape from those)? We can’t even assume the Trioxin renders them more resistant to damage: in addition to the breasted mummy, who has the base of her spine broken, we see one other zombie having his head pulled off by someone applying a chokehold.
– The ending. Wouldn’t the temperature inside a nuclear missile’s blast radius be so high it would destroy any chemical agent which composes the Trioxin?

I’m sure others can poke more holes at the whole concept of the “zombie apocalypse” in general. But that’s not the point, is it? I mean, horror doesn’t care about Mr. Brain, it goes straight for your guts. And this is one of those rare animals, a good horror movie, one which doesn’t rely on cheap scares, extreme violence or assorted grotesqueries; instead, it confronts the viewer with one of humanity’s basic fears and objects of disgust, death, while also forcing them to see these characters – these mostly likeable, sometimes dumb, but always oh-so-human characters – being killed one by one in a nearly hopeless (or rather, as we see at the end of the movie, completely hopeless) struggle to just survive. It’s emotionally very powerful.

So, would I recommend it to anyone? No, I wouldn’t. In spite of all its qualities, this is a zombie movie; it’s a damn good one, one which I feel added something to the genre even when compared to Romero’s classics, but it never really becomes something more, so I can’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already like (or is at least interested in) zombie movies.

That said, for those who do, watch it. You won’t regret it. And I hope you it scares you as much as it’s scared me – but in a good way!

Until next time, people!

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