Return of the Living Dead has to go down as one of the funniest and inventive take on the zombie subgenre that began after the release of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Due to a dispute between Romero and John Russo (co-producer of the original NOTLD), the sequels to Night of the Living Dead that were produced and directed by Romero dropped the “Living Dead” part in their titles. Russo retained the rights to create sequels using those words while Romero just kept the word “Dead” in the follow-up films to Night. It took Russo awhile, but he finally got to use those naming rights with 1985’s Return of the Living Dead.
Even though there were some acrimony between Romero and Russo, the screenplay for Return of the Living Dead makes several complimentary nods to Night of the Living Dead. The film’s premise was what if Romero’s first film was actually based on a true event and that the government and the military covered it up before people got a wind of it. The film takes that simple premise and creates an action-packed horror-comedy that still stands the test of time.
Unlike Romero’s films, Return of the Living Dead actually gives an explanation as to what causes the dead to return to life with a singular purpose of attacking the living. The cause of all this undead mayhem was due to a bioweapon nerve toxin called 2-4-5 Trioxin which was originally designed by the military to defoliate marijuana crops. To say that the side-effects of the gas had some interesting effects was an understatement. The zombies created by Trioxin do attack the living but they’re also much more livelier and smarter (retaining agility, strength and mental capacity of their previous life) than the traditional Romero-zombies. They also do not feed on just humans. They also feed on other animals. The last major difference between the Romero-zombies and the Trioxin-zombies was that the latter only wanted to feed on live brains to end the pain of being dead. These differences made for a much faster-paced horror movie. As much as I consider the Romero zombie films as the best out there, I hold a special place in my horror-fan heart for these Trioxin dudes.
The story by John Russo would be turned into a screenplay and directed by Dan O’Bannon also made Return of the Living Dead behave more as a horror-comedy than just a straight-up horror. The dialogue between the characters were full of great one-liners that would’ve sounded cheesy if not for the great and game performances from the cast. Clu Gulager as Burt Wilson (owner of the medical supplies warehouse where the lost canister of Trioxin was being stored in) did a great job being incredulous at the events happening around him. His back and forth with his friend Ernie (played with Peter Lorre eyes by Don Calfa), the local mortuary’s gun-toting mortician, keep the film lively and hilarious in-between scenes of horror.
The scene stealers in the film must go to a bumbling pair of Burt’s employees who inadvertently release the toxic and reanimating gas from the warehouse’s inventory of Trioxin canister. James Karen as the worldly and cynical Frank was a riot from start to end. His over-the-top performance had me in stitches. He played Frank with such a manic, panicky style that it was difficult not to get caught up in his hysterics. To balance out Frank’s Hardy with his more subdued, but no less panicked Laurel, was Thom Mathews as Freddy. Mathews would later appear in other horror movies in the decade and even reprise a similar role in this film’s sequel. His performance as the straight man to Karen’s fool was also very good. His slow decline into becoming one of the zombies after the initial inhalation of the Trioxin gas in the film’s introduction was funny and sad. Of all the zombies in the film he gets the brunt of the slapstick sequences, especially once he starts hunting his girlfriend for her brains. His professing of his love for her and at the same time wanting her to give up her brain was hilarious, if not creepy as well.
Another thing that Return of the Living Dead had that made it different from Romero’s zombie movies were the scenes of gratuitious nudity throughout the film. A majority of the nude scenes were courtesy of scream queen Linnea Quigley as the punk rock Trash whose morbid obsession with all things death made her an early victim for the zombies and later on as one of their leaders. I know that kids my age at that time replayed over and over the scene of her strip-tease down to nothing atop a graveyard headstone. Even now many fans of the film consider that sequence as one of their favorite.
Return of the Living Dead still counts as one of the best zombie movies out there and preceded the UK’s Shaun of the Dead by two decades as a great horror-comedy. There was a sequel a few years later to capitalize on the popularity of the first film. It tried to capture the hilarity and horror of the first one but did not measure up in the end.