I finally made it! I watched a movie that is considered, and rightly so, a real cult classic: Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead, 1984. The name of the director is linked to two fantastic movies that I adore: Alien (1979), of which he wrote a screenplay used in almost its entirety by Ridley Scott, and Dark Star, the film made by a very young John Carpenter when he was still a film student and with whom he shared both the direction and the writing.
The idea of The Return of the Living Dead, however, didn’t come directly from O’Bannon, but from John Russo who had worked with George Romero on the latter’s first film, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Russo had kept the rights for any follow-up using the “living dead” brand and wrote one that was supposed to be directed by no less than Tobe Hooper (how many cinema legends am I naming in this post?). O’Bannon was called to refine the script but he didn’t feel like messing too much with the Romerian mythology, and when Hooper abandoned the project he finally felt free to change the subject and the script in a radical way. And that’s the genesis of the anarchist and punk sequel to the beautiful black and white film by George Romero which came out fifteen years earlier.
And being anarchist and punk, this sequel has very little in common with its predecessor! Practically, the only real link is the prologue: Freddy (Thom Mathews) is a young man who has just started working in a medical warehouse together with his superior Frank (James Karen). He marvels at the absurd things he has to handle: perfectly preserved skeletons and human corpses of people recently deceased (to be sent to medical faculties), and even corpses of dogs cut in half useful for veterinary students. But when he asks Frank what’s the strangest thing that has passed from the warehouse, he tells him an incredible story: what’s shown in the movie Night of the Living Dead really happened! The proof? Some of the living dead captured by the army were sent to the warehouse by mistake and are now in the basement! Of course, Frank doesn’t just tell the story, but takes Freddy downstairs and… needless to say, from one of the army containers here’s a gas leak that knocks both of them unconscious.
When they recover their senses, they find reanimated corpses including the half dogs but, above all, the fresh corpse that was in the freezing room. The two ask for help by calling the warehouse owner, Burt (Clu Gulager), who in turn takes them to a strange guy with Nazi sympathies (at least judging by the music he listens to, his gun, his work, and his taste for women – a poster of Eva Braun hangs in his room), Ernie (Don Calfa). What looks like a brilliant idea, that is burning the living dead in a crematory oven since the reanimated corpses don’t stop even if struck in the brain or headless (differently from the Romero’s film), turns out to be a sensational mistake. The smoke coming out of the crematory oven turns into an acid rain that brings back to life all the guests of the nearby cemetery! And so Freddy’s friends who were waiting outside also get involved in the story: it’s a group of punks with very… strong personalities.
I don’t want to reveal anything else about the plot that unrolls in an absolutely linear and sensible way within the limits of a movie about the dead coming back to life. In fact, all the clichés of this genre are used, with the group of survivors barricaded in a house and with the zombies that surround them and easily overwhelm the police. But O’Bannon doesn’t just repeat things already seen, far from it! In the film, the zombies move quickly and even talk, something unthinkable in the Romerian universe, for example. And they don’t simply eat human flesh, but look for human brains! And here we note the great influence that this film has had on pop culture: just think of the Simpsons that at least on a couple of occasions have proposed O’Bannon-style zombies in search of brains!
Another thing that makes this film interesting is its use of humor: although the special effects are well done (all practical, with animatronics and makeup) and 100% horror, we laugh thanks to slapstick comedy and to a script that doesn’t spare silly puns. And there’s even female nudity, with Trash (Linnea Quigley) doing a memorable striptease on a grave in the cemetery and staying with her tits exposed for almost the whole movie.
In short, we are certainly in front of a B-movie that doesn’t take itself seriously but that at the same time does everything well: the rhythm is furious from beginning to end, the soundtrack is very beautiful (even if soooo 80s ), the sets are well-crafted, the script is well written, the film is well shot (there are also a few Hitchcock moments!), the special effects are excellent, the army looks disastrous as in any zombie movie… and the four million dollar budget was used very efficiently (the worst aspect of the film is the sound, sometimes very poorly mixed)! The film was successful and it generated several sequels, and many of the actors and actresses are now legendary names in the horror genre, as is Dan O’Bannon himself. It’s certainly a must-watch! Ciao!