The Return Of The Living Dead is the most punk rock zombie movie of all time. In spite of the fact the walking dead are more en vogue now than ever before, inspiring movies, TV shows, books and even annual conventions around the world, they don’t get much cooler than Dan O’Bannon’s creations.
Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the film’s release and yet it hasn’t aged a day. Linnea Quigley’s nude scene is still just as hot/anatomically confusing, Tarman is still as deliciously oozing and gross, and Clu Gulager is just as hilariously out of place, if not more so than ever before. To paraphrase a line from the endlessly quotable, and still whip-smart, script; the inventory has most definitely not lost its freshness.
Special effects may have come on in leaps and bounds in the intervening years, but the practical work here–painstakingly created by a crack team of experts–remains awe-inspiring. Think back to the first time Tarman emerges from the shadows, to scare Tina, or when the wailing cadaver is strapped to the operating table, crying about how much it hurts. These are the kinds of cinematic moments that make a major impact the first time around, but that are typically sullied by age.
However, thanks to the skill, attention to detail and the care on show here, they only get more incredible with each re-watch. Most zombie movies, even the really great ones, sort of blend into each other over the years, but not The Return Of The Living Dead. It stands out now, just as it did back then, as something very special and unique. It’s the perfect blend of horror and comedy, both laugh-out-loud funny, and hide-behind-your-hands scary in equal measure.The film is achingly cool, from the killer haircuts to the crazy outfits to the central gang’s easy banter, honed during pre-shoot rehearsals during which they all became fast friends. The opening sequence almost feels like the lead-in to a music video–particularly when that theme, by Matt Clifford, kicks in. The authentically punk-rock aesthetic (“You think this is a f**king costume? This is a way of life!”) and head-banging soundtrack should age the movie massively, but they just add to the coolness factor, even today.
Originally envisioned as a straight sequel to Night Of The Living Dead (Romero and writer/friend John A. Russo decided Romero would do Dawn and Russo would make Return, following a dispute over rights), the flick memorably and somewhat bravely name-checks the zombie classic right off the bat, before cavorting off on its own, mad trail of destruction, marking it out as being proudly, defiantly different and weird.
Funnily enough, although The Return Of The Living Dead is definitely one of a kind when it comes to zombie movies, it’s had a notable influence on the walking dead in the intervening years, and on popular culture in general. The memorable line “send more paramedics” inspired the name of a British hardcore punk band, who dressed up as zombies to perform, while the beloved refrain “Braaaaaaaaains”, which originated with Return, became the go-to zombie line–not to mention that Tarman is arguably the most well-known zombie of all time.
Aside from being reflective of its time, this film is remarkably before its time, too, featuring an interesting juxtaposition between the main cast being terrorised by the un-dead while two of their own simultaneously find themselves turning after breathing in some noxious gas. This, along with the aforementioned cadaver, humanises the villains, even when they’re running around, tearing apart every human in sight. The other important trait of O’Bannon’s zoms is that these guys don’t amble along, they sprint.
In the terrific documentary More Brains! A Return To The Living Dead, the cast and crew speak animatedly about the trials and tribulations of a difficult shoot. Although they admit that shooting at night, under relentlessly cold sheets of rain, wasn’t fun (especially under a no-nonsense director like O’Bannon), what emerges is a mostly positive story, and one that will back up most fans’ feelings on the flick. Narrated by Scuz himself, who also features (wearing a Return T-shirt no less), it’s a fascinating behind-the scenes glimpse into the making of a cult classic that showcases how much thought and detail went into creating this movie.
The cast openly admit they, much like the studio heads, had no idea what kind of movie it would turn out to be upon initially reading the script–let alone what the tone was supposed to be. They rehearsed for two weeks straight, which is almost unheard of on a low-budget movie, and wrapped in just six. The production went through two SFX artists in order to get the perfect zombies, and the thing was mapped out and storyboarded to within an inch of its life. In the end, though, it was all worth it with the flick making back its budget on opening weekend.
In a world over-populated by zombies, vying for our tender flesh, it’s refreshing to know that The Return Of The Living Dead just gets better and better with age. It’s still funny, still scary, the cast are brilliant, both newcomers and old reliables alike, and the special effects make what passes for decaying skin on the latest zombie-themed endeavour, that doesn’t even deserve to be in the same sentence as this remarkable film, look like the boring, overdone trash they are.
When it comes to The Return Of The Living Dead, it may be thirty years later, but they can still party with the best of them.