Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Return of the Living Dead (1985)

by on July 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue July 19 at 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


BAM concludes its inspired tribute to unsung horrormeister Dan O’Bannon, the (anti)hero of Jason Zioman’s new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.  More coverage of Shock Value and O’Bannon in our Alien blogroll last week.

Make sure to read Andy McCarthy’s essay for Alt Screen.

Michael Joshua Rowin has a great rundown of O’Bannon for Artforum:

More exemplary of the O’Bannon touch is his directorial debut, The Return of the Living Dead (1985), which he also wrote. On the surface a trashier version of George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead (1968)—at one point a nymphomaniacal punk (scream queen Linnea Quigley) performs a striptease, for no discernable reason, atop an open-air crypt—Return nonetheless possesses some of the funniest, bleakest imagery to appear in any zombie film. After scenes that include the excruciating onset of rigor mortis in a couple of unfortunate zombie victims and the tactical ambushing of local police by an army of talking, intelligent zombies, the film ends with the military containing the zombie epidemic by nuking Louisville, all moral qualms swept nonchalantly to the side.



Stacie Ponder of Final Girl:

Dan O’Bannon was one of those rare cinematic masterminds that no one really knows about. He was like some sort of horror/sci-fi ninja who would sneak into your life and kick you in the face with a foot full of iconic characters and images; his work leaves you changed and makes your love of the genre deeper, yet you never even knew he was there.
As a sci-fi nerd, I indulged in all manner of worlds O’Bannon created, from a little something called Alien to the crazy mindfuck Lifeforce, as well as the worlds he interpreted in his adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s work (Screamers, Total Recall). He penned the terrific, unsettling, and woefully underrated Dead & Buried– a film with a poster image that was burned into my brain decades ago…and still, as big an influence as he’s had on me, as much as I love his work, he remains on the sideline when I’m spouting off names of creators I adore. Why? Is it the fate of a writer, to be forever trapped in the background while directors get all the credit?
When he finally stepped out from behind the typewriter and moved to behind the lens for the genre-changing Return of the Living Dead, Dan O’Bannon finally- and rightly- got his due as one of the greatest contributors to horror. It’s only when one realizes the scope and breadth of his work over the years, however, that fans may sit up, take notice, and honor one of our most original voices. I mean, punk rock zombies and naked space vampires? Yes, please.


Jeremiah Kipp for Slant:

“Not one more preppy!” vowed writer-director Dan O’Bannon when talking about the victims from The Return of the Living Dead, his tongue-in-cheek, splatter-laden homage to George A. Romero’s zombie pictures. Fed up with the generic Barbie and Ken-style actors that were getting sliced up wholesale in 1980s fright flicks, he fills his zombie movie with a group of snarling punk rockers (“What do you think this is, a fucking costume?” grouses one of them, whose studded leather jacket and lip chain define his character, “This is a way of life!”) and a soundtrack of West Coast punk music. The punk attitude, a combination of posturing and self-destructive irony, is a fine match for this most postmodern of zombie movies.


O’Bannon’s filmmaking techniques are simple and resourceful, with shots following the actors around the room in consistent medium shots as they volley rapid-fire (and quotable) dialogue off of one another. It’s the zombie movie Howard Hawks never got to make, and frankly it’s less Rio Bravo than His Girl Friday with all the ribald humor on display. Well acted, with endearing characters from both the punk contingent and the middle-aged office guys. Linnea Quigley achieves instant B-movie stardom as the punk chick who, in the cemetery, has a brief monologue about how she dreams about old drunken men attacking her and ripping off her clothes before she strips naked and dances around on top of a tombstone. “Aw, man,” says one of her pals, “she’s taking off her clothes again!” Suffice to say, this small offering from the horror genre is a hoot to watch, with never a dull moment.


Funny, scary, shocking, gory and well-directed, “Return” is a brilliant 1980s horror movie, even better than “Re-Animator” and even (I think) better than “Dawn of the Dead,” although it certainly owes its very existence to that movie. Coming out the same year as “Re-Animator,” it certainly shares much of that film’s comedic spirit. But it’s actually scarier than that movie, while still managing to be remarkably funny. It definitely captures the spirit of “Night of the Living Dead” in a way that hasn’t been captured by any other zombie film. It also puts the characters in even greater peril, since they can’t just shoot the zombies in the head or, it turns out, trust their own government to take care of the problem.


Surprisingly political and even inspired somwhat by “Repo Man,” “Return of the Living Dead” is truly one of the last great cult movies. Director O’Bannon was certainly in “the zone” when he made this, demonstrating a genius that never came through again.


Roger Ebert:

Not many movies have the nerve to name their sources right there in the dialogue, so you can make your own comparisons. “Return of the Living Dead” makes no secret of its inspiration. The movie opens with a teenager going to work in one of those supply houses that ship cadavers and skeletons to scientists and, in no time at all, the man who runs the company is leaning over the desk and asking if the kid has ever seen “Night of the Living Dead.” Because it wasn’t just a movie, see? It was the truth. But the government tried to cover it up, and he can prove it, because they bottled up those zombies in airtight canisters – and they’re down in the basement right now!


This is probably as elegant a way as any to rip off “Night of the Living Dead” – admitting your sources and going on from there.

The ghouls in all of these movies perform more or less the same function. They shuffle inexorably toward the camera, drawn by their insatiable appetite for human flesh. The tasks of the living characters in the movie are threefold: (1) to attempt to destroy or control the monsters, (2) to flee the monsters in panic, and (3) to become the monsters.


O’Bannon’s “Return” handles the third requirement in a scene that has a certain charm. The teenager and the cadaver wholesaler have been overrun by ghouls. The virus, or whatever it is, has infected their whole laboratory, and the two humans come down with what seems to be a cold. Then the muscular pains get intense, and they start shivering. Their friends call the paramedics. An on-the-spot physical exam turns up some alarming symptoms: Both men have no pulse, and their body temperatures are the same as room temperature. The muscle pains? Rigor mortis. In other words, they are dead. They take this information pretty hard.


Andre on why the film works better than other zombie comedies, at Bloodsprayer.com

As far as I can tell, the main reason that RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD does not fall prey to its expected outcome is for the same reason I came to like it—it has respect. It’s quite easy to determine that the makers of the film have an appreciation and a respect for zombies that seems missed by most modern filmmakers today. Perhaps the most obvious way it does this is by keeping the zombies scary. There are moments in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD that have me wincing with semi-embarrassed fear. My favorite being when the paramedics turn on the headlights to find an eerily motionless horde of zombies starring back at them.


It was like a swift punch to my gut which then caused me to glance around and wonder if people were taking note of my inherent loser gene by being scared of a zombie comedy. But that’s the beauty of it. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD while at times hysterically funny, never forgets that it is still a horror movie, and that’s what I love about it. Images of creepy midget zombies, half torso skeleton zombies, cadavers hanging by huge hooks put through their ears—it’s all scary and effective and more importantly, laughing is far from my mind.


On the flip side of the respect argument, the film also does something that is extremely hard to come by today. The joke and comedic aspect never has to do with the  suggested ridiculousness of zombies. Rather, the comedy comes through the character’s reactions to the terror that the zombies are creating. Do you see? The respect is more present than ever by the very idea that the zombies are not the joke–we are. Today it is common for the opposite to happen, as people start insinuating that zombies are just slow dead people and their only threat is their large number. Yes it’s very funny when a stumbling zombie ambles through the doorway and Mr. Tough Guy shoots him in the head as a mere afterthought. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD however gives us grown men screaming their heads off and falling apart at the very idea of sawing off a dead guy’s head. Additionally, it barely has one instance where the living people are shown overcoming the dead. It’s always the dead in complete and mass control of their surroundings.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →