There are so many types of horror movies out there…slashers, vampires, werewolves, inbred families, etc. It seems like most of these come and go in cycles. One successful movie will come out and then all of a sudden you will be inundated with similar movies and television shows. One type of movie though doesn’t seem to subscribe to this…the zombie movie. It seems that they have always been there, lurking in the background ready to strike at a moments notice. With the exception of a period during the 80’s, we have never really been overwhelmed with zombie films. They are sporadic and there certainly seems to be more hits than misses. The movie I am talking about here is certainly one of the hits!
THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was released on August 16, 1985. This film was written and directed by Dan O’Bannon (also known for writing such genre films as ALIEN, LIFEFORCE and the remake of INVADERS FROM MARS) and John Russo, one of the original writers of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). What O’Bannon did was take a tried and true type of horror movie…added a comedy element…and managed to do what most horror/comedies have failed to do. He managed to make it work! In fact it worked so well that critics raved about it (which you don’t see very often with horror movies). This type of movie is rare simply because it does work on so many levels. The humor is dark, the characters are fun, the special effects are fantastic and the soundtrack is one of the best rock soundtracks ever released.
Though this movie is not meant to be a sequel in any way to any of the George Romero zombie films, it does reference the original zombie classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The plot is interesting in that the two main characters, Frank and Freddy (played brilliantly by James Karen and Thom Mathews) discuss the 1968 film stating that what happened in that film was a variation of an event that actually happened. In the “real” story a chemical, 2-4-5 Trioxin, is created by the Army to spray on marijuana. What the Army ended up discovering though was that the chemical caused corpses to reanimate. So they placed the bodies into some sealed drums and shipped them off to be stored safely. But, due to a “typical army fuck up” the drums ended up at the Uneeda Medical Supply company, where Freddy is learning the ropes on his first day at work. Frank, wanting to impress Freddy, takes him into the basement to show him the drums and accidentally breaches the seal, releasing the chemical into the supply house.
Not only are Frank and Freddy exposed to this chemical, but so are things within the warehouse. Split dogs, mounted butterfly specimens and cadavers used for ballistics testing all come back to life. To rid themselves of this problem, the reanimated items are brought to the crematorium next door. As they are burned, the ashes and the chemical go up the chimney mixing in the atmosphere, only to be brought back down to earth, and into the nearby cemetery, thanks to a sudden rainstorm. Isn’t it interesting how most horror movies have a rainstorm? This of course reanimates all of the corpses in the cemetery.
The cast of ROTLD is second to none and they all do well in their roles, providing just enough comedy and terror to help make this movie succeed on the level that it does. Some of the notable actors and actresses include Clu Gulager (who plays Burt, the owner of the medical supply company), Don Calfa (who plays Ernie, owner of the mortuary/crematorium), Beverly Randolph (who plays Freddy’s girlfriend Tina) and scream queen Linnea Quigley (who plays Trash, a woman whose biggest fear about dying actually comes true). In my opinion it is the chemistry between James Karen and Thom Mathews that makes this film. Their characters are believable and they are the type of people you would want to hang out with. That takes nothing away from the supporting cast though!
Beverly Randolph, who plays Tina, is another fun character to watch. She is the girl next door type who every guy wants to be with. She is cute, innocent and yet still likes to be with the bad boy. It is obvious that she loves Freddy and will tolerate hanging with his friends, who may not be her normal type of person to hang with, just to prove that love. Even though this movie is rated R, and the “F” bomb is dropped, Tina would still rather say “Oh fudge!” which endears the character even more. I finally got to meet Beverly Randolph at the ROCK AND SHOCK CONVENTION in Worcester, MA and all I can say is that she really is Tina! She is one of the kindest and sweetest people I have ever met!
Since I was a teenager in the 80’s I was no stranger to the scream queen trio of Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer and of course, Linnea Quigley. I believe it was this movie that really put her on the map, thanks in part to her nude dance on top of a crypt. I remember back when this was out on videotape (this was before you could afford to buy movies and you had to rent them) and watching this movie, I found that the tracking would always get messed up during this dance. I found out later that this was due to people pausing and watching this scene over-and-over again. It would actually wear this section of tape down!
Another star of this film are the zombies themselves. A combination of outstanding makeup, animatronics and puppetry bring the living dead to life. Perhaps the best known zombie in ROTLD is Tarman. Tarman, played by Allan Trautman, is a site to behold. He is so slimy and rotting that you can actually smell the decay. Never has a zombie looked, or moved this good, in any zombie flick! Another standout character is the half female corpse that we see on the table as she discusses why they eat brains. Tony Gardner should be commended for this amazing effect. Though it is done through animatronics and puppetry, it is just so beautiful to behold (if a torn in half rotted corpse could actually look beautiful)!
What else is interesting about this film is how the zombies move. Everyone talks about how the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD introduced us to the fast moving, even running at times, zombie. This is so not true as the zombies in ROTLD run in many scenes! Though it is more realistic that zombies should move slowly, it certainly is scarier to have them running after you!
Overall this is just one of those rare gems that comes along not often enough. To date, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD has spawned four sequels, each one progressively worse than the previous. Though part two was enjoyable on its own, it just did not stack up to the charm and fun of the original. The last two entries, parts four and five, made their debut in edited versions on the SyFy Channel, which tells you right there how bad they are, which is a shame. Hopefully when people see these later entries it will not prevent them from enjoying the original, which still holds up today as well as it did when it was released in 1985.
RESPONSE FROM BEVERLY RANDOLPH VIA FACEBOOK 1-25-2011: “I just read it and love it! Thank you so much for all your kind words and fabulous pictures. It is so well done!!! XOXOXO”
Coming soon! My review of the book “The Complete History Of The Return Of The Living Dead” by Christian Sellers and Gary Smart. You can order your own copy here!