You can’t peruse the bountiful shelves of Poundland without seeing a couple of George A. Romero knock-offs, with titles like Bong of the Dead or Gay of the Dead. But 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead is a zombie comedy with some braaaiiiins.
A sort of punk reimagining of the zombie movie, The Return of the Living Dead is eccentrically written and directed by Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon – though this black comedy is nothing like Alien. Nor is it anything like the novel by John Russo, although the project began as an adaptation (incidentally, here’s a handy tip: tell people you’re reading Russo, and they’ll think you’re clever and reading Rousseau, rather than gory zombie fiction). O’Bannon’s film is a rock-n-rollingly funny zomedy, about a pair of bumbling warehouse employees (James Karen and Thom Mathews) who inadvertently release a toxic gas that causes the dead to rise as zombies (the kind that run and talk – sorry, purists). Or as the tagline so elegantly puts it: “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”
While gleefully silly throughout, the film is really quite a smart parody. The movie explains that Night of the Living Dead was based on a real army experiment-gone-wrong, so this new wave of zombies is really the result of a military cover-up. This allows for splashes of postmodernism, such as the scene in which they cut off a zombie’s head, only for it to get up and shamble around headless; “It worked in the movie!” The ensuing carnage is satirical, irreverent and energetic, bursting with slapstick Romero worship. There are solid performances, great zombie effects (ZFX) and a killer soundtrack, featuring The Cramps and Roky Erickson. File under: “So ’80s it hurts.”
The Return of the Living Dead is weird, quotable and buckets of fun. Not only did it popularise the idea that zombies eat brains (as opposed to just flesh) and shuffle around groaning “braaaiiiins”, it also set the bar for zom-coms – only for Shaun of the Dead to come along 20 years later and raise it again (excuse the pun). From the spoofy opening card (“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are the real names of real people and real organizations.”) to the explosive ending, this cult favourite is still dead funny 30 years on.