The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Return of the Living Dead might be a more appropriate title since I have already reviewed this 1985 zombie comedy, but as tends to happen when revisiting one’s favourite films I find more with every rewatch, like realising you can get one more wear out of your baddest leather vest.

The Return of the Living Dead is not so much a sequel to Night of the Living Dead as a meta-commentary whose characters have watched the George A. Romero classic (“It worked in the movie!”) which is revealed to have actually happened. Frank and Freddy (James Karen and Thom Mathews) are working at a medical supply warehouse and accidentally release the same toxic gas that caused the dead to rise back in ’68. They successfully incinerate a reanimated cadaver but the resulting acid rain seeps into the corpses in the neighbouring graveyard, and as the tagline so elegantly puts it: “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”

From the opening title card (“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are the real names of real people and real organizations.”) comes non-stop hilarity, innovative in its introduction of zombies who run, talk and eat “braaaaiiiins” as opposed to flesh, and distinguished by its punk aesthetic. All the characters are unusually brilliant, including a duo called Burt and Ernie (Clu Gulager and Don Calfa), the iconic Trash (Linnea Quigley) who spends the entire film naked, and one of the most obviously on-coke actors (Jewel Shepard) in cinematic history. Slapstick carnage, practical effects and quotable dialogue (“You think this is a fuckin’ costume? This is a way of life!”) provide buckets of fun, all to a killer soundtrack featuring The Cramps and Roky Erickson.

This time however I was equally struck by the movie’s satirical aspects. Written and directed by Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon, the very different package contains similar criticism of the military-industrial complex. Once again it is the blue-collar workers (and in this case, young people with no economic or environmental future – acid rain anyone?) who are mutilated at the literal coalface, while the military elite (Jonathan Terry) are safe in their homes with their doting wives, comically unaffected by the apocalypse. It ends as it begins, with an act of military incompetence whose consequences are bound to be grave.

Ultimately though, for all its class satire, ecological foresight and postmodernism, it is the sheer energy that makes The Return of the Living Dead the kind of seat-of-your-pants viewing experience they no longer produce; a punk reimagining of the zombie movie with braaaaiiiins to burn.

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