*** This review may contain grave dancing spoilers ***
A group of teenage punks and business owners deal with the accidental release of a horde of brain hungry zombies.
The late Dan O’Bannon writes and directs this novel zombie film; no stranger to horror he’s notable for collaborating with John Carpenter and co-writing the screenplay for Alien. With its foggy graveyard, crematorium, chapel of rest, dimly-lit factory basement and empty wet streets O’Bannon creates some atmosphere. Return of the Living Dead while not a sequel to George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead (1967) connects it amusingly with Frank, played wonderfully by James Karen making out that the movie was based on real events to his bumbling sidekick Freddy Thom Matthews (who both return for the sequel). It’s more comical than Romero’s films, with a morbid humour, eccentric dialogue and some slapstick comedy. While it may not have Romero’s political satire, O’Bannon worms in a subtext of mortality and what it means to be dead.
As the loud characters attempt to destroy the zombies, flee in panic, and/or sometimes become a zombie there’s plenty of entertainment to be had. Clu Gulager plays up his straight lace typecasting as Burt who’ll do anything to save his business. Actor Don Calfa is excellent as Ernie the mortician, stealing every scene with a Peter Lorre kookiness. The group of teenagers are on fine form, capturing an array of 80’s stereotypes with their fashion, music taste and attitudes akin to Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985) of the same year. There’s a great 80s soundtrack along with some significant nudity where Linnea Quigley infamously dances on a grave. In addition Quigley’s Trash when in turned zombie is menacingly eerie. With some great effects the icky superb Tarman zombie is performed by actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman.
It’s a satisfactory zombie movie, with some genuinely creepy and amusing scenes, notably where Ernie deals with rigor mortis, pieces of a cadaver wriggle in black bags, Frank and Freddy being pronounced dead, the attack on paramedics and where a cut in half rotting female explains why they want to eat the living. Memorably, at one point after a horde of zombies eat a police unit one of the ghouls gets on the radio and asks dispatch to send more cops. Amongst the cinematic zombie tropes of main players barricading entrances, trouble comes from within and just about everyone dies, you know you’re in for a scary ride as the Tarman may pop up at any moment.
In retrospect O’Bannon’s unchained offering is a little rough around the edges (notably recycling the grave and skeleton footage prior to the end credits) but it has a certain 80s (timeless) charm thanks to the setting, supplies of great grisly special effects, reanimated cross-sections of lab specimen dogs, severed limbs and dried out zombies to name a few. The grim but admirable nihilistic ending is the icing on the cake and to O’Bannon’s credit Return of the Living Dead popularises for the first time zombies eating, specifically – Braaiinnsss!
Overall, its good gritty zombie cult fun.