The Return of the Living Dead is a 1985 comedy/horror movie that works as both a homage to George A. Romero’s “Dead” series and a parody of it. It celebrates Romero’s work while also poking fun at it, and the result is incredibly entertaining. This film loads up on the cheese, but is surprisingly intelligent as well. All of the cheesiness and silliness seems to be very much intentional, and while at first glance this seems like a “so bad it’s good” film, it is consistently clever and shows enough understanding of the zombie film genre to expertly make fun of it.
The film opens with the words: “The events portrayed in this film are true”. Like most zombie films, this plot follows the kind of formula one comes to expect from the genre. I recently viewed and reviewed the 2010 version of The Crazies, which also had a traditional zombie film type of plot. That film was well done, but the plot seemed to limit the movie because it was a more serious film. In this one, Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews are two workers at a medical supply warehouse. They work with all kinds of dead bodies. Frank asks Freddy if he has seen Night of the Living Dead, and explains that what happened in that movie was based on true events which were covered up by the military. The actual culprit for the zombification was a man-made gas.
Frank shows Freddy one of the dead people kept in a tank that has the gas in it. Frank unwisely hits the tank to show it’s safe, which of course releases the deadly gas. Meanwhile, a group of young kids are looking for a party and go to Freddy’s work because apparently Freddy knows how to party. Freddy and Frank’s boss Burt (Clu Gulager) shows up and he discovers what has happened. One of the cadavers comes to life and attacks them. They try to destroy its brain because “that’s what worked in the movie”, but it simply will not die. They discover that these zombies must be destroyed entirely. The men go to the mortician, Ernie (Don Calfa) to enlist his help in destroying the zombie. Meanwhile, the gas turns into acid rain and saturates the ground of the cemetery nearby. This brings a large number of dead back to life, and they attack. The group of young punks and the medical supply workers band together to try and fend off the zombies.
The plot sounds pretty traditional, and it is, but it has to be for this film to work. As far as horror/comedies go, this has to be among the absolute funniest. The dialogue is often absurdly hilarious, and the zombie plot allows for a lot of creative humor. Most comedies struggle to be funny from beginning to end, but this one succeeds. There isn’t a dull moment and every scene provides for some laughs. The actors are an appropriate mix of some which are over-the-top and some who play it straight. For me the standout is James Karen as Frank, who seems to get the maximum amount of humor out of every line and is always animated with his facial expressions and body language. His performance is a joy to watch. All of the actors seem to be having a lot of fun here, which in turn makes it fun for the audience.
The movie actually has an awesome, very appropriate 80’s-sounding soundtrack and score. Some of the special effects are quite cheesy and don’t look all that great, but there are some very impressive ones as well. It has a lot of gross-out scenes and extremely pointless nudity, but it’s all part of the absurd tone of the film. Director Dan O’Bannon clearly “gets it” when it comes to zombie films. This film would have completely failed if O’Bannon didn’t clearly know a lot about the horror genre. He was previously a co-writer for the film Alien, which is one of the greatest horror films there is.
While the horror knowledge works wonders for the comedic aspects this film itself isn’t overly scary, which is my only real criticism. If you are looking for a truly scary movie, I would advise looking elsewhere. This film is a lot heavier on the comedy aspect, and while it does have a lot of horror elements, the situations become more funny than scary. The film doesn’t need to be edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, but I would have liked to see more actual scares that could add to the fun and blurring the line between laughing and screaming.
That criticism isn’t a very big one and didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of the film. The movie is one of the most purely entertaining blends of horror and comedy I’ve seen. I am sure the humor won’t suit everyone’s tastes, but I am willing to bet the biggest horror fans will enjoy it the most. I am glad I saw this right after seeing The Crazies, as it made me appreciate how good of a parody this was. I would put this film on par with another 1985 horror-comedy cult classic, Re-Animator. Both films don’t hold back on the shock factor and the silliness but both films also contain great performances and are well-made. If you are in the mood to have fun more than being scared, I would recommend this one pretty highly.
Rating: 4 out of 5