There are only two correct ways to approach a Zombies Attack movie: either take the whole thing seriously (Fulci’s “Zombie”) or go the spoof route (“The Dead Hate the Living”). Dan O’Bannon’s “Return of the Living Dead” is really more of a spoof than a serious film, although its comedy is more along of what I like to call “serious slapstick.” That is, the characters don’t know they’re in a zombie movie spoof, hence they act seriously despite all the Tomfoolery taking place onscreen. We, the audience, are in on the joke, but the characters aren’t. (For a direct comparison, take a look at Dave Parker’s self-conscience zombie movie “The Dead Hate the Living”, which has a hard time deciding what it is, and ends up being uneven as a result.)
The plot of “Return of the Living Dead” is as simple as they come. Consider this: Two warehouse workers, fooling around at the workplace, accidentally release chemical gases from a strange, unknown canister sitting in the cellar. The canister, we learn, is being searched for by the military, which seems to know it’s dangerous. Our two workers, on the other hand, are too incompetent to know what they’ve done. Later, the chemical gases are released into the air and are returned to the ground by a rainstorm (don’t ask). Just in time too, as the cemetery grounds next door becomes a party haven to a bunch of freewheeling (20-something actors posing as) teens. Soon, the living dead have awakened, and they only want one thing: human brains!
“Return of the Living Dead” is all about getting as many laughs out of what’s happenings onscreen as possible, all the while managing to be clever and just a little bit scary. Writer/director Dan O’Bannon (“Alien”) absolutely knows his stuff here, and really gives the audience everything it wants. Besides making references to “movies about zombies” and the how’s and why’s to kill one, the film never forgets what it’s about and never ceases to please.
There’s plenty of nudity (courtesy of scream queen Linnea Quigley), humor (Don Calfa’s embalmer carries a Luger pistol when working with the corpses), and when the zombies wake up, wall-to-wall zombie action is had. Also of note is that “Return” has some of the most hilarious zombie action around. There is a zombie, nicknamed “tar man” by the creators (on the DVD version) that gets very creative when trying to get to one of its victims; zombies fresh from the cemetery kill some paramedics, then calls on the radio for dispatch to send more paramedics — which they promptly do!
There is no attempt at being serious with the material, and “Return of the Living Dead” succeeds because of it. For instance, after the warehouse boss finds a body in his warehouse coming back to life, he and his two bumbling employees try to cover it up by beheading the zombie — which only pisses it off! When that doesn’t work, the boss and his employees head over to the mortuary next door to see if they can burn the evidence. The mortuary employee decides it’s a good idea to help out, and promptly throws the zombie’s severed body parts (wrapped in bags) into the incinerator!
If it isn’t already obvious, “Return of the Living Dead” is a laugh-out loud riot that delivers on everything one expects from a Zombies Attack movie. The acting is really all over the place, but that’s to be expected in genre movies like this. Besides the presence of veterans like Gulager and Calfa, the rest of the cast (particularly the teen zombie fodder) are mostly unknown faces. Being that “Return” is a low budget film, the gore and prosthetics (for severed zombie limbs) are sometimes too cheesy, but appropriately so for this movie. For what they had to work with, “Return” still looks great 17 years later.
Comedy, gore, severed limbs, clever dialogue, and plenty of nudity. “Return of the Living Dead” has it all. If Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is the film that all serious Zombies Attack film is measured by, “Return of the Living Dead” is the film that all Zombies Attack spoof films will be compared to — and rightly so, on both counts.
Dan O’Bannon (director) / Dan O’Bannon, Rudy Ricci, John A. Russo, Russell Streiner (screenplay)
CAST: Clu Gulager …. Burt Wilson
James Karen …. Frank
Don Calfa …. Ernie
Thom Mathews …. Freddy
Beverly Hartley …. Tina