The Return of the Living Dead is a 1985 zom-com written and directed by Alien (1979) and Total Recall (1990) writer Dan O’ Bannon. As the title suggests, it’s a picture that merrily touts a troupe of unstoppable zombies - this time the corpses have been reanimated through the accidental release of a toxic gas by the inept employees of ‘Uneeda Medical Supply’. Romero’s original zombie picture is a clear influence, Frank – one of the aforementioned imbeciles played by James Karen – asks a new employee outright: “Did you ever see that movie, Night of the Living Dead?” He then goes on to explain that Romero’s work was based on a true story. Though clearly influenced by the zombie master O’ Bannon carefully avoids derivative lines.
In between shots of these ill-equipped stooges trying to deal with reanimated corpses (and dogs) we also meet a group of teenagers who are pretty obviously destined to die. Aside from the fact that they have names such as Suicide (Mark Venturini), Scuz (Brian Peck) and Trash (Linnea Quigley) they parade about the streets of Louisville, Kentucky saying things like “I like death with sex.” Trash is particularly obsessed with the sex and death motif as she purrs: ”Do you ever fantasize about all the different ways of dying, you know, violently?” Before further explaining: “ Well, for me, the worst way would be for a bunch of old men to get around me and start biting and eating me alive.” Given that this film heavily features characters of the undead variety you get absolutely no prizes for guessing how Trash eventually meets her sticky end.
This film has all the hallmarks of a writer and director who really knows what he’s doing. The script is crammed with one-liners and in-jokes, tonally, it doesn’t take itself too seriously (two of the characters are called Bert and Ernie) and the pacing is pitch perfect, clenching a firm grip on the audience attention. It is also unashamedly gory. Credit should be given to this film for a number of alternative zombie conventions but perhaps the most notable is the introduction of zombies banqueting on brains, apparently human flesh was just for starters. Unlike Romero’s plodding monstrosities O’ Bannon’s zombies are brisk, limber and coniving little so-and-sos and thus moments of dread and eeriness are expertly inserted throughout.
Return of the Living Dead is now available on DVD and Blu-ray