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The Return of the Living Dead

Back in 1985 a terrorific horror and dark comedy film known as The Return of the Living Dead unearthed. The Return of the Living Dead (TRotLD), written and directed by Dan O'Bannon, marked a significant change with regards to how zombies are presented in films. Before TRotLD released, zombies were portrayed as non-intelligent slow-moving flesheaters, that lacked purpose. TRotLD gave rise to a new breed of zombies that are intelligent, fast, and want nothing more than to eat "Live Brains!". By embracing the, at the time, contemporary 2nd-punk movement, TRotLD's theme, characters, and soundtrack teems with attitude.

TRotLD follows the merging stories of two medical supply warehouse workers, Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews), and a graveyard bound group of punk rock misfits. The warehouse workers accidentally unleash a hazardous chemical, lost by the U.S. government, that is believed to have ties with government experiments and the original Night of the Living Dead film. In the meantime, the group of punks decide to party in a nearby graveyard until their friend, warehouse worker Freddy, finishes his shift. When Frank and Freddy awaken after their exposure to the leaked chemical, they discover that previously inanimate medical supples have now become animated and alive (even the preserved, symmetrically halved, dog). From this point forward, matters get progressively worse, and the punks in the graveyard serve as the perfect victims for this government rebirthed mishap.

TRotLD
Live Brains!

What sets TRotLD apart from the many zombie films before it, aside from the aforemention zombie changes, is its blending of dark comedy and horror. The film maintains an almost wholly serious tone that bleeds satire in every major scene. A subtle example of this is when Frank's "Made in the USA" confidence leads to his incautious slapping of the lost US government chemical barrel; causing its un-deadly contents to leak out. Another satirically humorous moment involves Trash's (Linnea Quigley) death scene, where she is surrounded by numerous "old-men" zombies. Earlier in the film, before zombies were a perceived threat, Trash has a conversation with Spider (Miguel A. Nunez) where she is quoted saying "...what would be the most horrible way to die?...the worst way would be for a bunch of old men to get around me, and start biting and eating me alive." This clever use of satire throughout the film enhances its entertainment value, boasting rewatchability.

Unfortunately, not all of the humor is dark. There are some scenes that employ a slapstick approach to its humor. Slapstick comedy, depending on its implementation, can dramatically disrupt the execution of a serious-toned dark comedy, like TRotLD. The scene where a completely skeletal corpse rises from its grave, momentarily changes the film's tone from serious to ridiculous. Why include this disjointing skeleton if it is never to be referenced again for the remainder of the film? Don't get me wrong, a slapstick horror comedy film can absolutely work, like 1987's Evil Dead II. But, for TRotLD its incorporation reduces the effectiveness of the film's dark comedy horror approach.

TRotLD
Why do you eat people? Not people. Brains. Brains only? Yes.

For horror films, special effects and makeup are vital in inducing believable and sustainable fear. The special effects in TRotLD, although not mind-blowing, are impressive for its time. The scene where Ernie (Don Calfa) has a conversation with a captured half-lady zombie is without a doubt the most visually impressive scene in the entire film. Unfortunately, the makeup doesn't appear to have received the same attention. Most of the zombies lack any details that should indicate decay. It is hard to believe that a bunch of blue, grey, and yellow spray-painted people are zombies, without clearly showing signs of decay, or fatal marks of their recent death.

If one thing is true about TRotLD, it is that the film is a mixed bag of thoughtful and thoughtless elements. The zombie punk aesthetic is a great idea, but most of the on-screen acting was driven by the non-punk characters Frank, Burt (Clu Gulager), and Ernie. It seems as if more attention was put into ensuring that the punks looked accurate, than providing them with meaningful dialog or character. One of the few lines from Suicide (Mark Venturini) sums up my complaint best, "You think this is a fuckin' costume? This is a way of life." A thankful saving grace for the punk aesthetic is the films soundtrack. The featuring of bands like The Cramps, The Damned, 45 Grave, and T.S.O.L. reassures me that at least some proper representation was upheld.

TRotLD
Why didn't you call this number immediately? I see. It's understandable.

Despite the film's mixed bag of pros and cons, The Return of the Living Dead remains as entertaining today, as it was when it first released over 25 years ago. If you ever wondered why contemporary depictions of zombies moan and groan the phase "brains", then watch The Return of the Living Dead. Actually, if you are even slightly interested in horror films, then you should give this a watch. Few films can claim as much responsibility for influencing those that follow it, than The Return of the Living Dead. Like any cult classic film, there are imperfections. However, the union of dark comedy and punk attitude within The Return of the Living Dead, like a swarm of "old men" zombies, overwhelm any mentioned shortcomings; resulting in an entirely entertaining experience.

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4 brains out of 5

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