The Return Of The Living Dead

The Return Of The Living Dead

*****

Reviewed by: Neil Mitchell

Dan O'Bannon's cult horror comedy, The Return Of The Living Dead, now over a quarter of a century old, gets a sumptuous two-disc special edition DVD and Blu-ray steelbook release courtesy of Second Sight.

An unofficial sequel of sorts, more in name than in style and tone, to George A. Romero's ground-breaking The Night Of The Living Dead, O'Bannon's movie was produced by Night's co-writer and co-producer, John Russo, who secured the right to use the Living Dead in the title after much legal wrangling. Released back in 1985, before the prevalence of CGI effects and torture porn plot-lines came to dominate the horror genre, ROTLD took great delight in smearing its bloody, 80s pop culture fingerprints onto the zombie movie.

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Its twisting of the standard conventions of the genre (which Russo helped to establish) - amalgamating gross out comedy with gory violence and riotous trash-punk soundtrack - proved to be an enduringly winning combination, fresh at the time and now a prime example of the splatter horror movies of the era. The likes of Stuart Gordon's ReAnimator, Brain Damage, Basket Case and Peter Jackson's Bad Taste and Braindead all, to some small or large degree, owe a debt of gratitude to ROTLD and Sam Raimi's equally influential The Evil Dead, made a few years prior to O'Bannon's film.

The basic plot sees Frank (James Karen), the foreman of a medical supply warehouse accidentally unleash the toxic gas from a barrel, which contains the preserved human remains of a failed military experiment, while trying to impress new employee Freddy (Thom Matthews). The gas has the power to re-animate all dead things and Frank, Freddy, their boss Burt and nearby mortuary worker Ernie, along with Freddy's friends – a gang of punks and dropouts partying close by in a cemetery - are caught slap bang in the middle of an outbreak of zombies hungry for the brains of the living.

That O'Bannon's undead are specifically after warm brains and not just flesh is one of a number of innovations he gives to his creatures; they can also talk and move a lot quicker than the 'classic' groaning, shuffling zombie, and they can't be killed with a bullet to the brain. Visual gags, one liners, visceral carnage, gratuitous nudity and a fantastically OTT climax are all accompanied by the anarchic, up-tempo sounds of The Cramps, The Damned and a host of other punk/deathrock acts. The wild energy of the soundtrack perfectly suits the inventive, tongue-in-cheek onscreen action, and the cast, split as it is between established actorly talent and youthful enthusiasm, alternately bring great comic timing and fearless exuberance.

I'm glad to say that ROTLD stands up to the test of time, the prosthetic and animatronic effects give the undead creatures that tactile, tangible quality that CGI simply cannot match, the script is still a hoot – especially in the interplay between Gulager, Karen and Calfa – and the off the wall mayhem on show hasn't lost an ounce of its wit and energy. Great production design, combined with O'Bannon's strong, singular directorial vision and writing skills (he was, remember, responsible for the screenplays of Dark Star and Alien), add the finishing touches to this much loved undead romp. The four sequels may have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, but ROTLD is a retro delight for those of us old enough to remember its original release, and is required viewing for all future budding horror aficionados.

Reviewed on: 06 Jun 2012
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Toxic gas brings the dead back to life just as a group of teenagers are partying in the graveyard.
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Jennie Kermode ****1/2

Director: Dan O'Bannon

Writer: Dan O'Bannon

Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Linnea Quigley

Year: 1985

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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If you like this, try:

Black Sheep
Braindead
The Toxic Avenger