- Monthly Theme: Sean’s Favorites
- The Film: The Return of the Living Dead
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Date of U.S. release: August 16, 1985
- Studio: Hemdale Film, et al.
- Distributer: Orion Pictures
- Domestic Gross: $14 million
- Budget: $4 million (estimated)
- Director: Dan O’Bannon
- Producers: John Daly, et al.
- Screenwriters: Dan O’Bannon
- Adaptation? No.
- Cinematographer: Jules Brenner
- Make-Up/FX: Kevin McCarthy, et al.
- Music: Matt Clifford
- Part of a series? Yes. The film gave birth to two theatrical sequels – 1988’s The Return of the Living Dead Part II and 1993’s The Return of the Living Dead 3 – as well as two direct-to-DVD sequels, 2005’s Necropolis and 2005’s Rave from the Grave.
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Scream queen Linnea Quigley (Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Creepozoids, etc.). Genre character actors Thom Mathews (The Return of the Living Dead Part II, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, etc.).
- Other notables?: Yes. Character actors Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr., Clu Gulager and James Karen.
- Awards?: n/a
- Tagline: “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”
- The Lowdown: One of horror cinema’s most beloved cult objects, The Return of the Living Dead follows two medical supply warehouse employees, schlubby middle-manager Frank (James Karen) and sweet-natured punk rocker Freddy (Thom Matthews), who inadvertantly release a government-developed chemical weapon that reanimates the med-school cadaver stored in the warehouse freezers. They call in warehouse owner Burt (Clu Gulager) to help them solve the problem, who turns to his friend Ernie (Don Calfa) at the mortuary crematorium in the cemetery next door to burn the living corpse and get rid of any evidence of the chemical spill. But the toxic smoke from the cremation triggers a massive thunderstorm that spreads chemical rain all over the cemetery and hundreds of corpses rises from the dead to attack a bunch of Freddy’s punk rocker friends (including scream queen Linnea Quigley and genre stalwart Miguel Nuñez, Jr.) who are partying at the cemetery. What follows is a blackly comic splatterfest that leads to one of horror cinema’s all-time greatest downbeat endings.
If you haven’t seen The Return of the Living Dead, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: This is going to be a tough one to talk about because I know this movie was super-important/formative for 12-year-old Sean. I enjoyed this movie, but I did not find it to be amazing or anything like that. I also know that, in addition to you loving it, it has a pretty dedicated cult following, which makes me feel like I’m missing something. I want this chat to clarify the movie’s je ne sais quoi. I can tell you what I enjoyed and what I thought were the movie’s strengths, but I’m afraid that this didn’t come across as a clear “masterpiece” for me…
Sean: I’m not surprised. I think that’s legit. It could just be that, in the tide of history, this movie’s “moment” has been washed away.
Kristine: But I feel like I am missing out, just like I did with Zombi 2.
Sean: Meh. Don’t beat yourself up.
Kristine: Well, before we get started can your clarify exactly what this movie meant to you as a youngster? And how/why you loved it?
Sean: I wasn’t simply a fan of this movie. I was legitimately obsessed with it. I watched it probably about two hundred times between the ages of 12 and 17. I wrote out the screenplay of the movie by pausing my VHS copy and writing the lines out longhand on white, blue-lined pads. I recorded the movie onto cassette tapes and, when I wasn’t watching the movie, I would listen to it as an audio recording. I still, to this day, have practically every word memorized. It helped lay the foundation for my latter passion for punk music and introduced me to the Cramps, most notably. It completely overtook my imagination and headspace. I lived inside the movie for years. There’s only a very few other movies – Rear Window, Stand By Me, Clue: The Movie, the Star Wars trilogy, Hardware, The Goonies – that I got that obsessed with.
Kristine: Clue: The Movie? WTF?
Sean: It’s really good.
Sean: Back to The Return of the Living Dead. I suggest that we open with a discussion of the movie’s meta-qualities.
Sean: Obviously, Scream is the big cultural touchstone for “characters in a horror movie talking about being in a horror movie.” But as we saw with Fright Night, that’s been going on for a long time. In Demons, the whole plot takes place in a movie theatre that is showing a horror movie. In Halloween, the kids are watching old ‘50s horror movies on tv. In the original 1950s version of The Blob, the monster invades a movie theater packed with teenagers watching a horror movie. The impulse of horror movies to directly address the genre – either visually or through dialogue – has always been a part of the formula.
Kristine: For sure.
Sean: The Return of the Living Dead is also meta in that way, but more pointedly. In grand grindhouse tradition – most notably in 1970s classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Macon County Line and Walking Tall – the movie purports to be a true story. But also, Night of the Living Dead exists as a cinematic object in this universe. The characters in Return have seen the movie, and thus are familiar with the tropes of the zombie movie, which becomes important later on as they try to solve their zombie ‘problem.’ What did you make of that conversation between Frank and Freddy about Night of the Living Dead? And the way this movie posits itself as a ‘true story’? I mean, at one point Frank screams out, “It worked in the movie!” when they’re trying to kill the freezer zombie, and Burt responds, ‘Well, it ain’t workin’ now Frank.”
Kristine: I love how the characters are trying to stop the zombie by destroying the brain á la Night of the Living Dead. I thought it was very cool and well done. It can be annoying when genre movies overdo it with self-conscious references to the genre. That can feel like inside baseball. But The Return of the Living Dead pulls the meta-zombie stuff off really well, so that it feels true to the characters (and not like the voice of the screenwriter/über-horror movie nerd intruding into the movie) while also working as a comedic device. And despite how different Night of the Living Dead and The Return of the Living Dead are in tone, I really like how there’s a lot of thematic and character parallels between them (I want to expand on this in a bit). I love the homage to Night, when Frank and Spider and Scuz and Ernie are barricading themselves into the mortuary, using furniture to board up the windows and fighting off all the zombie arms reaching through the boards. It was a great shout out to the original, but with its own manic energy – and a great Cramps songs on the soundtrack to boot.
Sean: Yes. In contrast to Fright Night, the relationship between the film’s characters and the genre cinema they’re referencing is darker. In Fright Night, Peter Vincent and Charlie are delighted to discover that things work just like they do in the movies (and thus they know they must kill Jerry before dawn to save Amy – and it works). But in Return, none of the cinematic rules the characters know actually wind up working out. The zombie narrative of the movie refuses to conform to their genre expectations – the zombies run instead of shambling, they can’t be killed even when the brain is destroyed, and they talk and order up more cops and paramedics like they’re ordering takeout. It’s a mordant and much more nihilistic movie than Fright Night in that way.
Kristine: Ah, good point. This seems like the right moment to interject that it was really fun that there were so many different types of zombies featured in the movie. All the designs were really innovative and diverse. I liked how the different zombies were designed to reflect how long they had been dead, how they died, how they were ‘stored.’ In the case of Trash, her zombie self even retains her personality traits. I loved all that. The creative team definitely was not lazy with the effects and design and thought behind the movie. But I hadn’t thought of it from the P.O.V. of the human characters – how much more horrifying it is that every zombie is different. You can’t predict their behavior and defend yourself accordingly. It’s random and wild and berzerk.
Sean: The imagination of the movie is anarchic and dystopian. I think that’s why it’s such a beloved cult artifact, along with the humor and wit of the screenplay. Did you have a favorite zombie?
Kristine: I liked the crazy, dripping, tall one that had Tina trapped in the tool closet.
Sean: The Tarman. Kristine, I was obsessed with that zombie as a kid.
Kristine: This is hilarious. We never pick the same monster to like. Wait, he has a name?
Sean: Yes. It’s revealed in a throwaway line, when Spider says to Burt, “Our friend is down there – the Tarman got him.”
Kristine: Just fyi, that zombie name is racist.
Sean: Well, Spider is the black guy, so he can say what he wants.
Sean: Have I told you how in middle school I wouldn’t do any homework and I’d write nonsense answers on tests in class?
Kristine: Yes, I think so.
Sean: I would draw pictures of the Tarman on the tests and quizzes and write “Brains” in every blank answer spot.
Kristine: Awesome. These days you’d be put on a watch list.
Sean: I might have been on one, actually.
Kristine: Okay, tell me what it is about the Tarman that you dig. For me, he’s just so weird and crazy-looking and scary and yet somehow comical. When he starts fucking with Tina, it’s terrifying but also funny.
Sean: Yes to all that. Also, the shock when he bites into Suicide’s head was very intense when I first saw this. Like, I’d seen zombie movies but I did not expect him to bite the guy’s head open to get at his brains. I remember falling on the floor and giggling and screaming when that happened.
Kristine: I just Google-imaged him and it’s weird, because if I just saw a still picture of his face I would be like, ‘Meh. Whatevs. That’s just the cover of some lame heavy metal album circa 1984.’ But that crazy cartoon skull face combined with the off-putting body… I don’t know, it just works. Also, this.
Sean: The weird, slippery, rubbery way the actor walks is so uncanny. The physicality of the character is just great.
Sean: What about the zombie torso lady who explains about “the pain of being dead”?
Kristine: So, I had a weird flash forward/flashback moment and she is part of it. I already said how those ‘boarding up the windows’ and ‘fighting the outstretched zombie arms’ scenes were a flashback to Night of the Living Dead. Then that zombie lady breaks through and kills Scuz and they chop her in half and tie her down and interrogate her and she explains why they are thirsting for brains. Which is interesting because in all the other zombie movies we’ve watched, the zombies never have an articulated motivation. So it’s a new angle. But my flash forward is that she reminded me of the wretched, starving she-zombie crawling across the grass in the pilot for The Walking Dead. So it was weird, being visually reminded of these two bookends to zombie media history – Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead – in the space of two minutes.
Sean: That’s a great time/space mindfuck.
Kristine: What do you think of the talking zombies? Do you like them?
Sean: I love them. Especially how they scream “Brains,” articulating this weirdly specific desire. This movie is still a cult object – its not widely known by title or anything – and yet that trope of zombies screaming “Brains” has disseminated everywhere and pops up all the time in the far corners of pop culture. I especially love the zombies getting on the radio. “Send more cops.” It’s just awesome.
Kristine: Yes. I was aware of the whole “Brains” line, but I didn’t know it originated from this movie. How crazy that it is such a catchphrase! And how crazy that these are the first brain-eating zombies. All the other zombie hordes we have met are just after human flesh en masse, right?
Sean: Yep. And this goes back to that idea that this is not your dad’s/mom’s zombie movie. This movie is faster, nastier, smarter and meaner than anything you’ve seen before. That impact might be lessened watching it for the first time in 2014, but circa 1986 the movie made you feel, while you were watching it, that all the rules were being thrown out the window, that anything could happen, and it made one delirious with joy. Like Marion Crane getting killed at the end of Act I in Psycho. If that can happen, anything can…. That kind of ‘no seatbelt’ moviemaking will always get me, every time, because so few movies are truly willing to break with convention. Most horror movies, you know who will die and who will live by the 25-minute mark.
Kristine: Your ‘no-seatbelt’ explanation makes a lot of sense to me and might be what I was looking for in my opening remarks. It explains the stuff I responded to – like the variety of zombie designs and behaviors – and also the stuff that was fun but seemed totally random, like Trash’s cemetery dance. It’s not just the zombies that are unpredictable, it’s the entire film. Do you think that’s why the decision was made to have most of the human characters be “punks”? To reflect that spirit of anarchy? Or is it as a foil to Colonel Glover and The Man in general?
Sean: Oh, that’s great. I think the answer is probably ‘both.’ I’ve never thought of it that way before, but I love it. They fit exactly with the Dionysian tone of the movie overall. The aesthetics of the punks were such a huge part of why I responded to the movie circa 1986. I wanted to… Be Chuck. Be best friends with Casey and fuck Suicide. I had no idea what to do with Trash.
Kristine: No man knows what to do with Trash. Remind me which ones Chuck and Casey were?
Sean: Chuck is the surfer/preppie in the pegged pants and skinny tie. Casey is the sassy loudmouthed girl in the blue minidress.
Kristine: Do you remember when I critiqued the eclectic style of the “punks” (dude, every single character is their own sub-culture) and you got pissy? I was all, “As if a New Wave dude would ever hang out with a gutter punk chick” and you said, “That’s not the point. I think it’s cool, Kristine.”
Sean: I have absolutely no memory of that. Are you making it up?
Sean: Weird. It was late.
Kristine: I still found it a bit bizarre – how each kid is this archetype. But it’s fine.
Sean: Well, what’s bizarre about it?
Kristine: This critique is going to sound so incredibly petty and insane considering the nature of the film, but it is just unrealistic. All the subcultures represented by the styling of the kids don’t go together at all. Like the costume director just wanted to let loose and represent every single type of “outsider” or “weirdo” or “nonconformist,” instead of making a believable group of people that would hang out together. But maybe it’s all in the ‘fuck the rules’ spirit of the movie. It did make things more fun, visually.
Sean: Yeah, its definitely one of those artistic choices that either works for you or doesn’t…. I’d say what it does, in addition to furthering the movie’s investment in breaking the rules, is signal to the audience that this is going to be a heightened reality, with a comic-book tone.
Kristine: I was going say that it is very Archie comic book.
Sean: Which I love. I’m surprised that you, the comic book person, didn’t dig it. This is you to The Return of the Living Dead: “Um, listen RotLD, Suburbia was my favorite movie as a teen and you do NOT understand punk culture like I do. Sorry.”
Kristine: Well, yeah. I know it’s dumb.
Sean: What about Suicide going, “You think this is a fucking costume? This is a way of life!”
Kristine: Not realistic, but okay.
Sean: This line was being quoted by Sharon Needles, winner of Season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race (who is a punk goth queen), on Twitter and Facebook when her season of the show was airing. That line from Suicide is really a rallying cry for all the freaks and queers and wierdos and outsiders.
Kristine: I love dumb old long-suffering Suicide. Weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s just such a burden to be authentic when you’re surrounded by poseurs.
Sean: Well, exactly. That’s what the movie is using Suicide to lampoon, right? The guy who believes he is waging a one-man war of authenticity against the world.
Kristine: Yep. That kind of relates to another thought I had about the punks.
Kristine: They are supposed to be fucking things up and raising hell and bringing society to it’s knees, but they are victims of The Man (Col. Glover and the military) and also the man (Frank and Ernie, the middle-aged, white, square dudes whose foibles unleash the zombies). They are vulnerable victims, not the menacing hell-raisers they imagine themselves to be. Remember Spider’s outrage and pain when Frank and Ernie finally explain what is happening? He is like, “You did this to us!! How could you!?!?!?” It’s interesting.
Sean: Oh yeah. There’s a lot I want to say about that and the movie’s class politics… But let’s hold off for just a sec.
Sean: The other punk moment I want to discuss is Trash’s speech where she asks Spider “Do you ever fantasize about being killed?” and then how she goes on to describe being torn apart and eaten alive by old men….
Kristine: Ah, yes, I forgot about that.
Sean: Just fyi, Trash is played by Linnea Quigley, one of horror’s most celebrated cheesecake scream queens. She was in a bunch of T&A low-budget horror movies in the 1980s.
Kristine: You told me a little about Quigley when we watched the movie and I looked her up. She has quite the following and it still totally into/working the scream queen thing.
Sean: But that Trash speech strikes me as important. What do you make of her character on the whole? I mean, she’s intended to be a lampooning of goth culture right?
Kristine: I don’t know if she is a lampoon, Sean. I mean, of all the victims, she is the one who maintains the most power. Even after she is turned into a zombie, she seems utterly herself and she becomes a leader. I love the scene when she rises up from the bottom of the screen and starts slinking towards the homeless guy and we realize she’s the temptress zombie lady now. I’m probably reading way too much into this, but the doffing of her clothes is oddly a power move, too. Usually ladies strip down to please men, but in Trash’s case, she wants to be naked. The object of her affection, Suicide, isn’t even interested in her bod, so she’s not doing it for him, right? He clings to his costume, oh, excuse me, “way of life,” for security. But Trash doesn’t need any of that. She’s like some wild Earth Goddess who freely expresses her base desires for sex and destruction. So, no, I don’t read her as a parody.
Sean: I am obsessed with that reading of Trash.
Kristine: It just now struck me.
Sean: I love it. I would only ask, don’t you kind of see that line – “Do you ever fantasize….” (the viewer thinks she’s about to say something sexy) “…about being killed?” (WHA?) as a laugh line?
Kristine: Oh, sure. Yes.
Sean: I love your reading, but I always thought that Trash is punished by the movie because what she describes as “the worst way” of dying is what happens to her. And after she takes her clothes off, the acid rain falls and she’s crying and cowering and moaning, “You guys my skin really burns!” for the next 20 minutes.
Kristine: I think a lot of the characters get it rough. Frank and Freddy going to though fucking rigor mortis while they are still (kind of?) alive. Frank self-immolating in the giant oven? There’s actually some rough stuff happening in this movie, amidst all the gonzo insanity, right?
Sean: Yes, for sure. I love thinking of Trash as a primordial death goddess.
Kristine: She is totally Kali and she rises from the ashes.
Sean: I do agree that her striptease in the cemetery is about T&A, but also about more than that. It’s also about her being this performative, powerful individual. Remember Tina’s cunty reaction, all storming off and being like, “Put your clothes on. The show’s over!” And Trash is just yawning and being like, “What, does it make you nervous?”
Kristine: I think Tina and Freddy, who are ostensibly the most likable and relatable pair of characters, end up telling the cautionary message that heteronormative love hurts. She refuses to leave Freddy even though she knows he will harm her – classic girlfriend/martyr bullshit – and when he can no longer fight his zombie nature, it all becomes a metaphor for the classic abusive relationship, right?
Kristine: I thought this was one of the ways Return parallels Night of the Living Dead. Helen from NotLD is a corollary to Tina in Return. The heterosexual narrative becomes a nightmare. Tina also has a lot of Barbara in her, of course, cowering and wilting and being generally useless. The other corollary to NotLD is the archetype of the Bad Daddy. In Return, it is Glover and his dickish, dismissive treatment of his wife. In Night, it is Mr. Cooper. Also, in both movies the outsider heroes are destroyed, ultimately, not by the zombie hordes but by the conservative forces within American culture. In Night, those forces are represented by the gun-toting white posse. In Return, it’s the military industrial complex (very Reagan-era).
Sean: Yeah, both movies are deeply paranoid and nihilistic. To get back to the class issues that you brought up earlier, the character of Burt (someone who seems to be a ‘hero’) only cares about the bottom line and protecting his company. He is actually a villain when you think about it. Remember how he’s annoyed when they have to call the paramedics for Frank and Freddy? That feels political to me.
Kristine: Yeah, for sure.
Sean: Remember Scuz’s response to hearing that Freddy is working? “Oh man, he got a job? What a dick!” The movie wants us to both laugh at Scuz for being a lazy ne’er-do-well, but it also believes that working means being exploited. Being a working class guy means that middle-management types like Frank and Burt will use you and ultimately destroy you through their own incompetence, greed and investment in the bottom line.
Kristine: Freddy’s ultimate fate certainly seems to suggest that. Remember when Frank is all, “Listen, if you like this job…” and Freddy is all, “Like it???” This is after his supervisor has just poisoned him with a chemical weapon.
Kristine: That Frank and Burt’s concern is focused on protecting the company and covering things up, not the welfare of their employees, feels very pointed and cynical about the basic structures of American society.
Sean: Agreed. The whole narrative of the movie is basically about cover-ups and suppression. For-profit companies and government agencies are equally corrupt.
Kristine: Col. Glover is such a dick to his wife. I was dying.
Sean: I love all those scenes of WASP-y repression. “I had pork for lunch.” His wife is such a grand dame.
Kristine: Poor Mrs. Glover.
Sean: The ending of this movie is super nihilistic.
Kristine: Yeah. And implies that this has happened before and will happen again, right?
Sean: Absolutely. This movie could be remade today and tied into the global climate so easily – drones and WMDs and the Arab Spring and all of it. This is where I’m tempted to read the zombie hordes in this movie as radical, anarchic forces attempting to overthrow the government.
Kristine: And return us to…. ancient death cult worship. Led by Trash.
Sean: It’s true that the zombie mobs almost read as a radical matriarchy once she’s installed as their Zombie Queen.
Kristine: I do love how the zombies use the infrastructure of the system against itself.
Sean: All those images of the mob attacking the police. “Send more cops.” That’s kinda punk.
Sean: Yes. Whereas in Romero’s films, the zombies are these brainless automatons meant to represent the Western capitalist consumer. But the zombies in Return are Occupy Wall Street and the Earth Liberation Front.
Kristine: Truly. And they are lashing out because of the pain of their existence – that’s punk.
Sean: Right. We have to address Ernie, the vaguely Nazi-ish crematorium manager. WTF? What’s up with the Nazi subtext?
Kristine: Yeah. That was… Well, it happened. When you’ve got Nazis + body ovens, you are saying something. Plus that gruesome ending with Ernie holding a gun against Tina’s head in the attic, as Freddy bursts in to mutilate them. Tasteless shades of Anne Frank there.
Sean: But Ernie’s also portrayed as the humanist, wanting to put the ‘rabid weasels’ out of their misery. “That’s cruel!” he says. Burt is the one who is portrayed as morally bankrupt.
Kristine: Yes, Burt and Glover are the villains. Though at least Glover (and I can’t believe I am defending him) is doing it out of some notion of the greater good. He is following orders and protocol. Whereas Burt is just trying to cover his own ass.
Sean: I just want to say that Frank is one of the highlights of this movie, with his constant hysteria and panic, and Burt yelling “Be a man, Frank, goddamn it!” as Frank is screaming in terror. I just fucking love him.
Kristine: Yes. And when he gathers his composure to call Burt in the first place? And does his calm, grown-up voice? Hilarious. I also found his death scene to be moving, horrible, and the only heroic action in the movie.
Sean: Yes, he kind of steals the movie. A great comic performance that’s also full of pathos.
Sean: Well, that’s The Return of the Living Dead. The most importantest movie I ever sawed.
Kristine: Do you know if Romero approved of the film?
Sean: The Return of the Living Dead crushed Day of the Dead at the box office (they came out the same year), so I think Romero is bitter towards this movie.
Kristine: Yeah. Sorry, Day of the Dead sucked. This is by far the better movie.
Sean: I prefer this as well. But Day rocks.
Kristine: Return doesn’t seem bitter towards the Romero movies at all. I detected no traces of snark.
Sean: Oh, agreed. It’s just taking the Romero premise off into outer space.
Kristine: I wonder if Romero is still bitter. If he is, he should get over it. The soap opera behind all the Dead movies and their sequels and remakes is too much.
Sean: Well, Return has a bunch of sequels, also.
Kristine: Oy. How are they?
Sean: Ugh. Part 2 has Freddy and Frank back playing different characters. It’s slapstick. I hate it.
Kristine: Does Trash come back?
The Girl’s Rating: This movie IS the ’80s AND Totally disgusting AND Sleazesterpiece! AND More feminist than you’d think (because of the Trash as primal death goddess theory)
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND This movie shaped my brain for all time AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Pop perfection AND Postmodern as hell