Why We Heart: The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Living Dead acknowledges the existence of Night of the Living Dead and zombies in film history - one line of dialogue near the start of this film, suggests that the events of Romero's 1968 classic, actually happened. All characters act on their knowledge of the Romero films, and are disappointed when the truth is different from what they have seen of these films. "You mean the movie lied?" exclaims one surprised victim.


The Return of the Living Dead is a film that is held in high regard amongst horror circles, which was refreshing and clever at the same time. It was a well-timed film for the period it was made, and in the current period of horror-comedies and parodies (I'm looking at you Scary Movie franchise!) it seemed to have found the perfect blend to create a hybrid that works.

By Andreas Charalambous

The Return of the Living Dead is an imaginative, funny and timely reinvigoration of the ghoulish concepts George A. Romero pioneered back in 1968. Especially with its accent on comedy, one might expect that director Dan O'Bannon's variation on the theme would fail miserably (admittedly, early reception of this film was fairly negative), but quite to the contrary. This is one amazing horror film, and one that I can (and have!) happily watch over and over again. This film is the perfect blend of humour and horror. It reflects the punk nihilism of the age and the cold war fear of nuclear apocalypse. The film also depicts death in starker terms than many efforts that have come before, and describes with a strong sense of inevitability how  a bad situation can quickly escalate to worse, to tragic, to completely FUBAR. Return surpasses Romero's 1985 film Day of the Dead in terms of its ingenuity, social value and overall entertainment, and consequently it's also one of the best horror films of the decade - have you already guessed I like this film...a lot!?


This film takes the Night of the Living Dead aesthetic and updates it to include the 1980s - the decade of the punk rocker. Punks are nihilists who see no tomorrow, and dwell in a culture of death music and death imagery. Appropriately, Return of the Living Dead focuses on a group of punks with names like Trash, Suicide and Scum. Their very names indicate their lack of respect for the world, and themselves. They see themselves as nothing in a world that doesn't value them, and won't survive an apocalypse. Obsessed with death and murder, these characters actually worship ugliness and urban blight. When facing the wasteland of Uneeda's industrial park, Trash (legendary Scream Queen, Linnea Quigley) notes, "I like it. It's a statement."

 

The punk characters, "stupid fuckers" by their own admission, don't really help each other when they could. Instead, they run around and die. Those who do survive see their chosen philosophy of life proven correct when, in the end, the United States government nukes the city to destroy the living dead. The nuclear apocalypse the punk generation fears has come to pass. And - as many suspected - it's friendly fire, not an example of Communist aggression.

Night of the Living Dead has been viewed through the lens of racial issues in 1960s America. The shopping mall setting in Dawn of the Dead in 1978 is universally read as a statement of rampant consumerism. Return of the Living Dead is the true heir to this legacy, because it absorbs the zeitgeist of Reagan's 1980s, fears of nuclear apocalypse, punk rock and all that business. Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), same year as Return) ends atypically happy, with Sarah having

discovered a Caribbean paradise with two friends, far from the plague of the dead destroying America. Before Land of the Dead, it was the only film in the trilogy to end on a semi-upbeat note, rather than a dark one.

The film explains in detail how rigor mortis begins in the brain and settles in the muscles. As the paramedics arrive to take vital signs in a classic scene, they find no heartbeats, no blood pressure and no pulse. Instead, they locate blood starting to pool, and big purple blotches of blood on the patients' backs. As for the zombies, they eat brains because it hurts to die; there's "the pain of being dead" that apparently only eating brains can help alleviate. "I can feel myself rotting", reveals one zombie. This dark film proves exceedingly grim about not just dying, but the condition of death itself. The humour does however break this at certain points - an example is when a zombie radios for more police to attend the scene after the contents of the first squad car to arrive had been eaten, but rather than doing so for help, it's as if he just ordered more pizzas for his undead friends. "Party time" indeed!

Even the dreams these characters have , focus on grim death-oriented details. "Do you ever fantasise about being killed? Ever wonder what would be the most horrible way to die?" Trash asks her friends, almost immediately before going into a nude striptease on top of a grave monument.


The message is clear: Like many such youths from this time, she gets off on the idea of death. Her "most horrible way to die" is oddly sexual too. "A bunch of men eating her alive", she states... You can see where this is going. Sex and death, co-mingling in the culture of the bomb. It's quite a powerful statement, even before the zombies arrive.


It's only a matter of time till the dead do return to life and begin killing the punks, who suddenly find that death isn't so romantic or enjoyable as they might have hoped. O'Bannon adds punk music to the soundtrack (45 Grave's Party Time, being a favourite of mine!) at critical junctures. This makes the audience aware that, in some sense, the death pop culture is also responsible for the apocalypse. Zombies rise to the tune of Party Time*, a set piece crafted to resemble a music video - similarities with Michael Jackson's Thriller are clear to see. In the sequel, a zombie claws its way out of its grave wearing a suspiciously similar wardrobe to that the king of pop wore in his music video - and overrun the chapel to the ludicrous and amusing song, The Surfing Dead. The music plays as counterpoint to the action on screen, and underlines the punk ethos of the film.

Indeed, the end of Day of the Dead suggests that sometimes it's okay to ignore the big issues and run away to bury your head in the sand. That's a valid point of view, but in Return of the Living Dead's hopeless, nihilistic end (which resembles Romero's The Crazies, I might add) makes a far more courageous and uncompromising statement. When disaster strikes, the film suggests that the government is the true enemy. The government and the Army are responsible for creating the zombies in the first place; they stored the zombies (unsafely); and they "solved" the problem with a nuclear missile.


No wonder a generation grew up in fear of Reagan's finger hovering on that big red button. "We start bombing in five minutes" is a joke without a funny punch line and so it's no wonder that a culture obsessed with death grew up in America.


This film is more than just a reflection of nuclear fears and the punk aesthetic. In a logical if horrifying way, it depicts how a manageable situation can deteriorate and become unmanageable. The incident in Uneeda's basement results in a visit to the mortuary to kill the "undead." The corpses are then burned in a fire, but the smoke rises from the crematorium. The chemical then comes back down to earth as rain, and falls into the graveyard - producing more dangers. It's a cycle of life, or death, and this is the first time that a living dead film has explicitly found a message to pass the "disease" in a way other than direct contact (biting).


The message is an environmental one: toxic chemicals are pumped into the atmosphere and have a toxic effect. Even this is a timely allusion to a fear of the 1980s - acid rain. It also attempts to address specific issues about the process of dying that other living dead films ignored. For instance, exposure to the 245 Trioxin kills the Uneeda employees, but they don't realise this until their bodies begin to suffer from the effects of rigor mortis.