Now this is a goofy as hell movie. Back in my more serious days as a zombie fan (read: humorless), the idea of talking, wisecracking zombies seemed nearly sacrilege to me, so it took me a while to give Return a chance. However, as is usual with movies like this, I found a copy of it at a used DVD store for a couple bucks and figured, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Naturally, I found a new genre favorite.
The Return of the Living Dead takes place in a universe where Night of the Living Dead exists and was based on a true story. As it turned out, the US Government created a chemical defoliant to use against hippies and their pot fields that had the unfortunate side effect of resurrecting the dead (and killing and resurrecting anyone else exposed to the gas) and turning them into brain eating zombies. Of course, a couple of screwups working at a medical research storage facility accidentally release the gas upon a nearby cemetery where a bunch of punk rock loving teens just happen to be having a party. 80’s-level hilarity ensues.
Like I said, this movie is goofy as hell. All the characters are broad, over the top and so militantly 80’s stereotypes. All the punk rock kids have bad attitudes and terrible taste in fashion (especially Trash, played by 80’s scream queen Linnea Quigley, who spends most of the movie wearing nothing but a pair of leg warmers), the government is evil and can’t be trusted, and the low-level bureaucrats in charge of the medical storage facility and the nearby mortuary are only looking out for their own asses. In fact, everything and everybody in this movie is so over the top and silly that it can’t help but be a charming as hell little movie.
And that isn’t even counting the zombies, who are some of the most distinct and memorable members of the living dead to grace the silver screen. Rather than follow the Romero route of trying to make the most believable (or at least potentially believable) walking corpses possible, Return creates impossibly cartoonish-looking corpses that look like something out of the classic EC Comics. They run, they scream, they eat brains and are effectively unstoppable, and they are among the only zombies I’ll excuse for talking, because when they do it’s among the greatest moments in splatstick history (insert link here). On top of all this, this is one of the first movies that I can recall that really took advantage of using puppets for creating more impossible, skeletal zombies (though the infamous Tar Man zombie in this movie was accomplished with one really skinny and talented mime who played the part in such a way that it appeared his bones were barely attached to each other).
The Return of the Living Dead may not be the most groundbreaking or original zombie film, but it is easily one of the most fun and charming and militantly 80’s (in a good way) that the genre has to offer.
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-- Matt Carter
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