Illustrator Dale Rawlings brings us the second part of a zombie retrospective, taking a look at 1985’s Return of the Living Dead.
While Night of the Living Dead set the standard and established the tropes for all the zombie films that followed, 1985’s Return of the Living Dead broke those rules. Return of the Living Dead was originally based on the 1977 novel of the same name written by John Russo, George A. Romero’s former writing partner, and co-writer of Night of the Living Dead. But the film differs greatly from the novel takes a more comedic approach to the. Because the film came out in 1985, it is infused with a punk rock sensibility to shake things up and give movie audiences a fresh approach to the zombie film genre. It also had the distinction of being the first meta-zombie movie, referencing Night of the Living Dead several times in the dialogue.
The film opens inside the UNEEDA Medical Supply warehouse in Kentucky where Freddy and the foreman, Frank are busy working. Freddy has just started working at the warehouse and in the midst of a conversation Frank asks Freddy if he ever saw the movie Night of the Living Dead. Freddy answers “of course,” and Frank, eager to impress his young co-worker, proceeds to tell him that the movie was loosely based on a real situation caused by the accidental release of one of the army’s chemical weapons. Details of the story were changed for the film, of course, as the army covered the whole thing up. However, due to a “typical army fuck up”, one of the drums containing the chemical agent and a body of the reanimated dead was accidently shipped to the UNEEDA Medical Supply warehouse and currently resides in the basement. Frank takes Freddy to a look at it. Freddy is fascinated by this discovery but questions the integrity of the drum holding the gas. Frank, wanting to reassure Freddy that the agent is safely contained, gives the side of the barrel a slap. This, predictably, releases the toxic gas and renders the two of them unconscious.
Upon waking, they make their way back upstairs, Freddy complaining that the entire warehouse now smells like the gas. It’s also in his clothes and in his skin. They discover the body of a small dog on their shelves, sawed in half for medical classes, has become re-animated panting and yapping away. Freddy grabs a bat and beats the hell out of it but is unable to silence it. At that moment, screaming starts coming from their freezer. A corpse due to be shipped off to a medical school has also become re-animated. Panic sets in but they quickly devise a plan to deal with the situation; release the corpse from the freezer, subdue it, and deliver a blow to the head to put it down just like they learned in the movie Night of the Living Dead. The plan, however, does not go so smoothly and when the corpse is finally subdued and the fatal blow to the head delivered via a pickaxe, they discover that they cannot kill the re-animated dead this way as it rises and runs amok.
Horrified by this discovery, Freddy looks at Frank with complete fear as Frank shrieks, “Well, it worked in the movie!!!!”
“Didn’t you say the movie lied?” Freddy shrieks back.
And this sets the tone of the movie.
As things escalate, Frank realizes he has no recourse but to call his boss, Burt, the owner of UNEEDA Medical Supplies. Burt arrives and is really concerned about covering up the entire incident to protect his business so he devises a plan to enlist his friend, Ernie, who operates the funeral home across the way, to dispose of the corpse now in pieces and still very much re-animated, in his crematorium. Ernie, understandably, is reluctant to be involved but Burt convinces him and things start to go quickly downhill from there. Meanwhile, Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina, and a group of his punk friends are all waiting for him to get off work hanging out in a nearby graveyard to kill time. Freddy’s friends are all ridiculous 1985 era L.A. stereotypes of punk rockers, but despite that, the movie truly does have a solid punk rock aesthetic bolstered by a fabulous soundtrack featuring many great punk bands of the 80’s like the Damned, TSOL, the Tall Boys, the Flesh Eaters, the Cramps, and 45 Grave. But I digress. Let’s just say that burning the bodies was a bad idea and starts a chain reaction with dire consequences as Tina, and Freddy’s friends become caught in the middle.
Return of the Living Dead breaks those rules of zombie behavior established with Night of the Living Dead and gives us fast, intelligent zombies that can not only speak but devise traps for humans. Burt calls for paramedics to take Freddy and Frank to the hospital, both becoming sick from the gas. The paramedics arrive but are quickly killed by a horde of zombies. One zombie gets on the radio and calls in for more paramedics. Later, after police officers responding to a call about the missing paramedics are killed, a zombie gets on the radio and asks for more cops. Dressed in the dead officer’s uniform, one zombie waves the arriving fleet of police cars into their trap. In another scene, a zombie uses a chain winch to pull the door off to get at its prey. They’re clever as I stated above. This alone would make them formidable but these zombies are also very fast. Truly terrifyingly fast. I believe this is the first depiction of fast zombies in a movie, long before 28 Days Later and World War Z. And these zombies don’t eat flesh, but eat brains. The reason given for this is, with their re-animation, they can feel themselves rotting and it hurts. Badly. The only thing that can temporarily stop the pain of being dead is to eat human brains. Return of the Living Dead is the film where the zombies first became associated with saying, “Braaaaaaains.”
Though all of these attributes to the zombies are played up for comedic effect, think of how absolutely terrifying they would be if played in a more straightforward manner. Case in point; Freddy, after succumbing to the toxic gas, has become a zombie. While searching for Tina’s hiding place, Freddy tells her he loves her, and that if she REALLY loved him she would let him eat her brains. Imagine if all these attributes, speech, speed, and intelligence were present in the zombies on The Walking Dead. It’s doubtful if Rick and the gang would have survived the first season against those kinds of zombies. Those would be some fucking terrifying zombies. And they are terrifying in Return of the Living Dead as well if you really stop to think about it, but you’ll likely be too busy laughing to notice.
The movie has the obligatory nihilistic ending which works even better with the 1980’s punk rock aesthetic. The ending is almost perfect in that sense and it makes me sad that Return of the Living Dead Part II didn’t pick up from that ending with a recovery team arriving on the scene to prepare for the President’s impending visit to the area. Who wouldn’t have wanted to see a zombiefied Reagan for the sequel? I know I would have. Actor Don Calfa, who played the mortician Ernie, penned a sequel that did pick up after the events in the end of the film but the studios passed on it and went another direction. Calfa’s script was made into a graphic novel in 2008 but printed in very low numbers. The copies printed were sent to publishing houses in the hopes of getting larger release of the graphic novel but they all passed on the book. The few copies known to exist are literally impossible to find. Believe me, I have tried. But if any of you out there do manage to find a copy and want to do me a solid, send it my way and I promise I will draw your likeness in all my comic projects forevermore.