"No one understands me, you know that? I fucking bust my ass for you guys and what do I get? You're spooky. Fuck you man, fuck you all!"
In 1985, I was discovering my love for zombies and my attachment to the punk rock movement that was taking over Los Angeles. Walking down the streets of Hollywood, I came to a theater showing a new zombie film and the poster caught my eye. A leather clad, Mohawk headed zombie standing by a tombstone with a big breasted zombie to his left. At the bottom of the poster was a flier for the soundtrack featuring The Cramps, The Damned, and T.S.O.L., wow, I was in. I grabbed my popcorn and Coke and grabbed a seat. I have never been the same.
Opening up with a warning that what we are about to see is based on actual fact; we are introduced to Warehouse owner Burt Wilson, his manager Frank and his new employee Freddy. Burt leaves for the evening, but Frank wants to stick around for an hour and finish up some stuff before the long Fourth of July weekend. Freddy also stays to orientate himself with his new job.
Meanwhile, out in town, Freddy’s friends are walking down the street trying to figure out what to do that night. The group is made up of various punk types, Scuz (Mohawk and trench coat), Trash (dyed red hair, fishnets, outrageous eye makeup and face paint), Spider (sporting a jheri curl, camouflage pants, and combat boots), Chuck (new waver in a oversized suit and tie), Casey (wearing a blue “stray cats” style pompadour), and Freddy’s girlfriend Tina (kind of the good girl of the group). They decide to pick Freddy up from work because he always knows where to party and begrudgingly ask their fringe friend Suicide for a ride. He freaks them out but he does have a car.
Back at the warehouse, Freddy is reading a medical manual while Frank does paper work. Frank, during the course of conversation, brings up the film “Night of the Living Dead”, and informs Freddy that not only was it based on a true case, but that they had some of the bodies down in the basement.
Freddy is shown the body of a corpse and worried, says to Frank, “These things don’t leak, right?” To which Frank assures him they don’t and smacks the side of the canister, inadvertently releasing the toxic Tri-Oxon Gas!
They awake after some time to find that the gas has filled the warehouse and things are coming back to life. At the cemetery across the street, Suicide and the gang have pulled up and are killing time till Freddy gets off. Through some errors in judgment, the gas ends up all over the cemetery and no one is safe, not even from each other.
Return of the Living Dead may be the second most influential zombie film ever made. Now I realize that is a bold statement but there are two traits that were given to these zombies that have endured over the years like no other.
First of all, and I know this may come as a shock to all the 28 Days Later devotees out there, ROTLD is the first film to feature running zombies. We have had them a lot in the past few years, but it started with this film.
Second. Look at all the zombie shirts, news paper comics, appearances in cartoons and so forth. What do zombies say and eat? Most people will say “Brainsssss!” Yes this was also a creation of writer/director Dan O’Bannon, the man that also created Alien.
Got it? Now we can move on. On top of these changes, the film also features genre characters that feel real because it doesn’t focus on their interest. I’ll explain.
Punk rockers, metal heads, tattoo enthusiasts, hell, even Gangsters are what I call Genre guys. They have a shtick, so to speak, that represents who they are. Unfortunately in 80’s films, these characters were often parodies rather than “real” people. They were, more times than not, portrayed as goofy, violent or dim witted, rather than just being people with different musical and political agendas. O’Bannon was interested in the sub-culture and put them in the film as just being people in a jam, nothing more or less. These characters never feel false or forced and that is a rare thing, even today.
Another interesting ingredient is the soundtrack. The Return of the Living Dead soundtrack is one of the most enduring horror soundtracks ever produced, and one of only two 1980’s era horror soundtracks still commonly found. One reason is that it features all original music by the biggest bands in the genre, The Cramps, The Damned, 45 Grave, T.S.O.L. and the Flesheaters. Most of these songs are unavailable on any other recording keeping the collectability factor high as well as because of the organic nature of Punk, it never sounds dated like so many 80’s “New Wave” soundtracks. Trust me, you are hard pressed to roll down the street in any city and hear someone blasting the Go-Go’s (not an attack, just an observation).
Among the unique and guilty pleasures in this film:
A graveyard full body striptease (to music no less)
Split dogs (actually a little disturbing)
The interrogation of a half woman corpse (by half woman, I mean the top half of her body, what did you think I meant?)
A legless zombie chasing a girl on his stumps (you have to see it)
Talking zombies calling in for back-up cops and paramedics (odd and ingenious)
The cast is a mix of veterans like Clu (Nightmare on Elm St. 2) Gulager and Jimmy (Poltergeist) Karen along with then new comers like Linea Quigley (Night of the Demons), Thom Mathews (Friday the 13th pt. 6), Miguel Nunez (Friday the 13th pt.5), Mark Venturini (Friday the 13th pt. 5). Every character brings something to the table and that makes for a good flick.
There are sly in jokes throughout, but they never slip into slapstick nor are the zombies ever played for laughs. If you like zombie films and have yet to see this one; you are in for a treat. If you are new to zombie films this is a great place to jump on board and catch up. Who knows, maybe after you see it, you’ll be the one rolling down the street blasting the soundtrack.