Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Return of the Living Dead.
Dan O’Bannon wrote a few of the best science fiction and horror films of the late 70’s and 80’s such as Alien, Total Recall and Dead & Buried. He only directed a couple of features and one of them was the amazing Return of the Living Dead. It is one of my all-time favourite horror comedies from the period that the greatest horror comedies came out. Not only does it have plenty of laughs and some genuine scares, it also includes one of the most uniquely bleak zombie epidemics in film history.
A gang of punks waiting on their working friend decides to party it up in a graveyard near his work. Little do they know that he works in a medical supply warehouse and has just released a super secret government zombifying gas into the air. After a series of blunders the warehouse workers make the situation even worse, awakening all of the undead in the nearby graveyard. Some brains-wanting corpses crash the party and things just get worse and worse.
Return of the Living Dead amazes me by how perfect it is tonally. There is a lot of silliness and crazy moments but the stakes always feel real. It’s because through all the funniness the zombies still manage to be scary. Most of the comedy is derived from the bumbling warehouse workers and the outlandish and stupid punks. Imagine the zombie apocalypse happened and at the centre of it were a group of dopes that are woefully unprepared to deal with the situation. Not that they are all necessarily stupid, if anything most of their problems are to do with pettiness and fear. One of the main things that set it apart from a lot of horror comedies and horror in general is that death is rarely the punch-line and I think that’s partially why it’s so successful. We laugh when three terrified guys repeatedly fail to kill a zombie. The zombie isn’t much of a threat but they just don’t know how to stop it and it’s freaking them out in some hilarious ways. But when it comes to people dying it’s scary and nasty more than it is funny. As much as we laugh at these characters rising misfortunes we’re still afraid when they’re legitimately in peril. A lot of horror films seem to hate their characters to the point that seeing them die is almost cathartic. O’Bannon makes us actually care for these fools so that there is tension amongst the laughs. Even the ones we don’t care about we don’t actually want to see die like in some lesser horror flicks. It goes to some ridiculous places while retaining the fear because out of all the things it makes light of it doesn’t really laugh at death.
As funny as it is, its version of zombies is one of the scariest of the genre. The film actually makes reference to Night of the Living Dead and a couple of characters openly talk about the film. We’re presented with a universe where Night of the Living Dead was based on a real event and if anything it wasn’t as dark as the true story. Zombies are usually killed via destroying the brain or general dismemberment but not here. In this universe zombies can only be killed by complete destruction of their bodies, by fire or something. But even doing that releases the virus into the atmosphere that makes it rain the virus down. On top of that they are partially cognisant and can actually plan their attacks in some ways. Zombies are usually the easiest monster to kill, either they are stupid and slow or quick but easily taken down. Their power comes from them being numerous and that they multiply. On their own they are easily cut down but not here. In this film every zombie is a near indestructible creature of pain and suffering. As I’d mentioned they are not just mindless wanderers. They actually think and talk, when we hear one talk at length it makes for a sad and chilling scene as we see inside its twisted mind. Of course their ability to simply speak also allows for some funny moments too. In fact, this is the film that popularised the idea that zombies groan “Brains!”. Dan O’Bannon didn’t just make one of the funniest horror comedies but he also devised one of the most depressingly efficient zombie viruses ever.
As much as I’m emphasising the darker side of the film it’s still a blast to watch and so funny too. Every character’s personality is so well defined, which is particularly well done regarding the punks. They fulfill the role of typical horror movie teens but they’re all so odd and just refreshingly different to other similar characters in other horror films. O’Bannon’s script is excellent at making these characters ridiculous through their personal particularities rather than just having them act crazy. He mixes up the comedy between poking fun at the pretensions of the punks, “Spider: Man, what a hideous, ugly place! Trash: I like it! It’s a statement”, to some almost screwball comedy-esque scenes of fast-talking characters talking over each other. Then of course there’s the physical comedy during the zombie madness. All of the performances are perfectly over-the-top with some characters just a couple rungs below the wackiness of Airplane! making it a constantly hilarious watch.
The best horror-comedies offer enough scares to pull us in but with so many laughs that we’re left smiling. This is definitely the case with Return of the Living Dead. It’s got an awesome soundtrack, killer lines and one of the most original zombie apocalypses ever. Zombie films are at the point where they feel kind of stale, so many have been made that it takes a lot for a zombie film to stand out. This film still feels fresh and distinctive in a subgenre that has been milked dry. There’s a genuine love for classic horror movies mixed with the punk sensibilities reminiscent of Repo Man. The tagline reads “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!” and I have to say that it’s a really dope party.
James M Macleod