Franchise Corner Entry: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD ***** USA 1985 Dir: Dan O’Bannon. 90 mins
Despite an eight minute pre-titles sequence that suggests it’s going to be a direct satire of George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (name-checked on-screen by James Karen), this builds to a surprisingly straight reworking of NIGHT’s central siege scenario, with the ensemble cast barricading themselves into a mortuary while the authorities attempt (and fail) to deal with the swarming zombies outside. Writer-director O’Bannon abandons Romero’s convenient shoot-em-in-the-head solution (“You mean the movie lied?!”) while balancing absurdist humour with genuinely grim situations. Everybody remembers the zombies comically hissing “Brainsssss” before going in for the kill, but the dynamically paced movie cleverly employs dark jokes (notably the famous running gag of “Send more paramedics”) to offer a false sense of comic security before unnerving pay-offs (an image of scores of cops confronted by hordes of ravenous zombies is horrifying). Similarly, O’Bannon perfectly skews somewhere between farce and pathos in the scenes of comic relief duo James Karen and Thom Matthews painfully decomposing and degenerating as the zombie threat gets out of control. For a movie remembered as a comedy, it doesn’t skimp on unpleasantness, and the show-stopping scene involving the female torso zombie is one of the most disarmingly grim moments in any zombie flick: explaining how painful it is to be dead (“I can feel myself rot”), the woman’s excruciating fate prefigures the tragic heroine of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 3. Superb casting results in some memorable characters, from Linnea Quigley’s greatest hour as Trash (“Do you ever fantasise about being killed?”) to Don Calfa as a hilariously unflappable mortician. Clearly influenced by Romero’s anti-authority pessimism, O’Bannon indiscriminately destroys everyone we love in the film’s notably pessimistic ending, in which it turns out the thing America should be most afraid of in a crisis situation is its own government – all perfectly befitting the anarchic punk heart beating at the movie’s core.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD II ** USA 1988 Dir: Ken Wiederhorn 85 mins
A disappointingly lame sequel from the talented director of SHOCK WAVES and EYES OF A STRANGER. Smart-mouthed juvenile Michael Kenworthy and his pals unwittingly unleash the toxic military gas that caused havoc in the first movie, resulting in more reanimated corpses, boringly straight teens in peril (including a pre-TWIN PEAKS Dana Ashbrook) and the arrival of twitchy army guys ready to cover it all up. Lacking any ideas of its own and on a misguided mission to repeat the first film’s magic, this awkwardly brings back the original’s comedy double act (James Karen, Thom Matthews) to replay essentially the same scenes and character arc, albeit with a greater sense this time of straining desperately for laughs. Instead of Linnea Quigley we get an intensely grating, shrill female character (Suzanne Snyder) with a high pitched shriek, and in place of the Tar Man are an assortment of trying-too-hard “comedy” zombies. The various gore gags (a disembodied hand giving our heroes the finger, a wisecracking severed head that delivers the film’s punchline) were pretty old hat by 1988 and embarrassingly limp compared to the movie’s horror-comic 80’s predecessors. What’s more, the decision to blunt all the edges of the original and play everything for laughs totally misses the point of why RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was so great.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III **** USA 1993 Dir: Brian Yuzna. 93 mins
Brian Yuzna wisely ditches the tamed, teen-pitched silliness of the second movie and the splattery slapstick of his own BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR in favour of a feature-length expansion of the downbeat ending of RE-ANIMATOR in which a grief-stricken Bruce Abbot ill-advisedly revives his freshly deceased girlfriend. Part 3 has further echoes of Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD in its theme of scientists striving to control zombies for their own ends, and, notably, in its sympathetic central zombie. With the horror played straight and the doomed central couple (J Trevor Edmond and Mindy Clarke) possessing an on-screen chemistry rare for the genre, this is a fast-paced, action-driven picture that predicted a mini-trend for my-girlfriend-is-a-zombie movies in the 21st century. In between visceral outbursts of terrific practical gore FX, the movie evokes considerable empathy for its brain-munching heroine, who attacks her boyfriend for bringing her back and, yet, hates the thought of “dying” again. Sadly muttering “The pain takes away the hunger” like the tormented female half-zombie in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, the striking Clarke punctures her body with an assortment of sharp implements – reflecting Yuzna’s obvious post-Clive Barker fascination with body mutilation and conveying equal parts threat, eroticism and melancholy. ALIEN: RESURRECTION failed to do justice to the idea of a heroine brought back from the dead against her will and faced with a monstrous side, but this film memorably explores the theme. The initial appearance of a heavily pierced Clarke, looming in a doorway with a wicked grin and flexing Freddy-like metallic claws, remains one of the iconic images of 90’s horror cinema.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD : NECROPOLIS * USA 2005 Dir: Ellory Elkayem. 88 mins
In Chernobyl, scientist Peter Coyote gets hold of the last of the Tryoxin barrels, so that his deeply corrupt corporation Hybra Tech (“the most trusted name in toxic waste disposal”…and they also make snack foods) can experiment with zombies at its own “zombie petting zoo”, nicknamed Necropolis. Naturally, the barrel’s contents get spilled and a generic bunch of high-schoolers are endangered in their efforts to rescue their captured pal from the corporation’s HQ. Fatally low on inventive gore and playing out like an under-powered TV horror movie, this belated revival of the franchise is notable for its piss-weak zombies and for Coyote’s astonishingly terrible performance as the central villain who wants nothing less than world domination (“Isn’t that what everything’s for?”). Grinning and gurning his way through the movie, Coyote is embarrassing, yet perversely compelling to watch – you conclude that he was either high or merely channelling Dwight Frye. He turns out to be the only diverting element of a feeble effort that has only the most tenuous links to any of the earlier films (“Send more security guards” is among the recycled gags) and features the driest zombie SWAT-team massacre in horror history. Shame on it.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD: RAVE TO THE GRAVE ** USA 2005 Dir: Ellory Elkayem. 97 mins
A (minor) step up from the fourth film – which was filmed back to back with the same cast and crew – this kills off the grimacing Peter Coyote in the first few minutes, and sees his stash of Tryoxin falling into the hands of his teenage nephew. It winds up being marketed by absurd college drug dealer “Skeet” as a new hallucinogenic high named “Z”, one that – allegedly – takes you from the peak of ecstasy to the brink of death. The circulation of “Z” leads to inevitable chaos at the film’s Old-Man’s version of what a teenage party looks like. Complete with rocket launcher wielding Russian bad guys and a rather feeble revival of the famous Tar Man, this works a lot harder than its immediate predecessor, with plenty of splashy gore, explosions and some inventive deaths, including a guitar decapitation. Heroine Aimee-Lynn Chadwick looks great in tight-fitting tops, there’s a zombie lab rat named Mr Stinky and even a character named “Coach Savini”. Instantly forgettable, but significantly livelier than either parts 2 or 4, so give it some credit.
Reviews by Steven West