Warning! This post contains adult content!
While 1972 marked the introduction of the zombie comedy with the dreadful Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and the horror comedy received its first lynchpin in 1981 with The Evil Dead, it wasn’t until 1985, almost two decades after contemporary zombies were defined in Night of the Living Dead, that the undead got the much needed injection of humor combined with solid filmmaking that produced The Return of the Living Dead. It was long overdue.
Few people know that The Return of the Living Dead actually got its start from another zombie classic.
John A. Russo, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead co-writer, penned a follow-up to the film in form of a novel nearly a decade later; part of their agreement on Night of the Living Dead was that Romero would be free to do canonical sequels while Russo retained the rights to the words ‘Living Dead’. Naturally the forward thinking Russo sought to turn his book into a movie, so after a few years of false starts, Dan O’Bannon, writer of both Alien and Dark Star who would go on to co-write Total Recall, was maintained to direct. O’Bannon agreed on the condition that he be able to re-write the script since Russo’s novel too closely resembled Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead while production for Day of the Dead was already underway.
O’Bannon’s conceit was that the film would incorporate a fair amount of humor in addition to being completely disgusting. Without a doubt, this dynamic made all future zombie comedies possible, from Dead Alive up to Shaun of the Dead.
In the opening, a medical supply warehouse foreman suggests that the events of Night of the Living Dead were based on true events, and that the remains of the military cleanup are stored in their basement. Naturally, this leads to a brand new outbreak and a series of misadventures that turn a local cemetery into a land of resurrection.
The zombies of The Return of the Living Dead are unlike their Romero brethren; they apparently cannot be killed by decapitation or the destruction of the brain, and when they are dismembered, the component parts continue to function independently. Zombies alone may not be scary, but this is positively terrifying because the humans in the film literally have no recourse, because while immolation effectively destroys the creature, the fumes produce cause acid rain that reanimates other dead bodies.
Soon enough, this leads to scores of EMTs and police showing up to handle the problem, all of which are promptly turned to burger as one zombie grabs a CB radio and tells the operator to send more. The fact that the zombies are capable of minimal conversation dulls the terror, perhaps more out of comedic desperation than anything else. The idea that zombies crave brains and aren’t afraid to vocalize that fact emanated from this film, making the work of Romero and O’Bannon combine to inform the popular conception of the undead that exists today.
What helps assure the film’s legacy, aside from the obvious inhumane levels of gag-inducing shocks, is the fact that the makers understood only too well that a wealth of disposable characters would give them the requisite body count to push things into the ridiculous. It also warrants mention that Linnea Quigley’s nude writhing in the cemetery, naked as the day she was born with a knockout figure, set a mainstream standard for the type of content exploitation junkies now demand of their films.
There can be little doubt that The Return of the Living Dead failed to achieve the same cultural cache as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the former a dead-serious horror film and the latter still quite grim with touches of humor in style and content, but this a moot point; the film was released well after all the genre classics like the aforementioned films and Fulci’s Zombie, thus it is the first to make itself simultaneously a legitimate horror film and a satire.
The only place where I can find fault with The Return of the Living Dead comes thanks to the film’s lack of belly laughs. It’s easier to imagine an earnest chuckle or being intrigued by the comic possibilities of a scene than actually laughing with it, and despite the established relationship between laughing and screaming, the tone wavers too spastically between humor and horror. Shaun of the Dead, in my opinion, is a perfect example of striking that balance.
But without The Return of the Living Dead, there is no other zombie comedy, and no other film has the same mixture of terror and farce. It’s the perfect horror film to show someone who needs a giggle to refrain from pissing themselves.
Fortunately for aficionados, the latest edition of The Return of the Living Dead released to format is a combination DVD/Blu-ray, so you can still stretch the legs on that Blu-ray player while retaining the ability to lend it to your friends.