As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m generally not a fan of zombie films (and yes, I’m well aware that, every year, I seem to hit a couple of them with these reviews). Mostly I dislike them because, well…they’re boring, and usually all anyone ever wants to do with them is gore or tired “oh, humans are the real monsters” moralizing. Gore is generally pretty dull, and that moralizing tone always rings false to me, because in a contest between humans who may or may not be jealous, petty, and/or racist and flesh-eating, rotting ghouls, I’m always going to go with the ghouls being the real monsters. So the “zombie” films I tend to like are the ones that tend to go far afield from usual routine in terms of tone, since the “not really zombies” trick doesn’t tend to impress me much either. The Return of the Living Dead is about as close to a “pure” zombie film as you can get and still keep my interest. A lot of that has to do with the strange nexus point it represents in the “canon” of zombie films. It’s an indirect sequel to the original Romero films, but posits those films as taking place in the realm of fiction; sort of the Earth 1 of zombie movies to Romero’s Earth 2. I find it hard to resist that sort of metatextual shenanigan.
The film opens with a jokey title card announcing that this is a “true story,” an attempt at versimilitude that feels increasingly lazy today but was relatively rare at the time, and actually ties in to one of the minor themes of the film. We then cut to Freddy, newest employee at a medical supply warehouse, being shown the ropes by foreman Frank and company owner Burt. Burt heads home, and Frank decides to impress the new kid by telling him how that “zombie movie” was actually a true story, only the military forced the film-maker to change the details. And the proof is in the chemical containers hidden in the warehouse basement, accidentally shipped to the warehouse due to a government error, each containing a preserved zombie. Frank shows the containers to Freddy and accidentally douses the two of them with the gas that reanimated the corpses, knocking them out as the container cracks open. Meanwhile, Freddy’s girl-friend, the suspiciously clean-cut Tina, and their much more Hollywood Punk friends decide to wait out the end of Freddy’s shift in the cemetary next door. Frank and Freddy wake up to find all the fleshy dead things in the warehouse coming back to life, including a medical cadaver. They’re more surprised, though, to learn that destroying the brain doesn’t do much to the zombies, and that films lie. They call up Burt, and the three cut up the body and take it to the morturary next door, since Ernie the Undertaker owes Burt a favor. The smoke from the incinerated body interacts with the storm clouds above the cemetary, coating the entire plot of land with the zombie reanimating chemicals to predictable results. Eventually the surviving punks make their way to the mortuary where the survivors, and a rapidly deteriorating Frank and Freddy, hole up. Before the end of the evening events continue to slip further and further into chaos, and the military drops a nuclear bomb on the entire city, ending the film.
By modern standards, The Return of the Living Dead is pretty tame. The gore is fairly minimal, most of the zombies are in pretty decent condition, and the usual markers of 80s exploitative horror, bare breasts, are limited to a few mid- to long-shots of naked Linnea Quigley. Even the comedy is fairly subdued; there are a few pratfalls early on, but the comedy mostly tends to focus around an earthy sex/death consciusness that informs the whole film, reaching it’s height when Trash (played by Linnea Quigley) reveals that to her mind the worst possible way to die would be to be chased by old men who then eat her alive, and sure enough that’s exactly what happens to her later in the film. It’s that sort of black-humored irony that informs most of the not-quite jokes, culminating in the ultimate “everybody dies” ending when the entire city is destroyed in nuclear fire. Most of the actual joke-jokes come from the zombies themselves. While the film is generally credited as being the origin of the zombie brain-eating connection (as opposed to the simple flesh-eating of earlier film ghouls), it is less rarely credited for its use of fast zombies, clever zombies and articulate zombies. These aren’t simply aimlessly wandering cadavers; they plan, they emote, and their hunger for brains is rooted firmly in their need to alleviate the physical and existential pains of death. It’s still dark comedy, but the deadpan dialogue of the zombies is endearing.