And, that, True Believers, is why Return of the Living Dead, an unashamedly campy and exploitative slice of American Cheese, has become a complete classic!
"What?" I can smell you say. "How could this cheese-ball rip-off midnight movie be a classic?" Well, Rudy Tuesday, how can it not be?
Unable to compete with the low-budget, yet masterful and well-respected George A. Romero Living Dead series (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead) the film makers under the tutelage of writer-director Dan O'Bannon (of both Alien and Dark Star) and Executive Producer John Daly (of both The Terminator and Going Ape!) opted for a truly scary, yet also tongue-in-cheek and farcical horror movie as inclined to tickle as it is to chill the old Funny Bone!
It wouldn't be a Zombie Movie if it wasn't Scary, it wouldn't be a Zombie movie if it wasn't really pretty gross, and it wouldn't be Return of the Living Dead if it didn't have more Knee-Slappers than the audience at a Soggy Bottom Boys concert.
The plot (such that it is) concerns those two clowns Frank (veteran actor James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews from... um) getting put in charge of a Medical Warehouse in Northern Kentucky that contracts to the US Army. When Frank starts bragging to the Rookie Freddy about some of the X-Files type goodies they have in the basement of the building, they accidentally unleash a toxic gas that reanimates the dead.
What follows is sillier than Michael Jackson's Thriller and scarier than Michael Jackson's Moonwalker! Freddy's Punk Rock buddies (including Trash, the consistently naked and yummers Linnea Quigley) decide to kill (and resurrect?) a little time by partying in the cemetery. Everything's groovy, everybody's stoned, and Trash is dancing beautifully naked on a Tomb when the chemicals hit the ground in a little acid rain and bring the ghouls to the party.
And so the dead walk in a Schlocky, gruesome and torrentially hilarious spoof on reality as the ashen husks of former humans hunt down brains. See, it doesn't just happen at Reform Party Conventions! If this movie can be summed up in one word, it's "Brains", but not in the same way that A Beautiful Mind can! Everything from the most minor to the most major comes back from Hades. If it's dead it walks! And it's probably going to make a joke. These aren't the Mindless, staggering ghouls of Romero's Night of the Living Dead! These Zombies are strong, clever, wise cracking, and basically the kind of folks you wouldn't mind hanging out with for the laughs alone... well, if it weren't for that whole Cranium-Cracking Gray-Matter-Chomping thing, that is!
One really great thing about this film is the special effects. While at times they're cheesy and obvious in their schlockiness, the Creature Design (by William Stout) and Make-Up are definitely above average. Whereas the original Zombies of Romero's Night of the Living Dead were primarily pale, scarred people, Stout gives us rotting corpses that look like rotting corpses, or like Eddie from Iron Maiden! Stout has a real gift and the realism here actually aids the comedy!
While this film goes wrong on a lot of levels and in a whole lot of scenes, it's almost ridiculous to nitpick a film of this kind. O'Bannon and company were well aware that they were making cheese, and cheese they make to rival both Kraft and Les Claypool! The film makers were intending fully to make a gory, yet goofy and laugh-a-minute horror comedy, and in that respect they've completely succeeded. It's a lot more funny than it is scary and it's great fun to watch. Sure there's depravity, more murders than you can shake a femur at and enough blood and dripping body parts to give Jerry Springer a Year's worth of programming! It's all in good fun, though, and it's impossible to take seriously. It's disgusting gore for the kid in you, and crazy laughs for the adult in you! It's sort of like Frosted Mini-Wheats for the undead!
The actors don't take their lines seriously (and have as much fun delivering the corn as they do the screams) so why should we? Honorable mention has got to go to Linnea Quigley! What a great idea! She gets naked really early in the film and stays that way throughout her entire screen time! She flashes more than a Paparazzi Camera, Loc! Every B-Movie should use this formula... Take a hot punk chick, get her to doff the clothes, have her run around naked... this could even fix a plot hole the size of the Titanic! Hip-Hip-Hooray!
From a special effects, comedy, horror and B-Movie standpoint, this film is the top of the Heap! There's no better way to laugh and goof with your beer drinking buddies than by popping Return of the Living Dead in! On the other hand, let's face it, it is a B-Movie and Zombie popularity or not, even this one gets Three Stars out of Five! Is this a cheesy Rip-Off? Pretty much... they even reference the movie Night of the Living Dead by Name! But let's face it, they set out to make a comic foil to those serious films, and there's no question that that's exactly what they succeeded in doing! You may groan, you may ask why you're watching this film, but you will laugh, and that's worth your time, I'd wager. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to run to the local Whole Foods Market! I hear VeganBurger, Inc. is coming out with an All-Vegetarian Soy-Substitute for Human Brains! I can't get enough of 'em!
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