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I like to think of Return of the Living Dead as The Matrix of zombie movies. In the way that the Wachowskis' film was a rule-breaking love letter to Hong Kong action and high concept sci-fi, Dan O'Bannon's 1985 film did right by the zombie pics of the past while also carving out its own distinctive niche as a bloody, funny, and deeply nihilistic horror comedy. Also, like The Matrix, RotLD was followed by subsequently weaker entries which seemed to miss the whole point, but we'll talk about the zombie Romeo and Juliet in a bit.
It's Freddy's (Thom Mathews, Friday the 13th Part VI) first day working at a medical supply warehouse where he's learning the ropes from Frank (James Karen, every TV show in the 80's). Sure, it's a little unnerving to work around a bunch of human skeletons, split dogs, and miscellaneous things in jars, but the real horror is down in the basement. Frank, probably wanting to show off a little, reveals a sealed canister that's just been sitting down there for years. Frank asks Freddy if he ever saw that old movie with the zombies--well, apparently it happened, but they just sort of changed some of the facts around a little. What's in the canister is all that remains of the evidence of a brief outbreak of zombie-ism.
So of course, these two idiots accidentally crack the canister's seal and unleash a toxic green cloud that awakens the dead at the nearby cemetery. Oh, and Freddy's studs and leather-wearing punk friends picked that day to come visit him at work.
What follows is a tightly-plotted horror movie pitting a band of bored bunks against the seemingly invincible, walking, and talking (!) dead with an explosive ending that creates a terrifically circular kind of horror.
Co-writer and director Dan O'Bannon was the outspoken writer behind Alien while providing scripts for Total Recall and Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce. Looking back at his filmography, with the exception of Invaders From Mars, it's tough to pick out a common thread in his horror work (besides wild ambition). Here, he takes the "holed-up-and-facing-zombies" concept and spreads it out across several locations, splitting the action and increasing the tension. I'm not sure O'Bannon necessarily "got" punks (particularly the brand of punks that existed at the day-go extremes of 1985), but his characters are colorful enough that you want them to come out of this alive (none of them do).
The most memorable performance comes from scream queen Linnea Quigley (Night of the Demons, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, the clothing-optional chick gets the death of her dreams. In fact, there are several standout zombies, from the "Tarman" in the canister, to the legless zombie, to "Send more cops" guy. Their success is a mix of Allan Apone's convincingly gruesome effects work and O'Bannon's script which gives voice to the dead. And that's leaving out the terrific soundtrack with artists like The Damned and The Cramps delivering what sounds nothing at all like your typical zombie movie.
Remixing the zombie elements, making head shots ineffective, having them run and chase our heroes, letting them (roughly) articulate what's going on in their maggot-infested heads--they're smart twists on the genre, making the story feel more dangerous and stranger than previous zombie movies.
And then there were the sequels.
Return of the Living Dead 2 isn't terrible, actually, it just ramps up the wacky quotient to nearly unbearable levels and plays on visual gags more than anything else. Return of the Living Dead 3, from Society and Bride of the Re-Animator director Brian Yuzna is conceptually sound, but its body-horror-meets-romantic tragedy feels out of place in the series. Where RotLD 2 might be most memorable for the Michael Jackson zombie and chain-electrocuting zombies, 3 did give us Melinda Clarke self-piercing for love and survival along with weaponized zombies. 2005 saw two cheapie, direct-to-DVD sequels were both notable for being terrible and dragging respected actor Peter Coyote into their low-budget nonsense.
For all that, the original remains untarnished by the follow-ups and is readily available (in fact, I don't think I've looked at much of anything this month that isn't). Here in the U.S., we got a nice DVD release back in 2002 which included commentary from O'Bannon, concept art, and a featurette on production designer William Stout. More recently, Fox and MGM celebrated the film's 25th anniversary with a very, very nice-looking, feature-free Blu-ray and DVD release in 2010 that was consistent with their joint efforts to provide some truly awful cover art for beloved horror movies.
If you have access to a region-free player, U.K. outfit Second Sight put out their own disc back in June that includes docs covering the first three movies in the series as well as the feature-length doc, More Brains, and a final interview with O'Bannon. For the series faithful, this might be the way to go.