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‘Return of the Living Dead’ (1985) Review

Written by: J. Johnson

Not many movies have the nerve to name their sources right there in the dialogue, so you can make your own comparisons. “Return of the Living Dead” makes no secret of its inspiration. The movie opens with a teenager going to work in one of those supply houses that ship cadavers and skeletons to scientists and, in no time at all, the man who runs the company is leaning over the desk and asking if the kid has ever seen “The Night of the Living Dead” (1967). Because it wasn’t just a movie, see? It was the truth. But the government tried to cover it up, and he can prove it, because they bottled up those zombies in airtight canisters – and they’re down in the basement right now!

It doesn’t take long before they realize what happened and the Trioxin leaks into the cemetery next door, where Freddy’s punk-rock friends are waiting for him. Soon, they barricade themselves inside a mortuary and are surrounded by hundreds of reanimated corpses.

In the hands of Dan O’Bannon, the mind behind ‘Alien’ and ‘Total Recall,’ and with permission to rewrite the script, the movie does more than simply swoon over Romero’s films. Making his directorial debut, O’Bannon changes the whole of the story and takes a huge leap forward. He pummels audiences with copious amounts of hilarity and slapstick, as well as buckets of gore and bloody carnage. He also gives genre fans sentient zombies that can talk, hunt as a pack, and run at you at full speed.

Return of the Living Dead (1985) | Photo credit: MGM/UA

The only way to really get rid of these corpses is to chop them up into little pieces, put them into separate garbage bags, and cremate those suckers. That is, if you have an embalmer for a friend with an available crematorium. That, or just napalm the city and call it a day. Either way works, really.

The ghouls in all of these movies perform more or less the same function. They shuffle inexorably toward the camera, drawn by their insatiable appetite for human flesh. The tasks of the living characters in the movie are threefold: (1) to attempt to destroy or control the monsters, (2) to flee the monsters in panic, and (3) to become the monsters.

O’Bannon’s “Return” handles the third requirement in a scene that has a certain charm. The teenager and the cadaver wholesaler have been overrun by ghouls. The virus, or whatever it is, has infected their whole laboratory, and the two humans come down with what seems to be a cold. Then the muscular pains get intense, and they start shivering.

Ernie (Don Calfa) | Photo credit: MGM/UA

Their friends call the paramedics. An on-the-spot physical exam turns up some alarming symptoms: Both men have no pulse, and their body temperatures are the same as room temperature. The muscle pains? Rigor mortis. In other words, they are dead. They take this information pretty hard.

As a first-time helmer, O’Bannon doesn’t do anything that stands out visually, but he’s efficient and effective, and his talents really lay in the storytelling. His best moments behind the camera — as fans are sure to agree — are with Tarman (Allan Trautman) using a winch to break Tina (Beverly Randolph) out of a locker. “Return” is a movie with some nice, droll opening scenes and the obligatory horrible climax. It doesn’t make the mistake of “Day Of The Dead” – talking too much. It’s kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style.

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