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The Test of Time: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY DAN O'BANNON

STARRING: JAMES KAREN, CLU GULAGER, LINNEA QUIGLEY, THOM MATTHEWS, DON CALFA

Gotta question for ya: what’s your all time favorite zombie movie? Most likely a Romero flick, right? Well, mine just so happens to be Dan O’Bannon’s THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. For the sub-genre it lives in (or reanimates in, I suppose), and pushes the baleful boundaries of, I think it’s a damn near perfect film. It’s not only the progenitive zom-com exemplar, but 32 years later, it just may still be the preeminent one as well. SHAUN OF THE DEAD is a close second, maybe DEAD ALIVE after that, but neither can quite eclipse the superb balance of the horror and humor O’Bannon and company laid down in 1985. And it’s not just those two diametric poles either, it’s the quality of unassailable cool, the 80s punk-rock party vibe the entire movie is imbued with that, in addition to the wonderfully written screenplay, resplendent gore, colorful characters and dedicated performances, really catapults the flick into rarified air. The movie is one hell of a good time!

But you know the deal. Time sullies all things. Even most movies. So then, how does THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD come off in 2017? That is today’s topic of concern. Biases aside, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of the movies high and low moments underneath, but the initial inclination has to be that yes, most definitely, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD will stand The Test of Time!

THE STORY: I love the critical militaristic underpinnings of ROLD. Dan O’Bannon puts onus squarely on the fallibility of war when a couple of medical supply warehouse workers – Frank and Freddy - decide to take a look at the embalmed remains of a human being that is held in a supposedly impenetrable drum down in the basement. The seal cracks and a noxious gas releases, rendering both men increasingly ill while reanimating a cadaver in the building. Frank rings up the boss man Burt (Clu Gulager), who insists on cremating the disfigured zombified cadaver at the close-by mortuary run by his pal Ernie (Don Calfa) Yeah, Burt and Ernie (total coincidence according to O’Bannon). Little do they know that the toxic fumes from the crematorium contaminates the area, and when an acid rain storm hits, unearths an entire legion of bloodsucking, brain-chomping zombies. Cue the carnage!

While all this is happening, as Frank and Fred grow sicker, the latter’s girlfriend and a ragtag passel of pals – Scuz, Spider, Trash (Linnea Quigley), Chuck, Casey and Suicide – decide to throw a party at night in a nearby graveyard – Resurrection Cemetery - with the intention of picking up Fred after work. Of course, that can’t jive, as we begin to realize Frank and Freddy are slowly turning into a rabid, red-eyed, jaundice-skinned ghouls themselves. Zombies inside, zombies outside, there soon becomes nowhere to run or hide for our ever-dwindling gaggle of survivors. It’s a fantastic setup for a horror story, and the way O’Bannon shades his characterizations in conjunction with the highly entertaining plotted-out set-pieces makes it even better. It’s mother*cking party time!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Not to be flip, reductive or lazy, but almost every single facet of ROLD holds up incredibly well today. This movie is, was and will forever be pure unadulterated fun! The story is believable enough, the script is brilliantly laid, the characters are extremely memorable, the soundtrack kicks ass, and the perfectly weighted balancing act of gory-horror and side-splitting humor cannot be f*cked with. Now, then, ever. So, instead of pouring over each specific aspect of the film, let’s dive into some particular scenes and corresponding characterizations that have not lost an iota of sheen over the past three decades. What leaps to mind off top? Tarman, Trash and “Brains, Brains, Brains!”

Seriously, is there a more beautiful looking zombie ever laid on celluloid than the Tarman? That slimy skeletal face, slick scalp, those bugged-out eyeballs, that gaping maw, the disgustingly viscid black goop dripping from his limp-lumbering gait…shit brings a tear to my eye. Especially the way in which it sinks its teeth in Suicide’s bald dome and turns it into a pulpy puddle of bloody brain-matter! Word is Methocel, a thickener used in milkshakes, the same material used to create THE BLOB three years later, was used to make the Tarman look the way does. Gorgeous, right?

Or how about the scene where the ill-prepped crew finally opens the door to let the nasty sumbitch out is both a hair-raising and laugh-inducing marvel. “Brainssss” the lurching ghoul shouts in a dead vocal tone. The crew acts as we would, spastically awkward, manically mortified, doing whatever it takes in order to remain in one piece. The scene ends with Burt knocking the sucker’s block off – a Louisville Slugger for a Louisville Sucker (the movie takes place in Kentucky) - doing so in one long take that’s as shocking as it is hilarious. It’s also a piece of practical FX work that really holds well, the headless body twitches to the ground after being decollated via ball-bat, with O’Bannon staging the action in a way that looks totally credible.

As for the incredible, how about Linnea Quigley’s unbridled sexiness as Trash, the morbid punk-rock chick whose foully perverse and foreshadowed death-wish comes to ferocious fruition? Too. Damn. Hot! Word is producers originally balked at the idea of showing pubic hair during Trash’s full-frontal nude striptease in the graveyard (every teen boy’s dream mind you), prompting Linnea to embarrassingly shave her nether region instead. After one look, the same producer said that was even more unbecoming (but trend setting yo), so a specially customized merkin – a pubic toupee – was created and attached to Trash’s g-string in order to simulate her hair down there. Fooled me. Aroused me. Forever impressed me. Of course, the way in which Trash meets her maker, or makers, is just as durably memorable. Parading around in the rain in nothing but a ripped blouse and pair of leg-warmers, she falls into a muddy pit in the cemetery, only to be gang-ravaged by a coterie of fetid and flesh-starved zombies. Just as she pined after!

And while I’ll always love the scene where the rain-coated zombie radios in for more fresh blood, “send more paramedics,” to me the crowning achievement in the FX department has to be the stint where the putrescent half-woman-zombie laments the pain of being dead. First she brains Scuz and spurts a geyser of gore out of his dome before being speared in the spine, dragged out and strapped to a medical slab. Ernie ties her up and the three remaining elders question why she eats people. We’re then treated to a funny but also heartfelt, almost saddening explanation of how eating brains relieves the pain of being dead. “I can feel myself rot,” the fem-zom writhes and wriggles, clanks its spine on the metal, speaks and emotes through pained facial expressions, and the FX work here is absolutely top-notch (props to the great Tony Gardner). It was in 1985 and has stayed just as powerful ever since!

Other additional strong suits of the film that have endured with very little wear and tear include the ultra-bleak yet somehow darkly comedic conclusion, where again, the military is indicted as complicitly willing to nuke a small population in order to protect a larger one. But oh that damn acid rain! Also, I’ve always loved the performance of James Karen as Frank, in particular the way in which he chooses to end his own life. Word is Karen actually came up with this idea of self-cremating inside the giant furnace, as it was not in the script. And not for nothing, but as a lifelong FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise fan, I always loved how three different actors in ROLD appeared in FRIDAY THE 13TH PARTS V and VI. Thom Matthews (Freddy) plays Tommy Jarvis in JASON LIVES while Miguel Nunez and Mark Venturini play Demon and Vic Faden, respectively.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Nope, not going there. Can’t. Won’t. The only thing I can fathom complaining about regarding ROLD is how the DVD I copped years ago didn’t come with the extra 24-minute cut that reportedly made the rounds in the early 90s. Anyone who has that footage email me ASAP!

THE VERDICT: I don’t think I’ll ever have as much fun watching a zombie flick as I do watching THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. It’s a perfect flick. So sturdily balanced is it between genuine horror and authentic humor that it makes for a highly entertaining, grin-inducing, jaw-dropping good time. All props must be given to the late great Dan O’Bannon for overseeing the entirety of this production, generating a top-flight screenplay for so-called B-movie, casting such memorable actors to play such well-written parts, hiring the right DP, makeup and FX crewmen and women. It’s a movie that respects George A. Romero’s turf, knows very astutely about the machinations of what makes those horror movies work, and in the end, is less of a self-aware send-up as it is a properly placed classic among the zombie pantheon. Yes, most certainly, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD has, as its title suggests, beat the Test of Time!

GET RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD ON DVD HERE

GET RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Tobe Hooper was apparently set to direct RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD in 3D before O'Bannon took over.
Source: AITH

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