The Return of the Living Dead nails all the ingredients of a perfect Halloween movie: It’s trashy, but funny. Silly, yet smart. Self-aware, but never obnoxiously so. For 91 minutes, writer-director Dan O’Bannon (co-writer of the deadly serious Alien) invites us to devour his cinematic bag of junk food, and we’re all the better for it. I’m not sure where the revolution of dosing gory horror movies with nutball comedy began, but I can say this Living Dead is an early example of doing it the right way.
We begin in Louisville, Kentucky, at a medical supply warehouse. Frank (James Karen) gives new employee Freddy (Thom Matthews) a tour of their macabre workplace. As they peruse the dog cadavers and grinning skeletons, Frank drops a juicy tidbit of information: Not only was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead based on real events, but the army has stashed the evidence down in the warehouse’s basement. Frank shows a bewildered Freddy a room filled with zombies, frozen in stasis tubes.
As you might guess, Frank and Freddy are a few lagers short of a six pack, and they end up unleashing the zombie. To make matters worse, toxic gas spills out of the tube, sickening both of them. Now, do they call the police? Or the Army’s hotline, stenciled on the side of the zombie tubes? No, Moe and Larry opt for their third smartest option: Telling their boss. Burt Wilson (Clu Gallagher) shows up, takes charge, and figures they should immediately destroy all the evidence.
In order to destroy said evidence, ol’ Burt calls in a favor from Ernie (Don Calfa), the local embalmer. Ernie’s the type of dude who keeps a Luger handy while he’s prepping a corpse, because ya never know, amirite? Anyway, our heroes wrangle their zombie and haul it over to Ernie’s for immediate cremation. There’s just one problem: This fiery funeral spreads more noxious zombie fumes all over the area. That means more bodies start lumbering out of the nearby cemetery and mumbling about fresh brains.
Meanwhile, a group of young punks are posted up and partying at that very same cemetery, as you do. They have Garbage Pail Kid nicknames like Scuzz, Trash, and Suicide, and look like rejects from Billy Idol’s entourage. When the monsters come moaning and groaning, Suicide’s squad makes a desperate run to the mortuary…as you do. Once there, they form an alliance with Burt and company to escape the zombie apocalypse before they are enveloped.
I can sense your question, and the answer is yes. This movie is every bit as stupid, wonderful, and cockamamie brilliant as it sounds. If there was ever an experience that requires you to check your brain at the door, this is it. (If you do check your brain, just make sure the person at the counter doesn’t immediately start feasting.)
Much of the film’s humor derives from its delirious appetite for campiness. Many of the performances, especially Karen and Gallagher, are delightfully over the top. It really seems like most of the cast buys into Living Dead‘s unapologetic weirdness, because everybody finds just the right note. Likewise, Bannon’s dialogue is howlingly funny, especially when the punks start chucking out profanity-laden 80s slang.
If you’re looking for unvarnished scariness, The Return of the Living Dead may not be the best pick. You’ll probably chuckle more than scream. With that said, this underrated cult flick offers some of the best Halloween entertainment for the buck. For even better results, pair it with the original Fright Night, and get a double dose of 80s nostalgia as a bonus.
91 min. R. Tubi.