Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Return of the Living Dead

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It’s Freddy’s first day working for a local medical supply company. It also happens to be Freddy’s last day working for that same medical supply company. You see, towards the end of the day Freddy’s coworker, Frank, shares a story about how the government unintentionally created a gas that brought the dead back to life. The Feds managed to contain the damage, and sealed the zombies in some metal drums. But then they mucked up their cover-up and accidentally shipped the undead humans to their little old medical supply company. Freddy doesn’t believe him, so Frank takes him down to the basement to prove he’s not blowing a lot of hot air.

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Screw this shit, I’m out.

One poor decision leads to another and Frank accidentally ruptures the drum and releases the toxic gas contained inside into the air, knocking them both out cold. When they wake up, they realize that one of the cadavers they have in storage is somehow alive. Not knowing what to do, they’re forced to call their boss, Burt. Burt decides they’re going to pick-ax the thing in the head, because that should kill it, right? Only it doesn’t because everything you’ve learned in zombie movies is totally wrong. When even decapitation fails them, Burt comes up with another brilliant plan and has Freddy and Frank help him dismember the body and drag it over to the crematorium next to the cemetery. They handle it about as well as expected.

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Yup, that’s about how I’d handle it.

Meanwhile Freddy’s odd assortment of punk and preppy friends are all chilling in said cemetery waiting for him to get off work.

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They’re a surprisingly diverse bunch for a group of 80s kids.

Back at the crematorium, Burt has convinced the mortuary man, Ernie, to help them out by cremating the still animated body parts. All seems well until the burnt ash and gasses released into the atmosphere come back down as acid rain and land right on the nearby cemetery. But nothing bad could come from that, right?

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Oh dear.

This one is a favorite of mine and it should be easy to see why. It takes a lot of the previous notions about zombies and chucks them out the window. These zombies are nearly impossible to kill. Head shots do nothing and even dismembering them just creates more little moving zombie parts that you have to worry about.

These guys don’t shamble about, either. They’re quick little buggers and their speed is made all the more terrifying when coupled with their intelligence. Because unlike in other zombie films and shows, these zombies don’t turn into drooling idiots the minute they die. No, these zombies seem to retain all their previous knowledge, making them walking, talking pain in the assess who use strategy and problem solving skills to get what they want. And what do they want? Say it with me now-

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”Brains!” Yes. Good job, class.

That knowledge alone is unsettling enough, but add in the isolation of the characters and the increased sense of hopelessness as all the help sent for them is systematically taken out one by one, and you end up with a movie that can be genuinely disturbing.

But to counter that oppressive feeling of dread the movie adds what can be a very dark sense of humor to the script. The ‘Send more cops,’ line is a perfect example. When the two police officers sent to check on the paramedics are taken out, it is the zombies who end up requesting reinforcements. And as soon as another half-dozen police cars arrive and open the doors, they’re immediately swarmed by the undead in a show of perfect synchronicity. It’s both humorous and terrifying at the same time.

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No! Bad Ronald McDonald! This plight of evil clowns terrorizing the countryside has gone too far!

The effects used in the film are truly impressive….mostly. I guess what I should say is they’re impressive when they count. The goopy, dripping canister zombie steals every scene he’s in and is damn spectacular to look at. The table zombie also stands up to strict scrutiny under the close-ups and bright, glowing lights. What doesn’t hold up quite as well are the mob scenes. There’s a reason those scenes are quick and focus on the action. Watch those scenes enough times and you’ll start to notice that most of those extras don’t look like zombies at all. Most of them barely count as more than humans covered in dirt, but the quick pace of those scenes hide the flaws the smaller budget couldn’t quite make up for, proving it’s not how much money you have but how you choose to use it that counts.

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Return of the Living Dead is a wonderfully terrifying and humorous take on the zombie genre. The pace is fast, the acting is good (though I think a couple of them may have gotten their roles solely for their talent for producing agonized screams) and the effects are stellar when they need to be. That the movie was made on a budget of only $4 million and still turned out so well is staggering to me. I get the feeling watching it now, that it didn’t hit all the horror hallmarks it was aiming for. But that’s okay. It still manages to be awesome. Plus, it’s the movie that popularized the idea of zombies specifically eating brains. That alone should put it on every horror movie fan’s to-watch list.

Return of the Living Dead is available on a variety of streaming services.

Return of the Living Dead is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

One thought on “Return of the Living Dead (1985)

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