By Max Dropout
No doubt during times of great economic and political tribulation the public caught up in its throes burry their woes in whatever form of escapism they can obtain; and the early eighties was nearly as exemplary of this social trend as the forties was in terms of entertainment. People were turning out in droves for anything decidedly UNREALISTIC at the time, thus demanding a sort of boom in terms of both horror and sci fi. It was a great decade for horror. The slasher genre was not yet a moot and sad affair; monster and mutation movies were enjoying a renaissance; and films like “Scanners” and “Videodrome” were a relevant warning of the potential threat of technology that lay waiting in millennial turn.
A fixture of global horror cinema, the zombie, also experienced a resurgence. In 1968, George Romero’s masterpiece of paranoia, “Night of the Living Dead,” opened the door for a sub-genre rife with visceral possibilities and the political sub-text sparked off by films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Most zombie flicks, unfortunately, didn’t rise to the challenge. It was too easy to put fifty assholes in drippy makeup and send them fumbling through the flesh of hapless citizens who never seemed to understand the “kill the brain” concept. By the time its sequel, 1978′s “Dawn of the Dead,” was released, the genre was within a few years of eating its own tail. With the exception of Lucio Fulci’s 1980 Italian classic “Zombi,” the flesheater subgenre might have taken its last gasp, if not for one film that approached the zombie convention with equal doses of reverence and ass-slapping. Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 film, “The Return of the Living Dead,” gave new hope to a burnt-out idea by employing an entirely new approach — burying, if you will, Romero’s old rules.
The premise of “The Return of the Living Dead” is an inspired one: Frank and Freddy, two employees at the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse in Louisville, unwittingly open a canister of “2-4-5 Trioxin,” a hazardous military chemical which supposedly inspired (according to Frank, played to hysterical perfection by everyman James Karen) George Romero’s classic horror film, “Night of the Living Dead.” A “typical army fuck-up” sent the canisters containing both the chemicals and the infected bodies to the Uneeda Warehouse. When Bert (Clu Gulager), their boss, and Ernie (Don Calfa), his mortician friend, are brought in to help contain the mess, they succeed only in spreading the chemical via a crematorium smokestack while attempting to dispose of the evidence.
In the mean time, Freddy’s “crew,” a group of punk-rockers (most notable Trash, Spider and Suicide) and his conspicuously suburban girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), break into the Resurrection Cemetery to party while waiting for Freddy to get off work. When the chemical spews from the Resurrection Mortuary crematorium, the dead return in a virtual army of nimble, ravenous decay, leaving everyone to fend for themselves against a horde of undead creatures, which far from resemble Romero’s shuffling dead. Return depicts the zombies as nearly superhuman track stars, with the innate ability to communicate (“send more cops”), and with absolutely no Achilles heel. The military, in the mean time, has a “contingency plan,” which, as with all good militaries, ends up doing much more harm than good.
Time has discounted many products of the 1980s horror boom. Scads of films have been lumped together and thrown into the drive-in trash barrel. A clueless glance might denounce “The Return of the Living Dead” as just another zombie movie, relegating it to the landfill occupied by countless boring, Romero rip-offs. But not so fast…
Return was different in a number of ways. First off, director Dan O’Bannon was approached by John Russo (Romero’s Night co-conspirator) to direct Russo’s vision of the “next chapter” in the series. Russo’s idea was to take the serious approach employed by Romero and tell the story of what happened after 1978′s “Dawn of the Dead.” At the time, Romero had already finished “Day of the Dead,” the official “third” film, which, coincidentally, came out in 1985, the same year as Return. Day was ultimately eclipsed by O’Bannon’s effort in the end. O’Bannon approached the formula from a different angle — with a healthy dose of humor and a spin on what had become stock trademarks of the “zombie” movie: slow, idiotic creatures with no capacity to reason, eating flesh, killing the brain, etc. His version of the script told the “real” story — the story that actually inspired “Night of the Living Dead” and its subsequent sequels. For all its cultural kitsch, Return was a success.
The soundtrack remains one of the defining characteristics of Return. Featuring classic punk tunes from the Cramps (“Surfin’ Dead”), the Damned (“Dead Beat Dance”), and TSOL (“Nothing For You”), it was one of the first films to introduce punk subculture to mainstream American audiences (Mark Lester’s “Class of 1984″ was released three years earlier, though with an extremely limited release by comparison). Return is, of course, a zombie film, but what sets it apart are its characters and their world, defined mainly by its music in the few moments where the hapless punks aren’t being attacked by braineaters.
The punk characters aren’t stereotyped as idiots, and though the dialogue is certainly campy enough at times, Trash’s full-frontal strip sequence in the cemetery and a scene in Suicide’s car on the way to the warehouse define the nihilistic though likable main characters. While some of the songs included in the film don’t venture into the extremes of punk territory (the most obvious example, “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)” by SSQ, which featured, of all people, up-and-coming pop sensation/VH1 Where Are They Now? staple Stacey Q on vocals) — this was as close as America got to punk-rock culture in the early 1980s via local movie theaters. Television spots for the film saturated airwaves in the weeks prior to its release, depicting the punks fending for their lives with 45 Grave‘s “Partytime” playing over the clips.
Romero’s use of the shopping mall in “Dawn of the Dead” was as timely a symbol of its era as it could be, and the sameis true of Return’s soundtrack. Horror and punk have always enjoyed a complex and often satisfying relationship, and this film is proof-positive that the two were meant for each other. Its impact, then, was twofold: it brought punk-rock into the homes and theaters of middle-class America, and also served its own demographic (an audience of zombie and punk loving kids) as faithfully as it could. By incorporating nuclear technology into the film — again, no spoilers — it brought the message even further home. This could be happening anywhere, but there is more than just a socio-military heart beating in O’Bannon’s film. This, in 1984, was suburbia’s nightmare, on every level — punks and nukes — and they can both happen to you, America. In fact, in their own subversive way they already had, and O’Bannon knew (as any good horror writer does) how to get to people.
The impact of O’Bannon’s use of punk culture certainly wouldn’t seem odd given hindsight. Rock songs and “punk” songs are routinely used when dealing with the madcap youth that populate the homogenized modern horror film; they are an integral mechanism in the correctional function of the moral tale. Mind your children, mothers. Don’t let this happen to your babies… or they will likely end up duking it out with their own decaying morality. Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” soundtrack loomed for a year before being released. One has to wonder, even for as good as the film may prove to be, how this commercialization will affect its impact as an homage to the classics. Pick up any “Scream” soundtrack, and you see our times reflected — a crop of tunes by bands like Staind that will sell units but have no relevance or importance to the films they “represent.” Less so, actually, since most horror purists believe that the fewer “familiar” things you feature in your film, the better — thereby heightening tension and increasing the audience’s fear of the unknown.
Return’s song selection was obviously a labor of love, on par with the rest of the film’s creation. When Trash returns as a spiky-haired, naked braineater, her “theme” music, SSQ’s “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die),” is played backwards as she enters the shot. It’s subtle, but it’s a great touch.
While the Damned’s “Dead Beat Dance” playing on Suicide’s car stereo as they speed toward the graveyard is a glorious introduction to the world of Return’s colorful characters, the DVD features an uncredited song with lowered volume as a result of rights issues to the material. The DVD is loaded with great extras and features a much brighter and easier-on-the-eyes transfer of the film, but if you really want the full impact of this movie, find a VHS copy. In addition to an atmospherically grainy transfer, the Damned still hold their place in Suicide’s car, and a few other moments that ended up altered in the DVD release are there to be enjoyed if for nothing else than their difference. In one particularly poignant scene, Roky Erickson‘s “Burn The Flames” (abbreviated in the DVD version with lowered volume) blasts over a torrent of screams — ultimately, an artistic defeat, which undermines the vitality of the actual song selection. In another, the Tallboys‘ “Take A Walk” is mixed at ridiculously high ampage over a flurry of panicked dialogue. Not huge differences, but enough to warrant a screening of both if you want the whole package.
All told, “The Return of the Living Dead” holds a rightful place in horror history, deserving no less than your respect for its entertainment value as well as its statement. The soundtrack and punk consciousness are integral aspects of the film’s effectiveness. We’re given a group of youths who face a grizzly scenario and are dealt with in the harshest of ways by the “establishment,” if that word can still be used with some degree of straight-faced sobriety. And for that, it is as much a sign of its times as are Romero’s apocalyptic snapshots.