Return of the Living Dead

(Directed by Dan O'Bannon)

Most people will point to An American Werewolf in London as being the benchmark for really successfully combining comedy and horror. But a certain generation of fans can likely point to this quirky delight as their first exposure to a good mix of strong gore and adult humour. It had a fairly tortuous cinematic birth, and directly sprang from the partnership between George Romero and John Russo (screenwriter) on the stone-cold classic Night of the Living Dead. Due to rights issues and agreements far too labyrinthine to go into, Romero went off to film his “Dead” films and Russo had the nod to write “Living Dead” stories and possible film adaptations. This eventually culminated in the novel of the same name, and was originally earmarked for filming by Tobe Hooper, from a script edited by Dan O’Bannon (Alien). When Hooper dropped out, O’Bannon was offered the director’s chair, but he only took the job after insisting that he make further changes to Russo’s original story and a markedly different tone to Romero’s films. And so the mix of punk music, graphic splatter, gratuitous nudity, and subversive flesh-eaters took shape. The cast has some great character actors like Clu Gulager (replacing a too-expensive Leslie Nielsen) and one of the all-time great scream queens in the shape of Linnea Quigley. The plot has the cheeky supposition that the original NOTLD was based on actual incident involving a military bio-weapon gas (called Trioxin), that supposedly had reanimating properties for corpses. The great mismatched duo of the jaded wise-ass Frank (James Karen) and newbie Freddy (Thom Mathews) accidentally release this chemical from an old container in a medical supply depot, and it seeps into the nearby cemetery where the local kids are partying…

Whilst that all seems like zombie-comedy-101 these days, this was ground-breaking stuff at the time and made a huge lasting impact on horror fans, for a number of very good reasons. Whilst other films (like Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake) would go on to cement their existence, this was one of the first films to present intelligent “running zombies”, instead of the shambling dumb cadavers we were used to. Not only that but it totally screwed with the accepted undead lore, with zombies still running around after taking a pickaxe to the head or decapitation. From a pop culture point-of-view it was also the origin of the “Brainnssss!!!” trope, with a clever exposition scene revealing that it hurts to be dead and that fresh human brains act as paracetamol for the Undead! In fact there are so many neat BTS stories and facts about the making of this film (Quigley wore an anti-merkin for her nude scene, Ernie the mortician has an ex-Nazi backstory, etc), that a whole fan subculture sprang up around the film and it was spoofed in mainstream series like “The Simpsons”, also inspiring the excellent documentary “More Brains”. It’s not perfect (the ending is horribly weak and ambiguous in light of the rest of the film, just consisting of repeated dialogue and footage), but it contains just the right mixture of genuine horror/gore (the half-zombie), and comedy (“Send more paramedics”). It also created the perfect visualisation of a classic EC zombie with “Tar-Man”, the shambling flesh-dripping, skull-headed corpse that terrorises a victim in the cellar. Perfectly pitched for its time, the punk sensibilities and poor-taste humour made it an instant cult horror for mature fans. Unfortunately the sequel went the “Police Academy” route in 1988, favouring cheap slapstick humour over horror (a Michael Jackson-lookalike zombie, and a female character allowing her undead boyfriend to eat her brains in a horribly misjudged scene). However, 1993’s “Part III” is surprisingly good, with an awesome Melinda Clarke as the non-living heroine. (NB: We’ll cover a sheet over the other sequels…). Hard to imagine that every genre fan hasn’t caught this already, but you owe yourself a re-viewing at least.


(Directed by Tobe Hooper)

This is by no means a ‘good’ film by any measurement, and it’s certainly not Hooper’s best contribution to the genre. But goddammit it’s a fun romp! Believe it or not, this was the film that caused Hooper to pass on Return of the Living Dead and was part of a 3 picture deal with Cannon Films. The film is VERY loosely based on Colin Wilson’s “The Space Vampires” and was originally due to have that title (which would have been more fitting to be honest). But whereas Wilson’s novel had lashings of Lovecraftian imagery, and thoughtful studies of possession and higher-states-of-being, Hooper’s film is basically a big-budget remake of Quatermass and the Pit, with the ludicrous dial switched up to 11! The script (co-written by Dan O’Bannon) was a lavish affair and took into account the timely reappearance of Halley’s Comet, originally running to over 2-hours long. This was eventually cut down to around 1hr 40mins, with most of the original space-exploration and minor character development scenes being excised. There are a LOT of rumours surrounding actors who didn’t make the cast list, including Michael Caine and Billy Idol! But those who do appear are of A-list quality with Patrick Stewart, Frank Finlay, Peter Firth and Steve Railsback in prominent roles. A lot of hype went into the casting of “Space Girl” (over 1,000 actresses considered… allegedly), which eventually went to Mathilda May who famously spends her seven minutes of screen-time completely devoid of clothing, and spoke very little English. Despite some delusions of grandeur and the relatively large amount of moolah in production, the film is essential a Hammer film for the 80s, a comparison which Hooper himself was happy to make. The plot sees 3 humanoid bodies found in an empty craft during a localised bit of space exploration in Halley’s Comet. Once returned to Earth, they reveal themselves as Vampires that literally suck the life out of victims, whose desiccated husks go on to do the same, creating a vampire/zombie apocalypse… in London.

From a quality point of view, the main problem with Lifeforce is that it takes itself far too seriously. Firth runs around, barking orders as a stony-faced SAS Colonel and never once giving the impression that zombie-vampirism is in any way unusual. Finlay does some wonderful over-acting (especially during his “Here…I…go…” moment), and Railsback just seems to be confused about the whole thing. It’s just so delightfully stiff-upper-lip and British, despite the wealth of freaky occurrences. One superb scene sees a worried security guard nervously offer a biscuit to the nude “Space Girl” to calm her down! But the fact of the matter is that it looks and sounds great. The special effects from Academy Award winner John Dykstra are surprisingly epic. The convincingly dried-up animatronic vampire/zombies look great (even under harsh lighting), and the sight of London aflame, with “souls” swooshing about and being funnelled through the dome of St Pauls Cathedral is something to behold. It has a sense of scale and this was well before most blockbuster disaster/invasion films targeted the UK capital for a damn good thrashing. Not only that but Hollywood composer (allegedly under the impression that it was going to be a space exploration film of some kind) Henry Mancini provides a brilliantly majestic soundtrack with the London Symphony Orchestra, although it’s worth noting that this is absent from certain cuts of the movie. Author Wilson disowned his connection, the film was overwhelmingly trashed by the critics, and Ron Howard’s Cocoon roundly kicked its ass at the box office. Nonetheless, to the average genre fan this remains a massive guilty pleasure. The mixture of misplaced seriousness and trashy sci-fi exploitation is still immensely watchable, with new and remastered editions of the film periodically appearing on the market to be snapped up by eager fans… and you don’t see that happening with Cocoon, do you?


(Directed by Stuart Gordon)

During the great VHS rental boom of the 80s, this can probably stand at the peak of viewing experiences for a generation of horror fans, who eagerly signed a waiting list to book a copy of the film. (NB: Millennials will NEVER know that particular struggle that we UK Gen-Xers had!) Ostensibly it remains one of the best H.P. Lovecraft adaptations ever made, mostly because it’s one of his serialised stories that had very little to do with the Cthulhu mythos, Elder Gods, or Dream-Realms. The author originally wrote the WWI-set plot for profit only, and as a modern parody of “Frankenstein”. Although already a Lovecraft fan, Gordon discovered the novelette whilst looking for new horror ideas for a stage production, before flirting with a TV pilot. Eventually however it transformed into the modestly-budgeted horror yarn that was almost immediately taken to genre fan’s hearts. The film was also one of the first films to widely release an un-rated ‘Theatrical Cut’ and an R-Rated version on home media, with some gore and the infamous ‘giving-head’ scene being censored for those of nervous sensibilities. Nonetheless it was a breath of rotting air for diehard gorehounds, eager for the next big thing after The Evil Dead. The sheer gusto of the blood-drenched scenes (24 gallons used allegedly), the black comedy (“Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!”), and the commitment of Gordon’s cast just struck a nerve with the targeted audience. The plot basically sees the manic genius of Herbert West (a superbly judged performance by Jeffrey Combs), experiment with a sickly glowing reagent that brings the dead back to hyperactive life, and creates his own nemesis in the form of the decapitated Dr Hill (David Gale).

The film is a hugely enjoyable bad-taste romp that hits the ground running, with a strikingly gory prologue (“I gave him life!!”) that sets the scene for the increasingly mad sequences that follow. This is backed up by the wonderfully frantic score from Richard Band (basically the Bernard Herrmann Psycho theme on Prozac), which brilliantly plays alongside trademark “Grey’s Anatomy” images during the credits. All of this is just icing on the grisly cake though, as Gordon races through the lean plot with dozens of memorable moments. A lot of this has to do with the jittery undead, who… for once… have a really good excuse for being of the ‘fast’ variety. (NB: This is punctuated by a great sick moment where one body is given a massive ‘overdose’ of reagent). However it really works so well due to the just-slightly-OTT edge of the performances, and the dead-straight seriousness with which the lines are imparted. It was a trademark performance by Combs, but the ever-wonderful Barbara Crampton does exceptionally well (and brings her own screams) as the female lead. (NB: This was her first horror role and she remains a staunch supporter of the genre at festivals and expos… and a damned nice person to talk to as well). Gale is also nicely slimy and charismatic as the headless Hill, during some very tricky scenes where a variety of SFX methods are used to show his bodiless shenanigans. Like Return of the Living Dead, a number of entertaining backstories grew up around its cult status (the cast visited an insane asylum for authenticity, Gale’s marriage suffered as a result of the film, etc). It did go on to sire two sequels “Bride of Re-animator/Re-Animator II in 1990, and Beyond Re-animator in 2003), although they never quite managed to catch the imaginations of later audiences. Gordon did however go on to finally participate in the stage version (Re-Animator: The Musical) in Los Angeles in 2011 and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012. Rumours about a proposed third sequel continually surface, allegedly to have been called House of the Re-Animator and detailing the story about an undead monstrosity in the White House… it has yet to materialise. Nope, we’re not going there…


(Directed by Brian Dario Argento)

A quick glance at the works of Dario Argento shows a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to quality. For Every Deep Red and Suspiria, there is a Dracula 3D or Phantom of the Opera. However, when the highs are so de