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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.