Reviewed by Blake Kenny
My parents were never the kind of people who were strict about what I watched on video. Even at the tender age of about 12 years old, they didnít seem to mind me watching stuff that many parents would fight to keep their kids away from. Actually, itís kind of funny when I think back about it now. My folks were perfectly fine with me watching some maniac hack a guyís head off with a butcher knife, but as soon as there was a bare breast on the screen they would make me look away. Mass murder was okay, but for some reason scenes of natural human sexuality werenít. Try to figure out that logic! Maybe itís because they were sure I wouldnít run around the neighbourhood trying to stab people, but they werenít so sure I wouldnít start peeping onto bedroom windows trying to see someone undress. Either way, I thank them for giving me the choice. Seeing this stuff didnít mess me up too much, and to this day Iíve never gone bonkers and killed anyone. So I guess no permanent damage was done.
When my parents first bought a VCR, we must have rented a truckload of movies every week. Eventually, when I was about 14 or 15, my parents upgraded to a state of the art VHS cassette player and I happily inherited their dying - Sony Betamax machine. Not dying as in it didnít work anymore, but dying as in the format was on itís way out.
As the popularity of Beta began to dwindle it became increasingly easier to find many of my favourite - previously viewed movies at dirt cheap prices. I ended up owning Dawn of the Dead along with other horror favourites, like Sam Raimiís - The Evil Dead. I loved these movies, mainly because the gore was intense and most movies being made in the late 70ís and 80ís - with the exception of a few were pretty tame by comparison. Needless to say, movies that featured zombies quickly became one of my most loved horror genres. To this day Iíve seem every one of George A. Romeroís masterful films in the Dead Trilogy more times than I have fingers and toes to count - and naturally, I now own each and every one of them on DVD.
As it stands, Dawn of the Dead will always be my favourite Zombie flick. I donít think any other horror film has ever come close to touching my admiration of it. While watching this movie used to scare the crap out of me as a kid, making it a little difficult to sleep at night, Iíll never forgot how much I loved watching it over and over again. There was just something about it that was creepier than most horror films. Maybe it was Romeroís ability to make you feel a certain level of pity for the recently revived. Who knows? Itís really hard to pinpoint was makes that film so great, it just works of so many levels. Face it, zombies are just cool.
So when the opportunity came for me to review The Return of the Living Dead - I jumped at the chance. While I canít remember when the first time was that I saw this film, I will say that Iíve seen it at least 10 or 15 times (3 more times since I got the DVD). While Romeroís films are considered by many to be the quintessential zombie flicks, and rightfully so - The Return of the Living Dead has always been a runner up. Since itís original release in 1985, it has gone on to reach a level of cult status with many viewers - and deservingly so.
The Story revolves around a handful of key characters, but begins primarily with the introduction of Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews). Freddy is a good natured young street punk, starting his first day on a new job at the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse. Frank is essentially his supervisor, and as the movie begins heís showing Freddy the ropes.
The Uneeda medical warehouse, as the name implies, deals in anything that local businesses could possibly need in the way of medical equipment and supplies. They deal in everything from bed pans, crutches and wheel chairs for hospitals use, to dogs, split down the center for veterinary students. This place has it all, even freshly deceased cadavers for med students to practice their craft on.
Itís during these early moments in the film that Freddy decides to ask Frank what the weirdest thing was he ever saw come through the doors of the warehouse. Itís here that homage is paid to George A. Romero as Frank goes on to explain how the classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead was essentially a true story based in actual events. Frank goes on to explain that Romero had to change many of the facts in his film in order to avoid severe legal problems. Frank then explains that the army covered up the incident and that during a shipping mishap, several of the corpses were inadvertently sent to Uneeda - and that some of those corpses were at that very moment stored away in the basement.
As you might expect the two quickly run into the basement so Frank can gleefully show Freddy thatís these bodies do indeed exist. The corpses are sealed within huge metal canisters and when Frank raps on the side of one of them to reassure Freddy that they donít leak - wellÖ it springs a leak. (Bet you didnít see that one coming.) A thick cloud of yellow toxic gas sprays the duo right in the face, rendering then unconscious. Its only after a lengthy snooze that the two eventually recover and learn that the fumes from the tank have not only made them incredibly ill, but has also reanimated everything that was once dead within the entire building. The split veterinary dogs bark, the dead butterflies pinned to the sample board flap their wings and the fresh cadaver locked within the refrigerator - really wants to get out.
Franks and Freddy realize that theyíve really screwed up and try desperately to think of a plan to cover their butts. Their only solution is to call in the companyís owner and their boss - Burt (Played by Clu Gulager). Naturally when Burt arrives heís seriously pissed at the pair, not only that, but heís worried that if news of this incident were to get out, his business might suffer for it and he could end up in jail. Eventually the three men decide that the best thing to do is remove all the evidence of what happened and try to avoid any unnecessary publicity that could hurt Uneedaís reputation. Their first course of action is to dispose of the frozen corpse thatís been pounding away at the refrigerator door since his return to the living. The only question is: How do you kill something thatís already dead?
ďIn that movie they destroyed the brain to killíem, is that what they did?Ē
Unfortunately this plan fails miserably, as even the perfectly square placement of a pickaxe through the zombies head seems to have little effect on its desire to live.
ďIt worked in the movie!Ē (More kudos to RomeroÖ)
Hysteria ensues as the group has no choice but to completely dismember the body, but even this has little effect as each individual part still trembles and quivers with life. Burt decides that they should take the body to the mortuary next door and completely burn the corpse away in the crematorium.
Itís over at the mortuary that we meet Ernie Kaltenbrunner, (Don Calfa) a long time friends of Burtís. After presenting Ernie with a hilarious cover-up story involving a botched shipment and a bunch of rabid weasels, the group eventually decides to comes clean and tell him the truth. Burt explains to Ernie that the bags they have brought over donít contain rabid weasels at all, but re-animated body parts. After seeing some proof first hand, Ernie reluctantly decides to help them do away with their problem and operate the crematorium for them. He assures them that the body will burn up completely and that nothing will remains but a harmless pile of ashes.
All their problems would seem to be over, if it were not for the fact that the smoke, rising from the chimney contains the same toxins that started this whole mess in the first place. The toxins are then rained down from the sky and seep into the earth of the cemetery next door. Itís in this graveyard that another group of primary characters are found. A rebellious bunch of teenage punk rockers who are partying and killing time some while they wait for the pal Freddy to get off of work at Uneeda.
As you have probably guess, the fun has just begun, since even a fool knows that the toxic rains are about to re-animate every corpse in the entire cemetery. Up to this point the movie has been far more humorous than horrific, and while the film continues to have many funny moments, this is where the carnage really begins. With that in mind, Iíll keep the rest of the film secret for those of you who have yet to see it.
Overall the acting in the film in great, especially considering the subject matter. James Karen and Thom Mathews as Franks and Freddy are absolutely genius. These guys manage to portray a level of urgency and panic that keeps the viewer not only panicking along with them, but laughing at the absurdity of their situation. This guys are like Abbot and Costello; they work wonderfully together. Ernie the mortician and Burt the owner of Uneeda ( Don Calfa and Clu Gulager) are also fantastic and display a level of acting skill thatís seen in only the most seasoned of professionals.
The only actor who didnít really seem to pull their weight was Beverly Hartley who plays Freddyís girlfriend - Tina. She unfortunately seems to prattle off her lines with little regard of either timing or tact. Her dialogue seems forced and unconvincing, which is a shame since everyone else in the film managed to make their cheesy lines work rather nicely. Another, not so stellar acting job comes to us via scream queen - Linnea Quigley. However, since her character: Trash, strips down to nothing but her cherry red hair-do and leg warmers for the entirety of the film, Iím willing to let it slide.
When it comes to my final opinion of the movie it, I think Iíve already made it abundantly clear that I love it. The movie blends together just the right amount of graphics violence and comedic elements to differentiate itself from Romeroís work. Itís obvious where the film makerís inspiration came from, in fact the director admits to it, yet somehow he manages to avoid making this feel like a blatant rip-off.
My only complaint with the film is that Iíve always felt it comes to a rather sudden ending. Youíre just getting into it and waiting to see a few more of the principal characters get munched - then suddenly itís over. Itís not that itís a bad ending, in fact itís a great ending, it just sneaks up on you a little sooner than youíd expect. Regardless of my small, critical observation, The Return of the Living Dead is an enjoyable horror/comedy, and one that is certainly worth seeing.