So it came to pass, in 1985, that the two creators of Night of the Living Dead released competing films. Romero’s Day of the Dead was not a success upon its release, whereas the John Russo scripted Return of the Living Dead actually managed to find an audience, because it was billed as lighthearted fare compared to the pessimistic Day. Reagan’s America was able to laugh but apparently unable to take criticism.
Still, I am not sure why this film is still remembered. Return is a poorly thought out spoof that actually manages to be more terrifying than many zombie films. I know that sounds like a compliment, the but film takes great strides to remind us that we are supposed to be laughing. What would your reaction be to, say, a serial killer who insisted that his crimes were carried out as a giant joke against other serial killers?
The film opens in the present, as an employee of a medical supply company named Frank (James Karen) tries to tell newcomer Freddy (Thom Matthews) about how Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story. They go down to the storage units where the original corpses are still being held, and accidentally release the gas that reanimated the dead. One corpse comes back to life, the two burn it (headshots don’t work in this film), but this only releases the gas over a local cemetery. Soon, hundreds of corpses are re-animated and seek to eat human brains. Some survivors, including Freddy’s girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) wait for help to arrive.
As I said, the film is some sort of delightful romp. Actually, it ends up being scarier than other zombie films as the zombies are virtually indestructible. Burning them just made the problem worse, and the film’s ending is as depressing as any that have ever been filmed. I do want to praise those qualities of Return of the Living Dead. It is a risk to have a well established monster be seen in a new light, especially something like zombies. Even in the eighties, zombies were well known and almost tired. Return of the Living Dead made them seem frightening again.
But the film is meant to be a comedy. Unlike Re-Animator, which was also released the same year, Return of the Living Dead never finds the appropriate balance between comedy and horror. It shows a scene of very dark humor (including the famous “send….more…paramedics” scene) then immediately follows it with scenes of one character yelling at a loved one to eat her brain. There is absolutely no balance between these moments – the film takes the viewpoint that if it SAYS these two tones can coexist, then audiences will have to accept it.
But that is not true. How is a scene of a decaying corpse (speaking in a grandmotherly voice) talking about how eating brains makes the pain go away supposed to fit into a comedy? It may work as some sort of commentary on drug addiction, but the film is not able to talk about that. The screenwriters should have ditched the sense of comedy and made this a straight sort of Romero satire. THAT would have been a film worth watching, a film that would be remembered as one of the great horror films of the eighties.
There is some elements of the film that work. The make up effects are astounding, as are the performances. They aren’t Oscar caliber, but they do work for the material. Frank and Freddy manage to convey the sense of loss well, as they are slowly turned into zombies. The sort of horror they go through reaches the levels of Cronenberg. Again, those elements are more appropriate for a horror film rather than a spoof. But they are well executed, and I cannot ignore that fact. And the ending – well, it did get to me and was again an effective statement on the callousness of authority (you’ll see what I mean). Again, if this was a straight horror film, it would definitely have managed to trump Day.
The film does have some good moments, but never solves the problem with its tone. Romero’s films end up being better pieces of satires. Return of the Living Dead is a farce, and not even a very well executed one. Luckily, at least one sequel (Return of the Living Dead 3) was worthwhile, so I guess there is a reason for this film to exist.