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The Return of the Living Dead Series – Review: Part 1

14 Jul

Zombie films, at this point, seem to have been done to death. There was a time however, where messing with the formula was providing audiences with some new and exciting content, and one of the most popular blends of genres just so happens to be the horror/comedy. Enter Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a cult classic from 1985 called The Return of the Living Dead, which despite what the title will have you believe, is not related to George Romero’s series of films. It didn’t end there however, with four sequels being spawned to create a series that has lasted over a couple decades, with varying results of course. In this review, I’m going to be looking at the first three and will finish up with the last two in the second part.

Let’s kick this off with O’Bannon’s cult smash.

Freddy (Thom Matthews) is a bumbling punk kid who just got a job at a medical supply warehouse and is being trained by the equally bumbling foreman, Frank (James Karen). While trying to impress the new hire, Frank shows Freddy a container in the basement which contains a corpse and a toxic gas, which was part of an experiment that reanimated the dead and inspired George Romero to make Night of the Living Dead. After fiddling with the container, it springs a leak which released the toxic gas into the warehouse and reanimates the corpse within it. After calling their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), to help destroy the corpse with the mortician next door, Ernie (Don Calfa), the groups actions poison the rain outside that is falling over a cemetery which causes all of the dead resting there to come back to life. Of course, a group of Freddy’s friends happen to be loitering there at the time and make a quick escape to the mortuary. From this location, the group must get innovative with their surroundings if they are to survive, but chances begin to get slimmer and slimmer as members of their party start falling victim to the zombies.

The Return of the Living Dead is a special kind of movie. It’s just the right blend of horror and comedy that is so hard to come across. Everything from the poster to the characters and even the way the zombies are design and behave just scream of a punk rock attitude, and that’s exactly what writer/director Dan O’Bannon was going for. It’s so funny to think that the mastermind behind the original Alien would go on to write and direct a movie like this. I’m not saying this is a bad movie at all, it’s just such a departure from what I’ve already seen of his work. So anyway, what this movie is is a comedy with horror elements, and boy can it be funny. What really helps the humor is that this movie takes place in a world where George Romero’s zombie films are around and just as popular. This fills the character’s heads with useless knowledge about zombies that don’t apply to these zombies in the least. In fact, the zombies from Return of the Living Dead are responsible for all the impressions of the undead that involved someone yelling “BRAAAAINS!” Even if you haven’t seen this movie, it’s reach still extends to you through the powers of cult film references that abound.

While The Return of the Living Dead holds up well as a comedy, it also has to hold up as a horror. In that respect, it also succeeds. This isn’t really a creepy movie, but more of what you’d expect from a zombie film. That’s lots of gore and some really great special effects, like on the Tarman zombie that hides in the basement of the warehouse. The other zombies also look great, with some really great make up and practical effects used to complete the illusion. I do have a couple minor complaints with the film as a whole however. For one thing, the set goes on for way too long and it really takes a while for the movie to really get going. Once it does, it’s off the walls, but I was surprised that so much time was used up in just laying the ground work of the story. A story that isn’t really that hard to understand, I might add. The ending also isn’t that spectacular. It is admittedly funny and does work with the nihilistic punk sensibilities, but it all happens way too fast and then the credits just begin to roll. Kind of an odd way to end the film, but it does leave me wanting more.

The Return of the Living Dead shouldn’t have to be compared with something like Dawn of the Dead, but it is possible. This isn’t a perfect zombie film, but it does reinvent the formula in such a way that makes it stand out from the massive amount of other works in this subgenre of horror. This is also a really funny film with a cast of faces you will probably recognize from some other cult favorites. The make up and effects are on point and the gore will leave any horror fan satisfied. If some of the pacing and storytelling issues were cleaned up, you’d have something close to being a perfect horror comedy. Even with those flaws, The Return of the Living Dead has rightfully succeeded in standing the test of time.

Final Grade: B

When The Return of the Living Dead proved to be a critical and box office success, it’s pretty easy to look back now and see that a sequel was inevitable, only this time without Dan O’Bannon. Instead, Lorimar Pictures took a script by Ken Wiederhorn and said they would fund it if he turned the story into a sequel of Return of the Living Dead. He did just that, despite wanting to get out of the horror genre, and it’s certainly weaker than the first film but it isn’t without its charms.

After a barrel of Trioxin falls off of a military transport truck and lands in the river a small town, it’s pretty clear that something very bad is going to happen. After being bullied by a group of neighborhood kids, Jesse (Michael Kenworthy), and his tormentors find the barrel and accidentally open it. Jesse was long gone at that point, but the other two kids weren’t so lucky. Meanwhile, two inept grave robbers, Joey (Thom Mathews) and Ed (James Karen), witness firsthand the dead begin to rise from their graves after a rainstorm sends the gaseous Trioxin underground. Joey and Ed soon meet up with Jesse, his sister Lucy (Marsha Dietlein), and their cable man Tom (Dana Ashbrook), who have also been slowly learning the truth about the undead crisis. With the military surrounding and barricading the town, this unlikely group of heroes have to fight for their lives against the zombies at any moment while also looking for anyway to stop this disaster before it gets any further.

The first thing I noticed about this movie is that it’s shameless about ripping off major plot points of its predecessor. If you go into this movie expecting a sequel that builds off of the events of the first film, then you’ll be let down by this movie on a major level. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a watered down retelling of the first film on a bigger scale. While the first film just took place in a very contained area, this one takes place in an entire town. This change doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie and it just makes the zombies seem stretched thinner. The first movie was tight and made it a lot harder to avoid the undead, where in this one there’s plenty of places to hide. The humor in this one is also watered down big time, which was done in order to attract a wider audience. This backfired miserably since it only made $9.2 million while the original grossed $14.2 million. The zombies in this movie are utter buffoons. This choice sacrifices the wit and anarchic attitude of the first film for zombies that fall all over each other and just meet whacky demises. I really did miss the clever dialogue and original humor that the original offered, but there were still some laughs to be had in this sequel.

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t an entertaining movie. It definitely had its moments, and they can’t be forgotten just for the sake of railing on the film. The kid that played Jesse was actually very good and it was fun to see Thom Mathews and James Karen practically revive their roles, even though other actors probably could have been chosen. James Karen is absolutely hilarious though, and its a better movie with him in it. There’s also some really good special effects that stand up well with the effects of the original film. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a very light hearted film that relies way more on the comedy than the horror, instead of finding a balance between the two. This is a pretty bad movie, but it’s a bad movie that’s easy to like just for its absurdity and self awareness. Just don’t go into this movie expecting quality.

Final Grade: C-

Return of the Living Dead Part II was the last of the series to be released in the 1980s, and also the last to have a wide release in theaters. In 1993, Return of the Living Dead 3 was released in select theaters and admittedly has the worst box office results of the first three films. Other than financially, how well does it hold up with the others that came before it.

After stealing his father’s high class military key card, Curtis (J. Trevor Edmond) and his girlfriend, Julie (Melinda Clarke) sneak onto an army base and witness a group of scientists and officers reanimate a corpse with the Trioxin gas. Col. John Reynolds (Kent McCord), Curtis’ father, is part of the project and when it ultimately fails he is reassigned to another state, much to the devastation of Curtis. Curtis decides he isn’t going to leave and runs off with Julie, but the two get into a motorcycle accident that kills Julie. Curtis soon realizes that he still has the key card and uses it to get back onto the base to reanimate his girlfriend. As the two lovers start realizing that this new life (or afterlife in Julie’s case) isn’t going to be easy, Julie’s need for human flesh and brains causes an out of control situation of undead flesh eaters that could cause the next apocalypse if not contained quickly.

The mood of Return of the Living Dead 3 is way different from the mood of the first and second. The first film is a witty dark comedy/horror film while the sequel is mostly an exercise in slapstick. This entry totally does away with the comedy, while still retaining the sense of punk rock, even more so than the second film. I’ll get into the positives of that later, but I do want to focus on some of the not so great elements of this movie. For one thing, it’s kinda boring. Compared to the craziness of the first two, this entry is really tame. I could easily count the number of zombies in this movie and there’s never really a moment where they seemed to be overpowering anyone. Zombies work best as a horde, not a clump. We’re also meant to really buy the romance between Curtis and Julie, but Curtis is such a selfish idiot, it’s really hard to root for him in any circumstance. I ended up feeling bad for Julie having to be stuck with him and his awful ideas.

As a whole, though, this is a pretty solid movie. It isn’t anything grand, but it has some strong redeeming qualities. For one thing, and this is probably the most obvious thing to praise, Julie’s design for when she gets progressively deeper into “zombie mode,” if you will, is awesome. This make up and costume design is an under appreciated gem of the horror genre, and it’s something that needs to be revisited. This film also feels like it can stand on its own. The second film relied on the first one so much that it felt like a crutch. Return of the Living Dead 3 has its own style, mood, and storyline that is, for the most part, completely its own and unique. I also have to once again give props to the special effects department for once again showing that practical effects is the only way to successfully craft a zombie film.

As I already said, Return of the Living Dead 3 is a solid movie that does have some major flaws which will surely annoy viewer. It’s a tad boring and feels much smaller and less suspenseful than a zombie movie should. It does, however, have a cool concept to work with and it does try to make its two leads something more than just generic horror characters. This isn’t a movie that will ever be seen as a classic, but it does have some neat effects and costume design. For fans of the genre, I’d say give it a try.

Final Grade: C

So there’s the first three films in the Return of the Living Dead series and the only ones to be released in theaters. When I return with this series review, we’ll be heading back to the wonderful, yet often startlingly absurd world of direct to DVD.