Return of the Living Dead

Hiring movies today is a civilised affair; conducted in an unsuperstitious consumer world of brightly lit shelving where the customer is always right. Choosing films, at least for me, is now a private thing, conducted alone or with a partner.

It wasn’t always this way. My barbaric teenage self sought movies in an eighties Dark Age of arcane practices and strange rituals. We hunted in a pack. Our laws were simple. Rule one: videos would be watched at home with the least family members present. Rule two: Choice of video goes to person deemed to have the best track record.  Rule three: Don’t let Rusty choose the video.

Rusty was one of only two of us whose family owned a gigantic beast of a video player, so rule three was often broken. The other VHS shaman was Tim, whose stroppy sister often caused us to violate rule one.

We had two main hunting grounds. The first was Golden Videos, which resembled a porno shop from a seventies cop show – all hardboard fake wood paneling and bead curtains. And then there was Jimi’s – a dingy cave of a place with boarded windows and a small hand-painted sign above the door that helpfully read ‘video’. We called it Jimi’s because the taciturn Asian guy who owned it was a dead ringer for Jimi Hendrix.

Hunting was good. Even during the time of the video nasty ban, you could request a prohibited film from Golden Videos by name and the surly owner would reach down and retrieve it, literally from under the counter, at no extra charge.

“This was also the era of the snuff film.”

Jimi didn’t even bother hiding his nasties. His cavern kingdom was beyond the rule of law. You could find House by the Cemetery or SS Experiment Camp right next door to E.T. and The Goonies on his randomly stocked shelves. There was a lot of Italian horror. Much of his stock never had an official UK release. Some of it never will. Once you walked through the doorway, which always seemed to be wide open, you were in his world. A huge rack filled the middle of the cramped room. Three walls, including the boarded window wall, were mounted floor to ceiling with shelves. Jimi sat behind a counter on the third wall, rarely moving from his seat, looking as stoned as his namesake. I don’t remember seeing another customer in the place.

This was also the era of the snuff film. So maybe another reason we hired in groups was the fear of being snatched from the shadows of the place. No one wanted to find themselves killed messily in one of his dodgy movies. Maybe this was where the other customers had gone.

It wasn’t practical for all of us to huddle into Jimi’s pokey grotto. Two of us would be picked to make the kill, and the rest would hang around outside, smoking to look cool and making way too much noise.

Those chosen would walk the shadowy circuit of the shop, heads tracking slowly up and down, taking in the video cases displayed in grids, face front.  The information age had yet to dawn. We were armed with the knowledge that came from the trailers at the start of former videos, and word of mouth. Because of this, much of our selection was dictated by gaudy cover art (hey, we were young).  Photo printing must have been more expensive back then, as most covers featured lurid paintings in custard yellow, snot green and blood red. We usually snared the goriest looking cover (Rusty, however, would unfailingly choose something that featured naked breasts, deep cleavage, or a hint of nipple). You never read the blurb on the back of the box.  Marketing was an undiscovered science. In place of hooky teaser text, many movie cases featured a complete plot rundown, including spoilers and the ending.

My word was God on this outing, as my last two picks had been Carpenter’s The Thing, and Fulci’s The Beyond.  I left clutching a copy of Return of the Living Dead. The venue was Rusty’s house. Good because we didn’t have to suffer Tim’s sister, bad because Rusty owned a yappy little Yorkshire Terrier. Snowy liked me. A little too much. I’d have to watch the entire movie with the dog dry humping my leg. No amount of leg raising and shaking, or aid from the others could release the dog’s grip on my ankle. It was best just to ignore it, grit my teeth, and concentrate on the movie.

Return of the Living Dead started life as a story by John Russo, co-writer of Night of the Living Dead. He brought with him bagsies on the ‘Living Dead’ title. It was to be directed by Tobe Hooper (in 3D of all things), whose last movie had been Spielberg’s Poltergeist. Hooper however, decided on another project (Lifeforce), and suggested that the screenwriter of Lifeforce, Dan O’Bannon, may like to direct in his place.

O’Bannon relished the chance of his first directing role, and the cult of Return of the Living Dead was born. Dan wanted to depart as far as possible from the Night of the Living Dead influence, as he felt that no one could out-Romero Romero. Russo’s original story was completely rewritten.  Return became a horror comedy presaging Shaun of the Dead. O’Bannon’s zombies still retained their intelligence. They could run, talk, operate machinery, and order take-out (“send more paramedics!”). And they just loved “Braaaiiins” (the reason no-one nowadays can do a hokey zombie impression without moaning that at you).

“They’re back… they’re hungry… and they’re not vegetarian”

Freddy lands a job working in the Uneeda medical supply warehouse. Warehouse Manager Frank shows him around, pointing out some of the more interesting medical supplies – split dogs, for veterinary research, and a medical cadaver stored in a walk-in freezer. But these are nothing compared to what’s stored in the basement. “Ever see that movie, Night of the Living Dead?” Frank asks Freddy. Freddy has, and Frank reveals that the story was true – they just mixed the facts around to make it seem like fiction. Now, after an army logistical screw up, some of the actual corpses, and the Trioxin gas that re-animated them, are stored in canisters in the basement of Uneeda medical supply.

Frank can’t resist taking Freddy down to the basement to take a look at the canisters. A shriveled corpse is revealed through a plexi-glass viewing slot. As the canisters have housed the corpses since 1969, it’s lucky that they’re of reliable, army grade construction. Frank slaps a tank to demonstrate this. A seam weld splits, and the pair are sprayed by a noxious gas that puts them out for the count (few acting skills were necessary here – the director used sulphur to get a nice yellow colour for the gas, and the stench on set was appalling). The gas leaks throughout the warehouse, animating anything dead – split dogs and corpses alike.

Meanwhile, Freddy’s girlfriend Tina is hanging around with a bunch of drop-outs. They’re a mixture of safety-pinned punks and Day-Glo jump suit wearing eighties teens, with names like Trash and Suicide. They accompany her to meet Freddy after his first day’s shift. With time to kill, they decide to hang out in the Resurrection Cemetery, next door to Uneeda.

Cue gratuitous nudity:  it doesn’t take long before Trash has taken off all her clothes and begun to gyrate on a crypt (suddenly, Rusty decides this is the best movie he’s ever seen). Trash is played by Linnea Quigley, in one of over one hundred roles where she a) gets naked and b) screams.

“Despite a pickaxe in the brain and decapitation, the thing is still animated.”

Feeling ill, Frank and Freddy recover to find the corpse missing from the canister, the split dogs twitching, and the cadaver banging on the freezer door. They call in Burt, Uneeda’s owner, and together they set about attempting to destroy the cadaver. Despite a pickaxe in the brain and decapitation, the thing is still animated. Romero’s zombie laws don’t apply here…

Burt decides that they should dismember the frisky corpse, and take it over the road to the Resurrection Crematorium, where he’s sure his friend Ernie, the mortician, will help them by cremating the lively remains. Ernie agrees, stokes the furnace nice and hot, and burns the body. Contaminated smoke fills the air. A storm brews, drenching the area and the graveyard in a toxic soup that can re-animate the dead.

Whilst all this is going on, Tina has entered Uneeda looking for Freddy. Instead, she finds the re-animated corpse that had been contained in the army canister – a jointless, skin shedding zombie known to cast, crew and fans as Tarman.  Her friends rush to her aid. Outside, the dead are rising, and the group will soon be on the menu in the lust for fresh brains.

Back at the crematorium, Freddy and Frank look like death warmed up. Paramedics turn up, called in by Ernie. When the medics check them out, they find death sure enough, and not warmed up. The Trioxin has claimed another two walking, talking dead.

On the run from Tarman and the dead, Tina and friends turn up at the mortuary, looking for help. (At this point in the film, Rusty’s dog decides to swap legs).

On screen, we’re in more traditional zombie territory. Trapped in the mortuary, the group begin boarding the doors and windows, while the menace outside attempts to smash in, and the two freaked out dead inside, begin their agonising change and start to crave brains. It won’t be long before the dead overwhelm them. Freddy wants to make a meal of Tina, Tarman comes staggering bonelessly, and their only solution is to call the army emergency number printed on the side of the ruptured canister.

In another departure from the Romero movies, O’Bannon decided not to go overboard on the gore. The extras in the brain eating scenes, however, were chowing down on real calf brains (O’Bannon convinced them to do this by eating some himself first). This isn’t a special effects extravaganza in the mould of The Thing. In fact, the initial effects artist, Bill Munns, was sacked and replaced because of his ropey zombie masks and poor props.  The final outcome works though. It works as both a comedy and horror movie.  Fate was so much in O’Bannon’s favour, it could have been a co-director. Munns’ bad effects were used in the background, or shot through rainy windows, and when they do pop up, it’s as though they’re put there just to make you smile. The Uneeda cadaver, Tarman and the truncated female corpse captured later in the story all give the movie an edge of cartoon violence perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere of the piece. Although ludicrous, the ‘brains’ moaning Tarman actually looks eerie, thanks to the practiced gait of six foot plus puppeteer Allan Trautman. When the female half-corpse keens about the pain of being dead, it’s an almost poignant moment.

“The dialogue is sprinkled with humorous anecdotes, and sly references to the genre.”

What oozes from the movie, apart from the brains of the victims, is the love and care that O’Bannon and his production designer William Stout lavished on their baby (Stout is seen playing a homeless person that the punks walk past early in the movie, and O’Bannon was going to act the part of Frank the warehouse manager, before he saw James Karen in audition and was impressed enough to relinquish the role). The cast was given the opportunity to hang out together for two weeks before filming, to build their camaraderie and practice talking over each other in a way that isn’t forced – and it shows. A warehouse was hired for the Uneeda scenes, but Stout built sets within the set to make sure everything looked right. Using a technique described as ‘eyeball kick’, director and designer filled each frame with visual gags, like an eye chart, the letters of which spell out a diatribe against Burt, the owner of the Uneeda . The dialogue is sprinkled with humorous anecdotes, and sly references to the genre (the punk character Scuz is seen reading a Weird Tales-like Weird Trips magazine, designed by Stout). Ernie the mortician, played by Don Calfa, has a whole back-story that’s revealed only by on-screen visual and auditory clues. When first seen, he’s listening to a German ode to the Panzer Corps. He carries a German pistol. Calfa improvises German dialogue in one scene. There’s a picture of Eva Braun on his notice board. I missed all this first time around, but then I was worried that Rusty’s dog might be ready for the money shot (It never came, if you’ll excuse the double entendre).

The soundtrack has become a cult item amongst collectors. O’Bannon had an initial score of classical music lined up for his film, and was a little non-plussed when it was re-edited with some hip ‘punk’ music for teen appeal. British punk band The Damned produced and performed a one-off song for the movie (although this was hacked out of later releases for ‘copyright reasons’). It was the latter days of the punk scene, and many bands were honing a softer, more goth edge. In another example of the hand of fate co-directing, the quirky, dark tracks blend perfectly into the overall atmosphere.

Considering its impact on the genre, it’s strange to note that you’d be hard pressed to find a UK DVD copy nowadays on those brightly lit rental shelves. But at least you don’t run the risk of being kidnapped for a snuff movie while you’re looking.

STEVE HARRIS

Buy Return of the Living Dead (UK)
Buy Return of the Living Dead (US)

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