Many moons ago, I started a blog series about the things that scared the ever-livin' poop outta me as a kid. It started simple, with my first recollections of fear in general, which I recounted right hur. Then it moved on to a catalog of all the horror movies that scared me silly growing up, starting with An American Werewolf in London and moving on to The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the original Alien.
Needless to say, I really wanna continue this trend, but maybe lighten things up a bit this year. And when I say "a bit" I really only mean "a smidge". 'Cuz, let me tell ya, my next pick really freaked the hell out of me.
Yes, The Return of the Living Dead is another horror comedy. What can I say, I was a really sheltered kid.
Just like in American Werewolf in London, writer/director Dan O'Bannon wasted no time establishing a creepy atmosphere. Frank (James Karen), a supervisor at a medical warehouse, tries to spook his dim new protege Freddy (Thom Mathews) by telling him that the events in George A. Romero's seminal zombie movie Night of the Living Dead actually happened fo' realz.
Since that film had already made an indelible impression on me, I was already pre-sold on a follow-up of sorts. That is until Frank told Freddy that one of the living dead corpses was actually stashed in the basement underneath their very feet. Hat's off to actor James Karen for taking what could very well have been a boring scene of pure exposition and turning it into a creepy campfire yarn. Sorry, James, I don't care if you're ninety-one years old now; if I ever run into you I'm still gonna punch you right in the nards for traumatizing me so badly as a kid.
Of course these two chuckle-heads wandered down into the basement and within record time they managed to break the seal on the zombie canister. Pretty soon the entire facility was flooded with some sort of toxic nerve gas, which apparently was all the excuse Dan O'Bannon needed to trot out one darkly humorous and brain-noshingly dreadful set piece after another.
First, one of the anatomical cross-section dogs came to life and started barking and growling. Freddy and Frank then proceeded to beat the vile thing into a second death with crutches. Whenever I watch this scene now I laugh my ass off, but back then I thought it was the sickest, most reprehensible thing I'd ever laid eyes on. Man, I was such a Republican...
To make matters worse, O'Bannon uses nudity for shock value when one of the jaundiced-looking corpses in the meat locker starts running around buck naked and attacking people. Even after our gormless duo manage to decapitate the thing it just springs back up again and starts running around like a headless plucked chicken. Again, I find this to be hysterically funny now, but back then seeing a nude, homicidal, headless corpse attacking people while they screamed their lungs out really shattered my nerves.
After Mutt and Jeff finally managed to subdue the frenetic corpse by hacking it into pieces (!), they came up with the brilliant idea of burning the remains in the crematorium. This only served to send toxic smoke skyward, which then fell back down to earth in the form of rain. Of course, when the tainted rainwater bled into the ground, scores of horrifically-decomposed corpses started popping up out of their graves like rigor-mortis-inflicted Sea Monkeys.
Even before the first twenty minutes of the film was over by mind had thoroughly blown and leaking out of my left ear, so I just sat there and gurgled as O'Bannon kept troweling on one body blow after another. I watched slack-jawed as the punk rocker Trash, played by aforementioned scream queen Linnea Quigley decided, for no apparent reason, to do a striptease on top of a graveyard crypt. Since promiscuity is an instant death sentence in horror pictures, it wasn't long before she got enchompinated and came back as a zombie who was clearly free of any body image issues.
And, let me tell ya, folks, these ghouls didn't play by the old rules. They didn't even have the common courtesy to drop after you blasted them right in the mush. You practically hafta stuff 'em into a blender and put 'em on frappe for at least three minutes. Also, unlike the dazed-looking extras wearing a few scattered facial appliances and scars in Night of The Living Dead, Return's zombies are all rotted, gross and nasty. Just Google "Half-Corpse" and "Tar Man" and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about.
There's one other important way in which these guys differ from Romero's living dead: they can haul major ass! Watching them swarm military and police barriers with ease was enough to scare the fertilizer outta me. Bonus points: O'Bannon's ghouls are also positively chatty! The scene in which a zombie uses a police car (and then an ambulance) radio to place an order for delivery is completely hilarious, but at the time it was completely lost on me. My brain was on total lock down by that point.
There were more gut-wrenching scenes to come. After directly inhaling the toxic gas, Freddy started to succumb to the zombification process. But before that happened he had a gut-wrenching re-union with his girlfriend Tina who, naturally, became a total wreck while watching him go from dead to living dead. Eventually she's forced to flee from him and the other characters bar him up in another room.
Thom Mathews gives a brutal, go-for broke performance here, delivering his E.C.comics-inspired lines so well that they haunt me to this very day:
Sorry, but that's just creepy as f#@$.
For its complete lack of scruples, shock-value nudity, amazing gore and makeup effects, eerie lines, and over-the-top performances, Return of the Living Dead also scores a "3" on the Evil-O-Meter.
So, there you have it for another year, kiddies! Join me again next year, same bat-time, same bat-channel for a new installment of my Obligatory Halloween Post!
EPIC BEHIND-THE-SCENES DOC I went completely off the deep end when DVD's first came out, thanks to amazing in-depth, "making of" docs like this one:
SEQUEL FAIL Turns out, Dan O'Bannon made a much better follow up to Night of the Living Dead then it's co-creator did. Watch now in amusement as Internet sensation Dr. Wolfula sinks his teeth into John A. Russo's excrementally awful Children of the Living Dead.