What is there to say about the zombie genre that hasn't been said before, a million times over? Sure, we can discuss the semantics and finer details. Do you like zombies that lumber around or zombies that run? Is it caused by a rage virus, or is it just a reanimation of the brain? Should zombies be completely mindless animals, or should they have a thought process? Everyone, over the years, has kind of formed their own preferences when it comes to the walking dead, no pun intended. Some prefer the '28 Days Later', rage induced, rabid monsters, while others prefer the extremely slow and plodding, but creepy living dead from the original 'Night of the Living Dead'. Would you believe me if I told you that the funnest, more purely entertaining zombie movie of all time was a low-budget zombie horror/comedy brought to you by the same guy that wrote the original 'Alien', 'Total Recall', and even worked on 'Star Wars'?
I have to admit, my affinity for this movie came relatively late in life. I took it for granted that I'd watched the movie several times when I was a kid, mostly based on the poster art, which is an iconic cartoon of some punk rock zombies. It's one of those movies I repeatedly passed over at the video store because I just assumed I'd seen all of the "...of the Living Dead" films, even though there's zero relation to the George A. Romero series. But after having rediscovered it back when it was originally released on DVD, thanks to a fan campaign no less, it has landed on that short list of movies that are so singularly perfect for what it is in all elements, from the casting and acting to the special effects and score. Every inch of the frame is filled to the brim with wit and satire, that while it certainly has strong comedic sense, I assure you, it's as gross and schlocky and just freakin' cool as you want in a movie like this.
One small personal connection to the film I have, while very minor, is that the film takes place in Louisville, Kentucky. Having lived in a small Kentucky town my whole life, where NOTHING happens, it's cool to see something based on somewhere semi-close. We're told amusingly before the beginning that the movie is based off of real events and that the names of individuals were changed. Starting at a warehouse named Uneeda Medical Supplies (pun intended!), we're introduced to two of our main characters, Freddy and Frank, are basically bumbling about telling jokes and playing pranks with the cadavers and human skeletons they keep on hand, and they unwittingly unleash a cannister of gas in the basement that, unbeknownst to them, reanimate the dead. They inhale the gas and are knocked unconscious, but when they come to, hijinks ensue. Not only is it just flat out hilarious, the attention to detail is mind blowing, for a movie like this. For example, when they were checking out the specimens earlier, we seen a supply of a small dog that was halved for them to use for research purposes at vet school. After the gas is let out, the half of the dog is laying there yelping and barking. Or we see a board with pinned up butterfly specimens who are now alive and flapping their wings again. Or how the eye chart on the wall in the office spells out a message if you look hard enough. The attention to detail kind of takes on a life of it's own.
We're then introduced to the boss of the facility, Burt, played by the legendary Clu Gulager. He's just so good at being this over the top guy, spouting off profanities, willing to do whatever it takes to fix the situation. We also meet our core group of 80's nihilistic, punk rock teens who deface and party at cemeteries for fun. These are a twisted version of John Hughes teens, but with names like Trash, Suicide, and they have piercings, mohawks, and dance naked on graves. While some of the teens are killed off fairly quickly and we don't care too much for them, the rest are a pretty rad group of people, played by 80's horror stalwarts like Miguel Nunez and scream queen Linnea Quigley. So after being attacked by a reanimated corpse, our original group chop up the body into pieces, which are *still* coming after them. So they go to the funeral home located conveniently across the street, and Burt's mortician buddy Ernie cremates the body. Naturally, the smoke from the burning body goes through the chimney, into the clouds, and causes a downpour of rain, which in turn, brings all the dead back to life. For a silly little movie, that's actually a very inventive plot device, as opposed to just some virus spreading. And remember when I talked about Freddy and Frank breathing in the chemical? It begins to turn them into lifeless bodies with no pulse or blood pressure, with Frank's turn actually being oddly very effective and emotional to an extent.
The majority of the movie isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, it's essentially the same path as most zombie films. We get our characters being constantly chased by zombies, the teens hoarded up in a building, etc. Some of the more original elements that set this aside from other flicks are things like the fact that they actually refer to them as ZOMBIES in the movie. That's actually very uncommon. Usually they're called everything *but*, like walkers, walking dead, etc. Also, it's one of the first zombie movies where the zombies actually ran, which I'm admittedly not a big fan of, but from a story perspective, I understand. I mean, who can't outrun those zombies that plod along one step at a time? There are a few other iconic elements, mostly in memorable zombies themselves, such as an infamous zombie that has no arms or legs and runs on his nubs. Or the zombie that gets on the radio in the cop car and infamously orders them to "send...more...paramedics..". Or how about the awesome moment where they capture the top half of an old lady zombie, who talks (of course!), and simply explains to them that the reason they eat brains is because being dead is very painful and the brains eases the pain. Fair enough explanation. Again, outlandish, but there's this ironic logic behind everything in the movie.
I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up Tar Man, who over time, has become the poster child for the movie and one of the most iconic zombies in all of movie history. Shuffling about in the basement after being brought back, he's the zombie that utters the very famous "Brains! Live brains!!" line. The interesting part of this guy isn't just his look, which is totally unique, but his movement. They had a very tall and lanky mime in the costume, covered in tar and slime, and the way he kind of waddles and shifts around, it's equal parts hilarious and creepy. The end of the movie really is not a happy ending, as pretty much everyone dies when the military drops a nuclear bomb on the area, to eradicate the threat. But then right before it goes off, we hear them talking about how the bomb has created clouds that are causing a burning rain. Sound familiar?
So own this movie. The special edition Blu Ray can be had for about $6 bucks, and it's surprisingly pretty loaded. Listen to the audio commentary with the aforementioned writer/director Dan O'Bannon for an insanely fun insight. So while I can't say this is my favorite zombie movie of all time, it definitely rates top 3, but definitely the funnest of them all. I challenge you to watch this and not have a blast.
'Return of the Living Dead' gets 10 out of 10 Tar Mans!!