Recently I attended a performance of Night of the Living Dead Live. (The production has now finished its run. However zombies are hard to keep down, so I highly recommend checking it out when it pops up again.) At the play, I was lucky enough to be sitting next to Russ Streiner, producer of the original Night of the Living Dead as well as uncredited portrayer of Johnny in the film. Russ was very personable, chatted a bit both before the show and during intermission, and even agreed to pose for a photo.
After this celebrity encounter, I wanted to write a related article. However, Night of the Living Dead is so iconic and well known that I don’t really know what to say about it that hasn’t been said. Mr. Streiner’s name, however, is loosely associated with another zombie movie that I love, namely The Return of the Living Dead (1985). As legend has it, Russ along with John Russo, one of the writers from Night of the Living Dead, wrote The Return of the Living Dead as a serious sequel. However, when Dan O’Bannon came onboard to direct The Return of the Living Dead, he reworked it as a comedy because he felt it infringed on George Romero’s territory too closely (Romero was working on Dawn of the Dead at the time). So both Russ Streiner and John Russo have writing credits for The Return of the Living Dead but it is questionable whether any of their writing made it into the final film.
The film opens with a typical disclaimer statement but with the message turned on its ear:
We then move on to the UNEEDA Medical Supply facility where new hire Freddy is being shown the ropes by his immediate supervisor Frank (veteran actor James Karen in a fabulously over-the-top performance). Freddy is shown where they keep the prosthetic devices, wheelchairs, and bedpans, as well as more interesting, and relevant to our plot, stock. These include skeletons, cadavers (only one in stock at the moment. “You don’t want your inventory to lose its freshness,” explains Frank), and the split dogs.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends are (literally) roaming the streets trying to figure out what to do with themselves. The group includes Spider, in camouflage pants and a jeri curl mullet, Scuz, a traditional British punk rocker complete with trench coat and a Mohawk, Casey, a valley girl with puddle jumpers and dyed hair, Trash, a red-haired punk girl, Chase, a New Waver in white loafers, floods, skinny tie, and dinner jacket, and Tina, Freddy’s innocent preppie girlfriend. Add Suicide, a leather and chain wearing punk who picks them up in his car later, and Freddy himself who has an earring but dresses in a tank top, baseball cap, and suspenders and you have the most eclectic group ever to hang out together and a near perfect cross-section of 1980’s fads.
Tina mentions that, although it would be ‘really rad’ to hang with the gang tonight, she has a date with Freddy. Casey points out that Freddy always knows a place to party and thus the group decides to accompany Tina to pick up Freddy at work. It is during this discussion that the first of several foreshadowing comments is made. It is mentioned that the police will kill the group if they are caught hanging around the park again. Spider comments, “I ain’t in no mood to die tonight.”
Cutting back to the medical supply warehouse, Freddy is flipping through a catalogue of medical supplies and asks Frank about the weirdest thing he has ever seen. In a great tie-in, Frank asks Freddy whether he has ever seen Night of the Living Dead. According to Frank the movie is based on a true case in which the chemical 2-4-5 Trioxin, being developed for the army to spray on marijuana (??), was leaked into a morgue and caused the corpses to start “jumping around”. Of course, the movie changed all the facts around to avoid legal persecution. In a typical army screw-up, Frank informs Freddy, the affected corpses were accidentally shipped to their warehouse and are still packed away in the basement.
Frank takes Freddy down to the basement and shows him the drums in which the corpses are stored. Freddy nervously asks about the possibility of leaks to which Frank scoffs and bangs on a barrel while praising army engineering. Of course, the barrel springs a leak spraying what can only be Trioxin into their faces. They both black out as we see what was left of the corpse in the drum appearing to melt as it is exposed to outside air. As the toxic fumes from the drum are sucked into the ventilation system and distributed throughout the building, we are finally shown the film’s opening credits.
We are now introduced to Colonel Glover at his home. Apparently Glover has been searching for the missing corpses since they went missing almost 20 years ago. He has a base of operations set up in his study including a lot of fancy computer equipment (which doesn’t look like it actually does anything) crammed into an armoire. Despite being a comedy, The Return of the Living Dead does provide some social commentary like its predecessor and a lot of that commentary is focused on Colonel Glover. If Frank’s earlier comments about typical army screw-ups didn’t make it clear, the film is a little anti-establishment and anti-military. Both of those entities are represented by the person of Colonel Glover who is portrayed as a jerk, plain and simple. His first words, spoken to his wife when she asks about his day, are “The usual. Crap.” We don’t see much of Colonel Glover but, when he returns at the end of the film, he shows himself to be indifferent to human suffering, loss of life, or anything really except his mission to contain/clean up the mess started by the army’s mistakes.
Suicide, picks up the kids in his graffiti-covered, convertible Cadillac Eldorado and takes them over to the UNEEDA facility to wait for Freddy to get off work. As they have a two hour wait, the suggestion is made to hang out in the nearby, seemingly abandoned, cemetery (named, appropriately enough, Resurrection Cemetery). None of the gang really seems that enthusiastic about the idea but in they all go.
Freddy and Frank recover, sort of, from their face full of Trioxin and drag themselves upstairs. At first, they try to return to normalcy. Frank sprays some Lysol to cover the smell while stating, “I don’t guess we should tell Burt about this. It makes us look stupid or something.” But soon, they go to investigate a noise and discover that the ‘split dogs’ have been reanimated. Moments later the cadaver begins screaming and attempting to escape from the cold locker it is stored in.
Frank calls in Burt, the boss, and together the three of them decide to take out the cadaver with a pickaxe to the brain (they recall that a shot to the brain killed the zombies in Night of the Living Dead). When that proves ineffective, they use a hacksaw to completely cut off the cadaver’s head. That also does not have the desired effect so they cut the body up, wrap the individual pieces in trash bags, and bring it over to their neighbour, Ernie, and his crematorium, at the funeral home next door.
As the UNEEDA team transports the cadaver pieces to the funeral home, the party in the cemetery is struggling to get going. Everyone is just sort of sitting around listening to Trash (portrayed by horror icon, Linnea Quigley) describe her fantasized/most dreaded way to die. This involves a swarm of old men tearing off her clothes and eating her alive. Not to spoil anything, but this statement is also an omen of things to come. The party livens up when Trash suddenly strips off all her clothes and begins dancing on a crypt. She will remain pretty much naked for the rest of the film.
At the funeral home, Burt attempts to convince Ernie to burn the twitching garbage bags by claiming, of all things, that they contain rabid weasels. Ernie eventually agrees to burn the lot after being shown the true contents of the bags and having the story explained to him. This does dispose of the cadaver but also causes the Trioxin from the body to be released up the chimney and into the night sky.
After the cadaver is burned up, Ernie calls an ambulance for Freddy and Frank who have slowly been looking worse and worse from their face full of Trioxin. The arriving ambulance attendants make an interesting discovery. Both Freddy and Frank are themselves reanimated corpses but do not know it yet. They have no vital signs and a lot of the pain they are experiencing is being caused by rigor mortis setting in. Needless to say, they do not take this news well.
Outside a heavy rainstorm drives all the Trioxin back down over the graveyard causing all those interred therein to climb out of their graves and attack the living. The zombies in The Return of the Living Dead display some interesting characteristics that are, to this day, fairly rare in zombie culture. First, they are not the shambling hordes usually depicted. These zombies can run when they want. They also show some intelligence; they use tools and even talk. After taking down the paramedics, one enterprising zombie gets on the ambulance’s CB radio and calls for seconds.
Not yet knowing what is going on, Tina has gone off alone (nice of the gang) to meet up with Freddy at UNEEDA. She wanders into the facility and downstairs to the basement trying to find anyone. Who she eventually meets up with is probably the most recognized character in the film: Tarman. Tarman is the corpse from the can. He did not completely disintegrate as first assumed, although he is definitely a bit worse for wear. His skin and flesh are melting from his bones and peeling off in strips. This gives him his goopy, slimy appearance and hence the nickname Tarman. Tarman also shows some intelligence although his vocabulary is almost entirely limited to the word ‘brains’.
The rest of the kids come to Tina’s rescue, but in the process Suicide ends up as a snack for Tarman. In another funny, but quick moment, the gang seems like they are about to come to Suicide’s aid. A glance in their direction from Tarman, along with his identification of them as “more brains”, has them quickly change their minds and run screaming from the basement.
Things deteriorate pretty rapidly from this point on. Most of the kids join the other group in the funeral home (after stupidly returning to the graveyard briefly) and attempt to barricade themselves in. This is slightly impeded by Freddy turning zombie within their midst but the funeral home is built like a fortress so they don’t do too badly. While defending against one zombie attack, they actually take a zombie captive…well, half a zombie.
Ernie, the owner of the funeral home, decides to cross-examine this zombie thereby giving us a very clever and unique explanation for zombie attacks. According to the captured zombie, it hurts to be dead as she can feel herself rotting. Somehow zombies know that eating a living brain (only the brains, these zombies are not interested in anything else) eases that pain.
For a horror/comedy, The Return of the Living Dead has a lot of layers and a lot of little interesting tidbits. An entertainment article on nbcnews.com about the recent ‘evolution’ of the smart and fast zombie mentioned the brain fixation in The Return of the Living Dead but failed to credit the film’s use of both speedy and tool-using, smart zombies twenty-eight years ago. I have not even touched on things like Frank’s rather sad but noble end and Ernie’s potentially questionable background. Supposed facts about the use of cadavers, where to get the best skeletons, and the job of a mortician are also thrown in to give a little legitimacy to the proceedings. All and all, the movie has a lot to offer and you could do a lot worse.