director Dan O’Bannon
As this is my film diary, I write about every feature film I see but I also allow for the unique personal experience of the films. Some films I’ve never seen before, some I’ve seen once, twice, several times. Some I have deep histories with. It’s not that this is inherently interesting to the casual reader, but it’s the whole point of what I write here.
Case in point, here, The Return of the Living Dead. I saw this movie back in 1985 when it played at the Plaza Theater in Gainesville, FL, my hometown. I would have been 16 at the time. The reason this movie piqued particular interest with us was its focus on “punks” as main characters and perhaps the soundtrack which included The Cramps, The Damned, 45 Grave, The Flesh Eaters and T.S.O.L. We were teenage punks and there wasn’t much in mainstream culture that really even hinted at punkness.
Of course, being 16, we were actually too young to get into an R-rated movie, and though we had probably no doubt gotten into several at other times, the person at the ticket counter accosted us and was going to disallow our patronage. Luckily for us, there were other punk/alternative folks in line, college students from the Gainesville punk scene, who offered to act as our “guardians” and thusly we were allowed in.
The novelty of this interaction at the ticket booth was perhaps more notable in my mind for many years than the film itself.
At the time, I was beginning to lose faith in the horror genre. Most horror films are not good and at that age I was definitely looking for something with more significance. The punks were very cartoonish. The film seemed sort of derivative. We left disdaining it, as I recall and for years I think I thought somewhat negatively of it. I also have a weird vague recollection that a friend snuck us in to see the sequel some years later, Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988), which was even more of a throw away than the first.
Here, some nearly 30 years later, a lot of film-going, film school, knowledge and perspective later, I came to realize that The Return of the Living Dead was notably written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for Dark Star (1974), Alien (1979), Dead & Buried (1981), Lifeforce (1985), and Total Recall (1990). He’s an obscure name I would wager outside of more intensive cult circles, but he’s definitely noteworthy, having worked on such a litany of wonderful cult horror and science fiction stuff.
In truth, the film is a pretty fun comedy of a horror film. Not so much a parody, but a playful sequel to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) in that it was adapted from a novel by John Russell that was a sequel on a different direction from the one that Romero took. Some of the comedy is actually pretty amusing, like the “half dogs” that come to life in the science warehouse.
It also features some fine art design and effects like the “tar man” and the half woman, with some real nice tips of the hat toward EC Comics art.
And beyond that the film features some fine comic performances by some very recognizable if not identifiable character actors. I recognize Don Calfa, James Karen, and Clu Gulager from tons of things. These guys are the non punks of the cast, the older fellows, but the ones that really give the movie its pulse and keep it moving. They are all quite excellent in their own ways.
The film has a great comic ending that is so 1980’s. The nuclear solution.
It’s funny. The film is very much of its time and campy, at times quite funny, at times kind of cool, and really has pretty good acting throughout. I don’t know how I totally missed that as a teenager, but I did. It’s surface is silly and maybe that’s just all I managed to get out of it at the time. I am still grateful to those college punks that got us in to the movies all those years ago.