There are a bunch of movies that I consider among my very favorites, that I refer to all the time, and then when I try to make a link to them in another review I realize what in God’s name, how have I not officially reviewed the greatest zombie movie ever made by somebody who is not named George Romero? And what does this say about me as a person?
Not being made by Romero was actually kind of the whole point of this one. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD co-writer (and infamous 30th Anniversary Edition maker) John Russo disagreed with Romero about how to do a sequel. Romero thought it should be one of the best movies of all time and Russo wanted to go a different direction. So Romero made DAWN OF THE DEAD and Russo wrote a book called THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD which apparently starts with a bus crash in a small town where the locals aren’t able to impale the brains of the dead like they usually do. (The book is very rare and pricey so I haven’t read it for myself).
The film rights ended up with Tobe Hooper with DARK STAR star/Jodorowsky’s DUNE would-be effects guy/ALIEN writer Dan O’Bannon working on the script. When Hooper left to do LIFEFORCE instead O’Bannon took over as director and rewrote the whole thing to be more humorous and have nothing to do with the book. (Russo got a story credit along with Rudy Ricci, another Romero buddy who wrote THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA and was one of the bikers in DAWN OF THE DEAD. In the end Russo wrote the novelization of the movie that came out of the book that he wrote in order to make into a movie.)
The first laugh in the movie is the FARGO-esque opening title card claiming it’s a true story. Medical supply warehouse manager Frank (James Karen, POLTERGEIST) tells his new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews, JASON LIVES, KICKBOXER 4) that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was based on a true story, but with the facts changed around. His dates don’t quite check out, but the point of the story is that one of the bodies of these real life zombies was in a vat that was accidentally delivered here years ago. And is still in the basement.
That’s one way this story diverges from the Gospel of Romero: there is a specified cause of the zombie outbreak, a chemical that leaks out of the barrel and infects Frank and Freddy and a cadaver. They try to clean up their mess in secret to avoid getting in trouble with the owner (Clu Galager) or the government, and it’s a comedy of errors like BLOOD SIMPLE meets RE-ANIMATOR. They involve Frank’s friend Ernie (Don Calfa, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S [which if you think about it is the opposite of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD]) at the funeral home across the way, and they all treat it like just some guys who run into some trouble and get scared but know they gotta pull up their sleeves and get the job done. Nice attitude, but their attempts to destroy the resurrected body parts only escalate the problem until there are hordes of rotting bodies climbing out of the mud in the nearby cemetery and chowing down on brains.
And that’s another one of the zombie differences, that these are the ones that specifically eat brains. That’s kind of leaked into pop culture as a general zombie trope even though it’s pretty much just from this movie. Also, these are zombies that run. This was a controversial issue when 28 DAYS LATER and the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake followed suit and we all worried that the kids would only want fast zombies for now on (then The Walking Dead came along and said “you know what, shut the fuck up, zombies are slow.”) Obviously I’m with Romero’s approach where the zombies’ biggest weapon is plentifulness. But people forget that RETURN had sprinting zombies back in ’85, and it was an effective change to the rules. Nobody wants to see even one of those slimy fuckers hauling ass toward them, let alone a bunch of them.
O’Bannon’s zombies have their own look, very horror-comic-book-inspired, very exaggerated. I imagine some credit should probly go to production designer William Stout, who mostly works as a conceptual artist and creature designer on movies from PREDATOR to PAN’S LABYRINTH. The best creature here is the one known as “Tarman,” because he’s soaked in chemicals and juices so long he looks like a skeleton covered in tar.
Also there’s at least one that’s pretty much just a skeleton with eyeballs, and one that’s a shriveled up part of a body that they tie down and interrogate (much like the one in LIFEFORCE, actually).
Oh yeah, because they can talk too. It’s weird because they don’t have lips, but it’s so worth it for the movie’s greatest joke: after paramedics arrive and get eaten by zombies, one of the ghouls shambles over, picks up the radio and says, “COME IN DISPATCH. SEND… MORE… PARAMEDICS.” Later they’re calling in wave after wave of paramedics and cops, like a big party where they keep running out of pizzas and having to order more. And the trick keeps working.
There are so many reasons to treasure this movie, but the first one that always come to my mind is the ingenious opening section. Frank is training Freddy on how to do the job, showing him how things are done, making corny jokes that you know he’s made before, giving words of encouragement, getting into tangental conversations that eventually lead to him showing off the corpses in the basement. This would be captivating even as a non-horror movie, a night in the life of these two funny characters. Meanwhile, it’s organically setting up things that will come up later: medical samples that will reanimate, a stair that will break, the geography of the warehouse, the government hotline number that they’ll have to call if they give up on solving the problem in-house. And only about 9 minutes into the movie, right after they accidentally set loose the outbreak that will end the world (with the famous last words “Leak? Hell no, these things were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers!”) do we get the title of the movie and the excellent driving keyboard and guitar theme by Matt Clifford and the first of O’Bannon’s great visual depictions of the contamination spreading.
This is a rare category for me: a movie that’s clearly a comedy, but the horror element of it is so cool, so clever, so well-executed that I still think of it as legit horror. Most of what happens in the funeral home is dark humor that wouldn’t be out of place in a Stuart Gordon movie, but Freddy’s punk rock friends who are hanging out in the cemetery waiting for him to get off work are broad enough to push the balance over to straight up laughfest. That’s okay, because they’re hilarious. Their leader (or maybe more like their dad – he’s the one with the car, and resents having to drive them around all the time) is Suicide (Mark Venturini, FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING), a meathead who is a purist about punk rock and defends it with my favorite line in the movie:
“What do you think this is about? You think this is a fucking costume? This is a way of life!”
His naked distraction you see there is Trash, played by Linnea Quigley in her greatest role. She’s most remembered for doing a strip tease on a grave and then staying naked for the rest of the movie, but it’s also a genuinely great comedic performance as a gloomy death-obsessed burnout.
Freddy is kind of the in-between guy, a dude who identifies with punk rock but can play it straight enough to get a job (to the disappointment of his friends). By the way, Ryan Gosling’s silver scorpion jacket in DRIVE was a sensation at the time, but Freddy could give him a run for his money with his jacket with the fancy “Fuck You” embroidered on the back. I’m not sure I ever noticed that before seeing it on the big screen last week. Thank you EMP for showing it in the Skychurch.
Although filmed in California this is supposed to be Louisville, Kentucky. I wondered how much of a punk scene there really was in Louisville so I looked it up and sure enough it had a thriving scene starting from the late ’70s and there are even books about it. I guess there was probly plenty to rebel against.
It’s a nice diverse gang of punk friends. Suicide and Trash are Troma-esque over-the-top punks, and Scuz (Brian Peck, THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN) is the more common type in the real world with a mohawk and a trench coat with lots of pins on it. Then you’ve got Casey (Jewel Shepard, HOLLYWOOD HOT TUBS 1-2, SCANNER COP II) with her blue hair and cute dress, Chuck (John Philbin, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, THE NEW KIDS, POINT BREAK) is their new wave friend with suit and tie, and Tina (Beverly Randolph) is the girl dating Freddy who, refreshingly, is not given a bunch of shit for being a square and doesn’t seem to notice that she doesn’t fit in with this clique. But the most reasonable of all of them is Spider (Miguel Nunez, “Demon” from FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING, “Sticks” from LEPRECHAUN 4: IN SPACE and I did not realize until now that he’s in BLACK DYNAMITE as “Mo Bitches”). If they made a P-Funk biopic in the ’80s he woulda been the perfect guy to play Bootsy. Instead he played JUWANNA MANN.
This one is famous for its punk soundtrack featuring The Cramps, T.S.O.L., and other bands that may or may not be as famous but I wouldn’t know, because it’s not really my thing. I love it though because it gives the movie a unique vibe and attitude, and dates it in a good way, attaching it to a specific cultural moment. I’d bet some people relate to the movie because of the songs even though the characters are kind of spoofing their subcultures.
The kids’ attitudes are a parody of stupid nihilism. Trash talks lustily about her fantasies of being killed, and Suicide’s car has moronic graffiti on it with phrases like “WHO CARES?” and “WHY?” But then (SKIP TO LAST TWO PARAGRAPHS TO AVOID ENDING SPOILERS) the ending of the movie actually is nihilistic. The military’s contingency plan is what Ripley wanted to do in the not-O’Bannon-scripted ALIENS. All the main characters and anyone else in that part of Louisville (“only 4,000” people) are decimated by a nuclear explosion in order to save humanity, which we know has also kicked off a new wave of living dead which will kill even more people. Thanks for coming, everybody!
I see echoes of DR. STRANGELOVE in both the characters (who try to act normal, make small talk and call each other “buddy boy” as a way of processing unspeakable horror) and its world view (which is equally casual in its cynicism). There’s a funny scene with a Colonel (Jonathan Terry, HALLOWEEN III) and his wife (Cathleen Cordell, MAJOR BARBARA) who live in a mansion somewhere, and this is the guy overseeing the search for the missing “easter eggs” that cause this whole problem. For the most part he’s just the guy who pushes the button, which means he, his wife and the other military people on the line with him are the only characters in the movie who aren’t nuked at the end. Admittedly everybody in the movie is at least a little stupid, but still, why are these two joyless husks the ones who get spared? Not cool.
Well, I guess their time will come soon. If 4,000 was considered acceptable losses then imagine hwo many they expected from the outbreak which they just made worse. Pretty soon everybody’s gonna be dead and there’s gonna be a world brain crisis and everybody’s gonna be in horrible pain all the time. And ifyou think about it who are the return of the living dead, them or us. And who are the paramedics and who are the cops.
I would like to make a personal plea to anyone who enjoys fun horror movies but has not gotten around to this one. This is a must-see for you. You might not get that impression if you saw the cover of the blu-ray, which is a piece of garbage worse than you see even on some of the thousands of unwatchable DTV zombie movies of the past decade. Right now I believe they’re selling it with a limited edition card with a much better illustrated picture that you can use to hide that horrible cover, but geez, man. How did that cover happen?
Let’s forget about that, let’s go back to the previous DVD which used the cool old painted movie poster of punk zombies spray painting the logo on a grave. Back then MGM knew it was special, because they even printed it embossed and glow-in-the-dark. This is a totally embossed and glow-in-the-dark-worthy movie. The picture is not movie accurate, but it is vibe accurate. If you like the vibe of punk zombies spraypainting on graves then what the fuck are you waiting for.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.