All of the wonderful and cheesy things about a zombie movie, wrapped into a 1980’s dead rising classic.
Return of the Living Dead (1985) is a cult classic that entails every element of a classic zombie movie with some surprise twists and turns. Not to mention the story is based on real events, using the real names of actual people and places. Being a horror film junkie myself, it was refreshing to take a step back in time to an era that was able to blend the perfect cocktail of comedy, soundtrack, and suspense. What seems to be an ordinary orientation day at a new job for teenage Freddy turns into his worst nightmare.
While Frank shows his new protege around the office, dead animals, cadavers, and skeletons lie amongst them, setting an equally creepy tone for the truly unimaginable events to come. Weird things begin to happen after a vault of gas is broken and immediately, all hell literally begins to break loose. When a dead cadaver suddenly comes back to life, it seems like nothing Freddy or Frank do will get rid of it. They finally have the idea to go to their boss, Bert, and consult his friend who works at a funeral home so he can cremate the body. Instead of it simply turning to ash, this supposed solution is only the beginning of the end. In the nearby cemetery, the dead begin to come back to life in pursuit of one thing: brains. This movie is a thriller from the beginning, wasting no time to get to the action, and in turn, leaves the audience gripping their seats in awe and disgust.
While Freddy is at work, his friends are spending their time doing typical 1980’s teenage things (a.k.a hanging out in a cemetery with the tombstones and the dead) to kill time before he gets off. To me, the friend group alone is one of the most impressive and peculiar small details in the movie. While I do watch a lot of movies from this time, it is rare that I see rock’n’roll punks so chummy with the classic preppy kids. They compliment each other very well, and their small story-lines add to the heart of the film. Suicide, Trash, and Spider stood out more in the punk crowd, with Trash engaging in a nude dance session amongst the headstones. Then, we see her try to make a move on Suicide, but ultimately get rejected. There are also moments where we get to know more about the individual characters’ relationships with one another, making it even harder to watch what is to come. While the movie is meant to be a zombie film, little moments like these highlight what life might have really been like for teens during this time. To step back in time and experience that carefree feeling is not something that simply happens, it’s an essence that is hard to capture. Director Dan O’Bannon captured this perfectly in a mere hour and thirty minutes for Return of the Living Dead.
The story progresses in all the right ways, and it entails nonstop zombie action. It is also important to note that with the essence of 1980’s horror comes dated special effects. These were only the beginning of the capabilities that would lead us to the modern film zombies of today, but let’s be honest: the classic effects in movies like Return of the Living Dead are impossible to recapture and timeless in nature. There is one strikingly iconic scene in which the band of survivors catch a zombie. This zombie is a woman composed of only her spine up to her head. She looks almost like a cartoon, made up of a purple skeleton with gigantic eyes, begging for a bite of their brains. What made this series of unfortunate events so iconic in nature is how original their zombies looked, and how they were also the first of the creatures in film to actually know how to speak after coming back to life. Return of the Living Dead is a quintessential zombie film for those interested in the genre, because it works as a root for future television shows and movies to blossom.
The ending of Return of the Living Dead is also quite abrupt in nature and was shocking, considering what the band of teenagers and older men had been through. The government eventually catches wind of the events going on and has a plan to take care of all the madness, a sort of “contingency plan.” After a flash on the screen, a mushroom cloud appears, and the government seems pleased with essentially eradicating the entire town. It comes as a surprise to the viewer, because after all this time and after fighting for the entire night, it was all for nothing. While it is very sad, it is also refreshing in a way. There are not a lot of movies that end in total annihilation and no hope for the characters, but this one took on the assignment and succeeded.
It is important to watch this movie with a sense of humor and an appreciation for classic special effects. O’Bannon was able to mix jump scares and comedy into a perfect chaotic living dead mess, that leaves people with their mouths gaping wide open. The vastly unrealistic zombies with their big eyes and unsettling voices are hilarious yet unnerving at the same time, and each living character has a certain element that adds to making the story more human. Return of the Living Dead has earned its cult classic status, winning over the hearts (and brains) of countless people to this day. If you are in need of more like this, don’t worry, because there are four sequels to follow- they just might not be as good as the first.
Check out Dead Talk Live’s interview with Thom Mathews from “Return of the Living Dead!”
Sadie is an Intern Article Writer and Senior English Major at the University of Central Arkansas. In her spare time, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, and spending time with her guinea pigs, Ginger and Spike.