Return of the Living Dead (1985) – Do You Wanna Party?

return of the living dead movie poster

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Today, Malevolent Dark proudly presents its retro-review of the classic film that shook up a zombie industry. Up until that point the genre had been dominated by Italian Zombie flicks and George Romero. Released in 1985, Return of the Living Dead contributed to a breakout year for the horror industry. This same year, the horror industry saw the release of the Re-Animator, Demons, Lifeforce, Day of the Dead and others. Former partner and co-writer of George Romero, John Russo wrote the story that would then be adapted into a screenplay and directed by Dan O’Bannon of Alien (1979) fame.

Return of the Living Dead - Clu Gulager as Burt, Thom Mathews as Freddy and James Karen as Frank
The all B-Star cast of Clu Gulager, James Karen and Thom Mathews

A Shot Across the Bow

Dan O’Bannon insisted on differentiating from Romero and dispensed with many of the “Romero Rules” made famous by Night of the Living Dead. First of all, the zombies ditch aimless shambling in favor of swift and deliberate movement. Second, the zombies are sentient and are aware of their existence, their environment, their death and their hunger. Third, they crave the delicacy of human brains. Much to the chagrin of Burt, destroying the zombies brain doesn’t kill these zombies, they must be completely destroyed. Finally, the zombies can speak. These key adjustments completely changed the dynamics of this film when compared to its progenitors.

In a show of respect, O’Bannon does mention the original Night of the Living Dead as a cover up for a real incident that happened in Pittsburg. Of course it was all a government cover-up.

Return of the Living Dead - The Punk Rock Squad
In other great casting, The Punk Rock Squad makes great meat for the zombies

A Fantastic Cast

Another strength comes from the awesome cast of characters pulled together for Return of the Living Dead. For starters, Clu Gulager plays the role of Burt. Its notable that Gulager also starred in Freddy’s Revenge released the same year. Combined with James Karen playing Frank, the pair create a tight comedic pair. Rather than contrived jokes, they use the nuance of their characters to drive the chuckles. Burgeoning horror actor Thom Mathews plays the role of Freddy, the dull headed new guy at the medical supply company.

On-top of that strong foundation, Miguel Núñez Jr., who also starred in 1985’s Friday the 13th – A New Beginning plays the punk rocker, Spider. Linnea Quigley plays Trash, the sexually charged goth girl and future nude zombie. Finally, Don Calfa plays the role of Ernie, the late-night mortuary attendant and friend of Burt’s. None of these names are especially compelling by themselves, but together they create an fun-filled chemistry that brings much of the horrific charm to this film.

Return of the Living Dead - The headless cadaver
The Headless Cadaver Wreaks Havoc in UNEEDA Medical Supply

Return of the Living Dead – As Good a Zombie Story as Any

Return of the Living Dead begins in the UNEEDA Medical Supply building where a new employee named Freddy is trained a manager named Frank. As they discuss the wisdom of packing peanuts and the unsavory origin of the medical skeletons, Frank mentions that the building contains several misplaced military canisters that contain human bodies. With a swift slap to the side of one of the canisters, Frank releases “2-4-5 Trioxin” that brings the dead back to life. At first the gas re-animates the bodies in the supply house, but mistakes are made that make the situation much, much worse. The film is in full swing before the opening credits run!

As stated earlier, the portrayal of zombies deviates significantly from those of its predecessor. This leads to some very interesting moments in the film. For starters, when zombie can talk they can also call for food delivery. This plays out as zombies use the CB to call in for more delicious cops and paramedics. The ability of speech also leads to an interesting revelation. After cleaving a female zombie in half, the crew straps her to the table to try and understand why they are attacking. She explains in an agonized voice that she needs brains to kill the pain; the pain of being dead and the pain of rotting away.

O’Bannon and Russo add another interesting twist when we learn that Freddy and Frank are sick from inhaling the gas from the canisters. What we actually find out is that the gas kills them, and they are actually re-animated dead still developing their taste for human brains.

Return of the Living Dead - Tarman
Tarman is one of the most iconic zombies in the history of the genre

Mostly Impressive Effects

For the most part, Return of the Living Dead has fantastic special effects, although there are moments where the zombie extras feel a bit lazy. The latex party starts with a preserved cadaver scrambling around the facility. Frank and Freddy hold it down while Burt buries a pick in its head, proving that destroying the brain doesn’t work. Burt then hacks off its head with a hacksaw. The body, still not dead, scrambles around like a… undead chicken with its head cutoff?!? The sequence plays out brilliantly as the camera work obscures any inconsistencies that would give away the effect. Eventually they fully dismember the cadaver as its severed limbs quiver with life.

“Tarman” is the bumbling body of a tar covered zombie that comically screams brains through a gravel laden esophagus. He is the original zombie released by Freddy and Frank at the beginning of the film. Upon Tarman’s reveal, cinematographer Jules Brenner adds a Hitchcockian dolly zoom brilliantly. Tarman became the iconic image for the film and nobody left the theater without bellowing “BRAAAIINNNS” at the top of their lungs.

Another fan favorite is the bifurcated woman strapped to the table. Somehow O’Bannon’s effects crew managed to create a zombie both horrific, yet demanding of sympathy. While clearly animatronic, the effect comes off as believable as her severed spine slithers back and forth across the metal table.

Return of the Living Dead - Do You Wanna Party??!?!!?
The dead rise, and they’re here to party

Do You Want to Party!

Adding to this plethora of zombified horror, the soundtrack is remarkable both in its selection and relevance to the action. The theme song throbs and rings with bells and chimes while building tension. It has a somewhat comic-like feel to it which really sits well with the black comedy of the film. The iconic cry of “Do you want to party… It’s party time” by the band 45 Grave erupts as the first zombies explode from their graves. Even 80’s psychosexual punk outfit, The Cramps, also makes an appearance. All in all, the music acts as a connective-tissue that pulls the entire enterprise together.

Return of the Living Dead - I can feel myself rot
I can feel myself rot!

A Standout Film 1985 Classic

At Malevolent Dark, we really can’t say enough about this film. When it came on the scene, it redefined an entire genre of movies. Among the aforementioned strong competition of 1985, it managed to stand out in the crowd. Four sequels would follow, but none came close to the novelty of Return of the Living Dead. Even the though the clothes and the actors are dated, the film and its special effects hold surprisingly well. Certainly, Return of the Living Dead is not as profound as say Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it never intended to be.

Return of the Living Dead simply shines as a highly entertaining horror film. It covers all of the facets of dark humor, thrills, special effects and music. Malevolent Dark highly recommends this film.

Return of the Living Dead (1985) - Do You Wanna Party? - Malevolent Dark
return of the living dead movie poster

Director: Dan O'Bannon

Date Created: 1985-01-01 00:00

Editor's Rating:
4

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