I really can’t remember when I became fascinated with horror. (yeah, I know this sounds like the beginning of a teen drama about some goth kid that learns they really aren’t that different from everyone else, but bear with me.) The horror genre has just been something that I enjoy watching. Now, I will admit that I have become less enamored with the horror movies of today, because they are overrun with remakes and jump scares. So that is why I constantly find myself going back to old horror movies from my childhood.
Compared to the movies of today, my old favorites are definitely showing their age. However, though the effects are cheesy, corny, and just bad when viewed against today’s technology, the nostalgia of the old horror movies and their practical use of what they had at the time still makes them my go to, especially during this quarantine.
And I’m here to tell you about my favorite cheesy, corny, bad effects movie that I still find myself watching constantly: Return of the Living Dead.
Brains!!!!! Behind it All
So this movie came out in 1985, 2 years before I was born (dating myself *sad face*), so it was probably out a few years before I actually saw the movie, because I don’t remember exactly when I first saw it. I just remember that I saw it when I was young. I do also remember that it didn’t scare me to watch it, but my own imagination did. I grew up in the country, and I would sometimes imagine that zombies would come out of the darkness. Thankfully, none ever did, so on to this movie. (At the time, I didn’t know it was a comedy-horror, so even now I don’t think of it like that.)
Return of the Living Dead was directed by Dan O’Bannon and written by John Russo. Interesting fact about how Return of the Living Dead (and the series itself) came to be: Russo also co-wrote Night of the Living Dead with horror film icon George A. Romero. They had a disagreement about the sequel to Night of the Living Dead and split off from each other. Romero’s movies in the series were known as the Dead series (Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc.) while Russo’s became known as the Living Dead series (Return of the Living Dead Part II, 3, and Rave to the Grave). Whereas Romero gave us the idea of the modern zombie, Russo gave us the idea of zombies eating brains, and I think Russo’s Living Dead series is the only one that has the strictly brain eating zombies. Anyway, on to more about this movie.
The Guts of the Plot
So, the movie opens with a message that this movie is based on real events, and that names have been changed. With what’s going on right now with the COVID-19 virus, I’m sure the idea of zombies coming back to life seems like something that could be real, and this “real” event also takes place on the on July 3, 1984, a day before a great summer holiday.
We begin by meeting our main characters at a medical supply warehouse, and they are Burt (the probably late 40’s-early 50’s white male owner of the warehouse), Frank (a mid-50’s white male employee), and Freddie (a new late teens-very early 20’s white male employee). (Fun Fact: Thom Mathews, who plays Freddie, might be more recognizable to you for his character Tommy Jarvis from the Friday the 13th franchise.) Burt has gone home for the day, but Frank tells him that he’s going to stick around, do some paperwork, and show Freddie some of the ropes of working there.
This tour of the warehouse, which includes boxing up a skeleton and seeing split dogs for veterinarian schools, concludes with Frank showing Freddie the cadaver in the fridge room. Frank tells him that they usually have more than one and would be getting a shipment in a couple of days. (This is but isn’t important.)
After this exchange, we meet our second set of characters, Freddie’s girlfriend (Tina) and their punk (as in the style) friends: Trash, Chuck, Casey, Scuz, and Spider (played by a young Miguel A. Nunez, Jr., Life and Juwanna Mann.) They decide to go pick up Freddie from his job (in a car driven by another friend and punk style enthusiast we meet name Suicide.)
Back at the warehouse, Frank decides to be that employee who wants to show the new guy the secretive thing that no one is supposed to talk or know about. He takes Freddie down into the basement to show him some military containment drums that were mistakenly delivered to them several years ago. Inside the drum is a body covered in a chemical called 2-4-5 Trioxin that reportedly brings the dead back to life. Frank, want to prove how strong the drum is bangs against the rusted metal and the gas is expelled into both their faces.
From here the chemical travels through the air vents in the warehouse to the cadaver in the fridge and the body begins to move. (Two things are going on other places: 1. We meet the military personnel that have been searching for the missing drums and are ready to deal with it, and 2. Freddie’s friends are waiting for him and have been chillin’ in a nearby cemetery.)
After calling Burt back to the warehouse, they are forced to try and kill the cadaver, trying to destroy the brain (a nod to how the zombies were killed in Night of the Living Dead). It doesn’t work. They then dismember the body and take it to a funeral home nearby that is run by a longtime friend of Burt’s named Ernie Kaltenbrunner. They scare the man with what they bring, and he agrees to burn the body in his cremator. This proves to be the switch that truly sets up the end for the characters.
The body is covered in the chemical that brought it back to life. As it burns, goes up the chimney, and into the air, it begins to rain. The chemical, of course, soaks into the soil of the same cemetery where Freddie’s friends are.
Now skipping to the end (because this is getting pretty long), all the bodies in the cemetery come back to life, a couple of them are killed by the crew, and the remaining ones end up trapped. Freddie dies, becomes a zombie, and tries to eat Tina’s brain. Frank, doesn’t want to turn, and burns himself alive in the cremator. The police can’t get the situation under control, and Burt does what he should have done YEARS AGO. He calls the military number on the side of the drum. However, because of what has happened as a result of stupidity, the military nukes 40 square blocks surrounding the area killing even the ones who would have “survived.” However, it begins to rain, and this only started the cycle over again because the military doesn’t know KEY details about how the chemical got into the soil of cemeteries. (Sidenote: Nunez’ character, and the only minority, does survive to the end…so to speak.)
Ripping and Tearing
Now, with that done, as much as I love this movie, I can admit it has some completely unbelievable moments. There a skeleton that rises out of the ground with completely clear and intact eyeballs. Several rotting corpses can speak clearly, mostly just saying “Brains!” There is even one extra rotten corpse that is almost completely bones and green that has a conversation with Ernie when they capture her and tie her to his embalming table. It is by far one of the scenes I remember that most about this movie.
Another thing about this and a lot of older zombie movies that I talk about with my students, is the evolution from the slow to the fast zombies. The zombies in Return of the Living Dead don’t move any faster than a normal run (none of them taking down Usain Bolt), and the zombies in Night of the Living Dead were even slower and didn’t run. These zombies had to be smart and thus still had some cognitive abilities. In Return of the Living Dead, a zombie creates a simple winch system to rip down two doors to get to Tina. This is in stark contrast to the zombies of today who Usain Bolt could only dream of outrunning and don’t have to be smart becomes they’ll catch you before you have time to hide.
Return of the Living Dead was definitely a movie I bought several years ago when I started living on my own. (My mom hates horror movies and constantly asks me, “why I watch that type of stuff?”) So, during this time, hell even before this pandemic and after, I will continue to watch this movie. Plus, it’s on Amazon Prime.
Any guilty pleasures you watching during this pandemic? Let us know in the comments or on our social media.
Check out our other #GuiltyPleasuresConfessional post here.