Sunday, June 29, 2008

Return of the Living Dead - movie review

I'm really starting to understand why people like zombie movies so much - I mean, I've gone my entire life without ever watching a single one and then, just like that, I've seen six in the last six months. There's humor in all these movies*, macabre humor, but humor nonetheless. Zombie movies are survival films and every audience responds to survival films, trying to figure out what they'd do in the same situation. There's also a great sense of equality in zombie flicks: anyone can be turned into a zombie and usually everyone - living and living dead alike - ends up dead (or probably soon to be dead) by the end of the movie.

Return of the Living Dead (1985) is a decent entry into the zombie film catalog. It's got a clever little conceit that immediately makes it smarter than such a mid-80s B horror film should be, linking immediately to the movie that started the zombie genre, Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and then changing the rules. In the world of RotLD, the 1969 events shown in NotLD are true, except that the zombies originated due to a chemical spill; Romero was allowed to make his movie but change some essential details. The U.S. government cleaned everything up, putting the last few zombies in storage tanks, and then promptly lost track of the storage tanks. Sixteen years later, the tanks are still sitting in the basement of a Louisville, KY, medical supply warehouse.

When two workers inadvertently open one of the tanks, they are infected by the noxious fumes and let one of the zombies out of the tank. The fumes fill the warehouse, reanimating the stored cadavers (and also the half-dogs that are for veterinary training - hilarious!). Luckily, there is a mortician next door (the Resurrection Funeral Home) and they manage to stuff the reanimated cadaver into the crematorium. Less lucky is the fact that it's raining, and the downpour washes the zombie's ashes (a nice play on acid rain) into the Resurrection Cemetery that is also next door, and brings all the dead folks there to un-life. Add in some punk kids partying in the cemetery and a kick-ass soundtrack (Surfin' Dead by the Cramps!) and you've got yourself a wacky romp.

RotLD changes the standard zombie rules quite a bit, on the one hand frustrating those of us who are just figuring out the zombie-verse, but on the other hand keeping the movie entertaining as we try to figure out just what will happen. Unlike NotLD, these zombies seemingly cannot be killed, which is why the government stuck them in storage tanks: a shot to the head does not stop them nor does severing the head from the body. The bits and pieces just keep coming, leading one character to scream, "You mean the movie lied?" at one point. These zombies are also pretty clever, able to use tools to get at their prey and also able to call over the radio for "more cops" when they've eaten the first ones. Some of them are even quite articulate, explaining that eating live brains somehow soothes the intense physical pain they feel as their bodies rot. Of course, most of them just stagger around, screeching "Braaaaaaaiiinnnnnss!"

The animatronic zombies are quite good and while this movie isn't supersaturated in gore like Dead Alive or Evil Dead, there are plenty of oozing, spurting, frothing shots. I did have a little trouble deciding whether I was supposed to be finding so much of the movie funny, whether the silliness was intentional or just due to the low budget and datedness. But then I realized that it didn't matter: I mean, it's a bad movie for sure, but parts were funny and parts were gross, and all the parts of Return of the Living Dead were fun.

* Even NotLD had some humor to it: it's kind of funny the first time you see the zombies lurching crazily about ... before you realize that everything's about to be FUBAR.

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