(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: The Return of the Living Dead
Where You Can Stream It: Shudder
The Pitch: Punks vs. Zombies!!
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: The ultimate horror-comedy, The Return of the Living Dead introduced both brain-eating zombies and zombies who can talk to the undead lexicon. It’s funny, gory, and full of great make-up effects. A morbid sense of humor prevails as a group of punk rockers finds themselves running up against hordes of the undead right around the 4th of July. What’s not to love?
Night of the Living Dead is considered to be the sole property of George A. Romero, and while Romero was without question the driving force for that classic, he had some help with the screenplay from John Russo. However, after Night, Romero and Russo went their separate ways. Russo ended up with the rights to use the phrase “living dead” in titles while Romero would stick with just using “dead” for his follow-ups – Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and so on.
And while Romero’s follow-ups remained firmly in the realm of horror, Russo’s Living Dead spin-offs went in a different direction. Russo came up with the story for The Return of the Living Dead, but the movie didn’t find its final form until Alien writer Dan O’Bannon came on board. O’Bannon ended up handling the final script while also directing, and crafted a bonafide zombie classic in the process.
When you think of movie zombies, you likely immediately think of the shuffling, mindless ghouls from Romero’s movies. You might also think of the modern-day “running” zombies, which more often than not turn out to be simply infected with a virus, not really the living dead. And then you’ll probably immediately recall the cliche of zombies craving brains. But all of these zombie tropes are pieced together from completely different movies, and the “zombies who eat brains” angle was created entirely by Return of the Living Dead. Unlike Romero’s zombies, the zombies of Return chow down on grey matter. They can also talk, and are prone to moaning “Brains!” before they attack a victim. It’s very silly – and that’s what makes it so fun.
In Return, it’s almost 4th of July, and Freddy (Thom Mathews) is starting a new job at a medical supply warehouse. His coworker Frank (James Karen) lets him on a secret: the movie Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story wherein the dead were reanimated due to a toxin created by the army. And wouldn’t ya know it, a chemical drum containing one of the toxin zombies just happens to be in the warehouse basement. As you might guess, Freddy and Frank accidentally wake the zombie up.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends, a group of ’80s punk rockers, show up, ready to party. As the day goes on, the toxin ends up raining down on a nearby cemetery, raising the dead in the process. And now Freddy, Frank, the punks, warehouse boss Clu Gulager and local undertaker Don Calfa are in a fight for their lives. Striking just the right note between comedy and horror, Return of the Living Dead puts most other horror-comedies to shame. The film would spawn its own series, and while Return of the Living Dead Part 3 has its nasty charms, none of the follow-up films would never come close to capturing the gonzo magic of the original The Return of the Living Dead.
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