The Return of the Living Dead will always have a special place in my heart as it was the first 18 certificate film I managed to sneak into in the cinemas. On that fateful evening at the Astoria, Purley, I may have been fourteen but I was trying to look a good four years older. I attempted this by wearing my brother’s suit jacket with toilet paper shoved up the arms to make my shoulders look broader. The upshot of this was I looked like a twelve year old with loo rolls up my jacket. My heart was beating fast as we approached the box office but fortunately I had a master plan: firstly I would get my best friend Gerard Heapes, who looked considerably older than I, to get the tickets. And secondly. I’d spend the entire transition distracted by something outside the auditorium and face away from the cashier so they couldn’t see my face. It worked like a charm.
Of course The Return of the Living Dead is a perfect movie for a fourteen year old boy with its gore, jokes and Linnea Quigley wearing nothing but a pair of tights and a dodgy wig. What hits me now, thirty years later is how the film still manages to be so much fun. This doesn’t seem to happen enough in horror movies nowadays. Yes there is Housebound and What We Do In The Shadows but must the only horror comedies come from New Zealand? Besides is The Return of the Living Dead even a comedy at all? Okay it does have lots of dark jokes and macabre moments of irony (Quigley ranting about her dream to be eaten alive by filthy old men only to be consumed by rotten graveyard zombies ten minutes later) but isn’t the actually horror still pretty, well… horrific?
The zombies want to eat our heroes brains and frequently call out for their meal of choice. Any undead dude shouting “brains” is funny but it is also terrifying. Maybe it’s still that fourteen year old me that found the whole thing a bit scary, starved as I was of decent zombie movies. Back in 1985 Lucio Fulci’s gorefests were all banned at the time and you couldn’t get hold of Dawn of the Dead for love nor money. It was a relief when these zombies did turn up, even if they were just taking the piss.
Also some of the zombies are glorious. The zombie stars are Quigley, still stomping around naked even when undead, and, of course, Tarman Zombie. He might be one of the best realised zombies ever made, not just through his amazing, drippy make up but also through the actor under all that goo’s rickety performance. He looks like he’s going to fall apart any moment.
I’d also forgotten the naked yellow corpse in the plastic bag and the half woman they tie to the mortuary table and have a chat with. She is clearly an influence on the famous half a female zombie Rick comes across at the beginning of The Walking Dead. In fact these zombies , along with Day of the Dead’s the same year, were easily the best representatives of their type until The Walking Dead bunch stumbled onto the small screen twenty five years later.
Two things bother me though, and they are the same two things that stopped me from completely loving The Return of the Living Dead first time round. Firstly I do not buy the actors as a bunch of punks one tiny bit. There is Linnea Quigley aforementioned terrible red hair for starters which doesn’t look real in the slightest but I’ll let her off because she clearly is the bravest/maddest person on set. But the rest of the punks just seem to be a hodgepodge of ideas of what a punk would look like if they were designed by middle aged men. I mean why is Freddy even part of their gang? Okay he has a band t shirt on (is that the New Romantic band Visage? Not very Punk that) but he’s also wearing a baseball jacket and is borderline preppy. Okay so the lead member of the punk gang, the beautifully names Suicide, has some punk chops with his shaved head and chain in mouth plus his no-one-understands-me demeanor but he’s not alive long enough to make a real impression. Plus it says something about the writers attitude to these young rebels when it takes the manager of the mortuary, a middle aged white cowboy (wonderfully played by character actor Clu Gulager who is like a horror movie version of James Stewart) to take control of the situation and try and sort out this little undead problem.
The other thing that REALLY bugged me then and in fact it still annoys the shit out of me to this day is the ending. It’s not the gag of dropping a nuclear bomb on the entire cast to get a cheap laugh. I can live with that. It’s a pretty lazy way to end a movie but it also has a nice nihilistic streak where the rain continues to spread zombies across the state. No it’s the use of the same shots from earlier in the film of the graveyard, the foot waking up in the coffin and then the skeleton popping up out of the ground. I realize there are budget limitations to most horror movies but this kind of reuse of footage seen forty five minutes before hand really gets my goat. In fact I can’t think of any other film which does such a shoddy film making move. Would it really have been that expensive to film a hand coming out of the grave instead? It’s not like they reedited the final few shots into a different orders it’s just the same ones used again, and for the epilogue of the movie. It left a sour taste in my mouth when the film ended back in 1985 and and that taste is still swelling around my gob now.
Ultimately though it doesn’t take away from the warm, happy feeling I have about rewatching this film. Ah… happy days, when the cinema was full of movies I was too young to see but was seeing anyway: Return of the Living Dead, Aliens, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Lifeforce… Mmm… Lifeforce.