The 1980’s; a significant time for any horror fan. Spawning horror icons like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, the 80’s are often regarded as the decade that brought the horror genre full force into mainstream audiences. There’s no doubt that horror was around decades before, but it was the 1980’s that audiences began to see hollywood’s increasing involvement with it. Sadly we came to the realization that more isn’t always better as once iconic series quickly became beaten dead with too many sequels and rehashed plotlines. However one film decided to take a specific genre, the zombie flick, into a new direction. By the mid 80’s. George A. Romero’s films were the epitome of zombie genre, but “The Return of the Living Dead” decided to take it to new heights, with a combination of special effects, humor and a unique backstory.
The film begins with a newly hired teenager, Freddy, getting a tour of the medical supplier warehouse with his coworker Frank. After giving Freddy a brief breakdown of the facility, Frank decides to show him the top secret military drums in the basement. Unfortunately the toxic fumes escape its housing and fill the warehouse, thus bringing anything dead back to life; including the nearby cemetery. The entirety of the first scene sets the tone with camerawork that gives spatial awareness and minor backstory elements that lead into an enthralling title sequence thanks to the radical score.
Majority of the film follows a group of teenagers, punks who all resemble an exaggerated depiction of 80’s youth. There aren’t any standouts, but each character does their part to move the story forward. It’s hard to recall a horror film with the bulk of a group being hardcore punks, which is refreshing as usually it’s only one character that fits the token label. It goes to show that zombies are terrifying to anyone, no matter how tough you think you are. Additional characters like Ernie the Mortician act as a subtle narrative device by give information, which educates not just the survivors, but the audience as well- thankfully without bashing knowledge into our brains- no pun intended.
The zombies present in “The Return of the Living Dead” vary drastically from the common reanimated corpse showcased in other films. Aside from an average human intelligence the terror arises from the fact that there is no chance of stopping them; even upon body dismemberment. Did I forget to mention that they can run? Putting your mind within the character’s shoes becomes downright frightening. Given the fact that they can communicate, it’s learned that the dead are out for brains in order to suppress the pain of death- a unique explanation in zombie lore.
On top of the enormous threat, the undead are often regarded as one of cinema’s best with the fantastic usage of animatronics and practical effects. These techniques are able to bring some very difficult things to life, making it easier for the actors to react with what is on screen. The most compelling usage might be the tar man. Even with vile liquid dripping from the rotted bones the costume gives the actor ability to play with movement and give a rigamortis feel to the creature.
The horror of the characters’ impending death is accompanied by over the top humor. The entirety of the movie is one bad thing leading to another, turning something truly horrific to hilarity. Unlike some films with conflicting tones, the humor only adds to the charm of “Return of the Living Dead.”
Today the zombie has been overused in media that they seem less scary than in the past. Not only will “Return of the Living Dead” solidify the monster as one genre’s scariest, but it will bring a whole new admiration to those who have yet to see the film.