Contains mild spoilers.
Setting the tone, the film opens on six teenage punks (more eighties youth tropes) strutting down the street, deathrock on the ghetto-blaster off to pick up Tina's (Beverly Randolph) boyfriend Freddy (Thom Mathews) at the end of his first day at a medical warehouse. Piercings, studs, mohawks, leg warmers, white suits, badges, denim and punk paraphernalia; yes, we're definitely in the eighties folks.
Unbeknown to the gang, Freddy's first day has not really gone to plan. His supervisor, Frank played by one of the stars of the show, James Karen is trying to show off and shock Freddy. He takes him down to the basement to show him some top-secret military barrels that somehow ended up in there due to, what Frank calls, typical military incompetence. True to form; while inspecting them there's an accident releasing toxic gas through the warehouse reanimating all the bizarre and disturbing medical animal wonders and cadavers stored there. Earlier Frank had spun Freddy the tale that the original Night of the Living Dead was based on true events clinging onto its place as the official sequel but really in temperament, style and its portrayal of the undead that's where the similarities end.
Coming to terms that everything had started reanimating, but unable to suppress and deal with a crazed and quite comical yellow corpse that's running amok, Frank calls his boss Burt (Clu Gulager) and between them they pin it down and hack it to pieces; literally.
This is when we realise that this is just as much a farce as it is a horror film. During it's protracted development, starting off first as a seriously toned direct sequel to George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead with a script written by John Russo. The script was passed pillar to post before eventually being given to writer Dan O'Bannon who was responsible for Alien, Dark Star, Dead & Buried, and who also took over directing responsibilities for the first time.
Adamant his contribution to zombie myth and canon should be totally distinguishable to Romero's, O'Bannon's are no less important. O'Bannon's zombies are totally-reanimated, cut their head off and the body still runs around. Cut the leg off and it still tries to hop. Here we have no brain still ultimately in control with a headshot stopping it in it's tracks, the only way to put one down for good is total incineration; these really are nasty.
They're not blue and they're not shambling. O'Bannon famously quipped these guys can run, they can walk, I don't care, and they do nip about, setting a precedent for films to come. They also retain control of their faculties, they can talk, use radios and reason and whilst they do appear to share a hunger for live human flesh in this case things become a bit more specific and interesting.
In one of the most powerful and disturbing scenes of the film a grotesque rotting torso tied to a medical table lucidly and coherently answers the group as they desperately seek answers. We find out that being dead is unimaginably painful and the only thing that quells the pain is the consumption of human brains. It's an important moment for zombie folklore and the point where zombie and brains became forever inseparable. Watching the extras the idea is that it's the brains natural endorphins, the natural pain suppressor they're after, and not being able to produce any of their own they turn to the only source they can. It's a bit silly and absurd but it works.
Another brilliant scene is Frank and Freddy's decline. Exposed first hand to the toxic virus and for a while just appearing a bit ill, they slowly start to take on the symptoms of being in a rather dire strait. When two paramedics confirm they have no pulse and they're bodies are at room temperature, one of the finest and most important scenes in modern zombie cinema is played out. They're clearly medically dead but they're rational, conscious, normal and for the time being not in pain and in need of brains. They're not humans and not zombies but somewhere in between. There is no on off switch for O'Bannon's zombies: Alive, ok, Dead, ravenous monster; here everything is more blurred and ambiguous. Zombies retain there higher brain function in a way not seen before and the very definition of alive is called into question. Frank and Freddy slide into death without a fuss; they are alive because their brains are active, but if it's this brain activity that defines whether something is alive or not, surely any reanimated dead are alive again? The deeper they fall into death the greater the pain and the desire for brains until the hunger takes over and any reticence and morality are driven away .
The Return of the Living Dead is the perfect combination of horror and humour; never straying too far either way it weaves a perfect line. There are many moments of true farce but they never feel out of place and fit perfectly in the dark witty coherent narrative. The teenagers play there hammy stereotypes perfectly and contrast well with the deeper, dryer but no more competent adults of the film. For an ambitious script filmed under over just four weeks with a limited budget, off screen problems and debutant director the production and styling is impeccable and appears professional throughout. The effects are sufficiently over the top without sacrificing authenticity and the film is arguably responsible for the most well know zombie of all time. Tarman, played and puppeteered by Allan Trautman is a grotesque slimy denizen awakened from the trioxin and is a true show stopper responsible for arguably the best brainssssss lines of all time. Like the rest of the film it's absurd, disturbing, memorable and utterly compelling.
This Blu-ray release is brimming with excellent extras from a recently filmed two hour set of interviews with the cast and crew to an interview with the late O'Bannon. Along with the brilliant HD transfer it really is a well put together package.
They tell us it's a fine line between genius and crazy and like the careful balance of horror and comedy O'Bannon has weaved, here too it's perfectly judged; 9/10.