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Zombies have become integral to cinema history. Their love of brains has been much riffed upon as has their slow movements and lacking verbal skills. Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead laid the foundations for many of these conceptions back in 1985.
Not so much a sequel but more of an addition to George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the film references the 60’s film as being just that – a film. Return of the Living Dead opens with this premise as bumbling medical warehouse employee Frank shows new recruit Freddy (Tom Matthews) the ‘real zombie’ that influenced the creation of the first film. Of course, things go pear-shaped and their attempts to rid themselves of the sudden problem neatly, if a little conveniently, segue into the terror that awaits when the two unleash the zombie virus.
Although the film plays with the idea of its story being based on real events, such seriousness is soon lost when Freddy’s friends appear. The film is a tongue-in-cheek cheesy 1980’s horror that works surprisingly well. Frank’s hammy acting, which would elsewhere be annoying, adds to the melodramatic feel of the film whilst the dialogue adds a very knowing nod throughout; see lines like ‘you mean the movie lied?’ and ‘how do you kill something that’s already dead’ for example.
All the classic horror tropes are present in this comedic outing and when someone goes off alone you know what’s coming – and that’s half the fun. Corpses and skeletal ghouls abound in the cemetery setting and Freddy’s friends, one accustomed to bouts of spontaneous nudity, find their unplanned party well and truly crashed.
It may be dated, but Return of the Living Dead set a lot of zombie standards. The effects are brilliantly 80’s and include some inventive mishaps at the beginning of the film, including zombie butterflies and dogs. The voices dubbed over the zombie’s incessant search for brains adds a comical twist and the tension never really mounts – instead we’re treated to an hour and half of silliness. Of course, director Dan O’Bannon has serious roots in the horror genre, having written Alien (he went on to write many more instalments in the Alien franchise).
Chronicling what may in fact be the worst first day ever, Return of the Living Dead is a fun 80’s horror that never takes itself too seriously. The ending is neat, if a little sudden, and its components simply work. Well worth a watch to see where the likes of The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later came from.