Writers: John Russo, Rudy Ricci, Russell Streiner, Dan O’Bannon
Cast: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, Miguel Nunez, Allan Trautman
Plot: At the Uneeda Medical Supply company, manager Frank (James Karen) shows around trainee Freddy (Thom Matthews), and asks him if he’s ever seen Night of the Living Dead. Showing off, Frank tells Freddy the film was based on reality. A strange chemical called Trioxin animated corpses in Pittsburgh, but the truth was suppressed… and the bodies are being stored right there in barrels of the chemical. Frank shows the barrels to Freddy, but accidentally causes a leak of the gas, dousing both men and reanimating the dead bodies – even the parts of dead bodies – kept in storage at Uneeda. Freddy’s friends – a group of punk teenagers who look like the 80s threw up leather and piercings all over them – decide to kill time in a nearby cemetery while waiting to pick him up from work. As they proceed to party in the graveyard, Frank and Freddy wake up from their encounter with the Trioxin gas feeling sick. One of the barrels has broken open and is empty, and Frank assumes the body melted. They soon find the rest of the corpses (human and otherwise) throughout the warehouse animated and hungry.
Back in the graveyard one of the teens, Trash (Linnea Quigley) begins to fantasize about the more horrific ways to die, leading to one of the most bizarre and gratuitous striptease sequences in horror movie history. Frank and Freddy summon their boss, Burt (Clu Gulagar), about the cadaver screaming and banging on the walls of cold storage. Remembering Night of the Living Dead, Burt tries to kill the cadaver by driving an axe into its brain, then cutting off its head, but it doesn’t kill the monster. They reach a horrible revelation: the movies lied to them. Burt decides to bring the cadavers to his pal Ernie (Don Calfa) at the crematorium, hoping to destroy them that way. It works, but the smoke that spills out of the oven seeds the clouds above, and it begins to rain on the graveyard. The water filters down through the soil, into the coffins, and the dead begin to claw their way to the surface.
Frank and Freddy are getting sicker and sicker, and Ernie calls an ambulance. Meanwhile Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), has made it to Uneeda, where she finds the place seemingly deserted. As she searches for Freddy, she encounters the zombie that escaped from the first barrel, a slender figure that has become known as Tarman (Allan Trautman). The rest of the teens arrive just in time to save her, but Tarman gets his first snack of brains in the process. The paramedics arrive to treat Freddy and Frank, but are unable to find a pulse or blood pressure in either one of them, and their bodies are room temperature. The teens are attacked in the cemetery, and three of them (Tina included) make it to the mortuary, while two more get back to Uneeda. As the paramedics return to their ambulance, they hear screams and try to call for back-up, only to be attacked and devoured by the swarming dead. The survivors in the mortuary board up the place to hold out the zombies, and Freddy begins experiencing pain as his body goes into rigor mortis. One of the zombies manages to make it into the mortuary and Ernie straps it down, questioning it. It tells the survivors they want to eat brains because it relieves the pain of being dead. Burt locks Freddy and Frank in the mortuary chapel with Tina, who insists on staying with Freddy. Burt, Ernie, and Spider (Miguel Nunez) begin to seek an escape, while in the chapel, Freddy attacks Tina, hungry for brains. Spider and Burt make a run for the police car, fighting the zombies on the way. They drive the car to the door to collect Tina and Ernie, can’t get through the mob and drive away for help, but a swarm of zombies traps them at the Uneeda warehouse. Not wanting to become like the rest of the zombies, Frank turns on the crematorium, says a prayer for forgiveness, and climbs into the oven. Burt calls the army hotline on the Trioxin barrel and reports what has happened, and the army activates its contingency plan. Ernie and Tina hide from Freddy while the survivors at Uneeda protect themselves from Tarman, and just as everyone makes a final stand, the army drops a bomb on the whole damn city of Louisville, Kentucky, wiping it – and the zombies – off the map. But as the zombies burn, the smoke rises… and the rain starts to fall.
Thoughts: This movie has perhaps the strangest pedigree of any film on this list. George Romero – writer and director of Night of the Living Dead – got into a disagreement with co-producer John Russo about the direction of the franchise. Russo walked away with the right to use the “Living Dead” name for his own franchise, and this was the result: a world where Night of the Living Dead was a movie, but was based on its own reality. It’s a weird premise, to be sure, and I was at first reluctant to include this movie in my little horror movie project, mainly because I think it may be more deserving of a place in the eventual horror/comedy project I intend to present in the future. But I decided use it for two reasons: first, like Night of the Living Dead, this movie helped influence the way zombies are portrayed in popular culture even today, and second, I’m not really convinced that all of the comedy in this movie was intentional.
The zombies (with the exception of Tarman) are all kind of silly, particularly the first, fresh cadaver, where the actor seemed to just be stripped, shaved, and painted yellow. And a lot of the violence seems to be played for laughs. Trash’s legendary tombstone striptease isn’t really scary or sexy, just weird. On the other hand, the parts that probably were intentionally funny (such as the hungry zombie calling for “more paramedics” on the ambulance scanner) are legitimately funny. Even the 80s-style montage (in this one the characters are barricading themselves in the mortuary instead of training to win the big ski tournament) is funny enough, juxtaposed against a goofy rock ballad about the Living Dead.
The characters in this movie really are jokes, especially the teenagers. They’re all caricatures, and the way one of them (I don’t even remember the characters’ name, making it impossible to look up the actor, that’s how generic they are) gives a speech about how his leather and chains is a “way of life” and not a costume is groan-inducing, and the way they resist calling the cops (because they’ll “kick our ass”) even as one of their buddies is having his brain eaten takes them from the realm of stereotype to the land of the remarkably stupid. It’s really no loss when any of them gets turned into a zombie hors d’oeuvre. As for naming the two old chums “Burt” and “Ernie”… really, O’Bannon? Sesame Street was pushing 20 years old at the time you wrote this script, you can’t tell me that wasn’t intentional.
There seems to have been an ill-fated attempt at poignancy with “Trash,” who proclaims early in the film that she believes the worst way to die would be to be eaten to death by old men, but seeing as how she says that immediately before she begins taking off her clothes for no apparent reason, it’s doubtful most audience members remember that bit. Frank’s suicide is a little more satisfying from an audience standpoint – it’s the one point in the movie where someone shows anything like a little human regret – and the moment where he dies is a good capper to what little of a character arc there is.
The zombies in this movie are different from Romero zombies in many ways. First off, they’re more intelligent, with the ability to speak and reason (although later Romero films did start to show zombies exhibiting a few higher-order skills). Second, they can’t be killed by a simple bullet to the brain, and in fact, dismemberment does no good as each individual chunk of the zombie continues to move of its own accord. Finally, and most importantly to popular culture, this is the movie that gave us zombies obsessed with braaaaaaaains. A Romero zombie (and those of most of his imitators) is perfectly happy with any chunk of living flesh, and it’s these zombies that we still see in most movies and TV shows. If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you’re watching a Romero zombie. But whenever you see a zombie that wants specifically to chomp on a brain, you can thank John Russo and Dan O’Bannon.
From the perspective of a horror movie fan, there’s nothing in this movie as scary or visually cool as Tarman. The first zombie, one whose flesh has mostly melted into slime from years of Trioxin storage, is a grotesque, slimy creature that could give anybody nightmares. Allan Trautman, who played the character, is rather underappreciated in the strata of horror icons. His slim frame and marvelous physical performance created the best monster from this movie, and one of the most memorable single zombies of all time. While the other zombies aren’t nearly as recognizable or as entertaining, there are a couple of cool scenes. The moment where the rainwater filters down through the ground into the coffins and the dead claw their way out to the surface, for example, looks really great, and the zombie Ernie interrogates is a nice piece of puppeteering, even if the movement of its mouth doesn’t remotely match the words she’s saying.
The end of the movie is almost as literal a deus ex machina as one could hope for. There’s a short bit earlier where someone from the army shows a bit of concern about the barrels (which have been missing for sixteen years thanks to some sort of paperwork screw-up), but it seems tacked on to justify a conclusion that otherwise would come totally from out of the blue. While I give the filmmakers credit for going for the nuclear option (pun intended), it makes everything else in the movie feel somewhat hollow.
While Return of the Living Dead is by no means the only movie to use the “we swear it’s a true story” gag, it’s by far the least convincing. And although there’s fun to be had in watching the movie, it’s horror movie fun at its cheesiest. It’s hard to imagine this film being sincerely frightening to any adult, but there’s still room for enjoyment in watching it. Just don’t go into it looking for a scare.
Stephen King makes one more appearance tomorrow, with one of his most down-to-earth tales of horror… and, I admit, one of my personal favorites: Misery.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.