Return of the Living Deadrecommended viewing

Dan O'Bannon
Clu Gulager, James Karen, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Don Calfa
The Setup: 
Accident at a medical supply plant unleashes a plague of zombies.

I had seen this movie in the theater back when it came out, and I remember at the time the whole concept of "horror-comedy" was entirely new to me. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But give me a break—I was 17. Such things were new to me. Plus, I lived in Michigan. We didn't HAVE horror-comedies in Michigan. Anyway, I remember being somewhat amused, I knew this film had a rabid cult following, and suddenly there it was, in my mailbox.

We open with a title saying that all the events in the movie are true, the names are real names, and the places are real places. Then we join Freddy, this dim bulb jock on his first day on the job at the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse, where he is receiving instruction on his job from Frank, the hilarious and wonderful James Karen, who is that guy who you have seen in 30,000 supporting roles for the past 40 years. Freddy asks him what the weirdest thing he's ever seen at the warehouse, and Frank tells him that the story that became Night of the Living Dead was actually based on a true incident, but the government made Romero change the story for the film. Furthermore, the real zombies are downstairs, sealed in cans, right that very moment! I thought this was a nice way to pay affectionate tribute to Night of the Living Dead without being overly cheesy or naming a character "Romero" or something like that. Turns out the script was meant as a real sequel, but then they decided to go comedy with it. Anyway, they go downstairs to take a gander at the zombies, and just as Frank is saying how the drums are very well sealed, the slightest tap spews the horrific chemical all over the two of them, the body inside starts to melt and: opening credits!

Meanwhile Freddy's rainbow coalition of 80s punker friends are wondering where they're going to party that night. They are all punks with brightly-hued hair and varieties of leather with chains and skulls, except for Tina, Freddy's girlfriend, who is inexplicably in a bouncy white pantsuit with a pink sash tied around her waist. It's a bit incongruous, but you know, I'm glad they can all get along. Freddy is also a jock type, and doesn't look like he would be hanging with punks either, but these are an open-minded bunch—not like my high school. Anyway, they decide that they're going to "party" at Freddy's warehouse that night, and head over there. This leads to my favorite line the first time I saw it, which is where one of them comments on what a dump Freddy's place of employment is, and the red [i.e. RED] haired lass named Trash [more on her later] says, in her faux-punk voice: "I like it. It's a STATEMENT." This cracked me up back in the day, because little wannabe punkers at my high school WOULD say things like that. Anyway, they decide to go hang in the cemetery next door until Freddy gets off work.

So Frank and Freddy wake up, both feeling like shit, and stumble upstairs. It was in the next 10 minutes that I found Frank to be the funniest thing ever. First Freddy says "I can still smell that chemical on me," and Frank replies "Yeah, I'd better spray some air freshener!" Then they find the 1/2 dogs [veterinary display kinda things] are awake, and it cracked me up when Frank just started to beat on it [to the sound of little doggie whimpers], and finally, when the cadaver in the freezer is banging quite loudly to be let out, Freddy asks what it wants and Frank whines in terror: "I don't know… it sounds sore!" They call the boss and soon enough he's there, telling Frank to bash the thing on the head when they let it out, as they've discussed how in the movies you have to destroy the brains to kill the zombie. I love how Frank is such a coward, totally whimpering and crying rather than face the zombie. So they spike the zombie completely through the head and—it's still alive! Then they cut the head clean off—and the body starts running around! So it's clear they're not in zombie-Kansas anymore.

So they cut the thing into a bunch of still-moving limbs and take it across to the morgue, where the boss' friend finally agrees to cremate it. This, however, sends all this zombie-smoke up into the clouds, which soon starts coming down as rain, which soaks into the earth of the cemetery. It also burns the skin of the partying punks, including Trash, who, after asking if her friends ever think about, like, all the gross ways you could, like, die, rips off her clothes [FULL frontal nudity here, my straight male friends--but it actually turns out to be an anatomically-correct prosthetic pussy] and starts dancing nude on a gravestone. Now, Trash is played by Linnea Quigley, who I just happened to look up on IMDb, and who, it seems, has fashioned herself as the "Queen of the Bs" after this movie. Her IMDB page is an amazing compendium of B-movie titles such as Treasure of the Moon Goddess, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Assault of the Party Nerds [1 AND 2], Burial of the Rats, Sick-O-Pathics, and many more. My jaw dropped when I saw that she was the kids' mother in Don't Go Near the Park. They all try to get out of the burning rain [I was really into the idea of burning rain], and so does Tina, who has gone over to look for Freddy. She bursts inside, then goes downstairs, where she meets the zombie from the container, who has these big eyes, and—surprise—is really cute! I listened to enough of the commentary to know that they asked for a really skinny mime to play this character. He tries to kill Tina [good call, zombie, she's a bit too perky for me], then tries to kill her friends when they show up. I love the part where the zombie turns and sees all her friends and says with delightful relish: "More brains!" I really wish there was more of this one zombie, he was really cute and charming. This movie, by the way, is where I THINK the trope that zombies want to eat BRAINS originated from. In the Romero movies zombies just wanted to eat people, but for quite a few years after this movie it was standard that zombies want to eat brains.

Anyway the shit is hitting the fan on multiple fronts, including the graveyard outside, where zombies are eating any cops and paramedics that arrive, and in fact radioing for more. Have I mentioned that these zombies are fast [almost 20 years before 28 Days Later!] and talk? Yep. The other thing that I clearly remember from seeing this in the theater was this half-zombie woman [she's still got tits!] who they hold down and interrogate—specifically the way her exposed spine slithers back and forth. She tells them that zombies want to eat brains to ease the pain of being dead.

Anyway, I'm going to leave most of the movie and the amusing resolution for you to discover on your own. Overall, very clever and funny. The whole thing was more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, although as I said, Frank did have me going there quite a few times. I also love the whole worldview of the movie, especially the whole sense that people are essentially dolts, the Government has no clue what it's doing, and everyone, from top to bottom, will just try to take the easiest way out. Can you tell that I'm in a particularly misanthropic period of my life? It's called adulthood.

That said, I suspect the first time around is probably the best one for enjoying this movie, that way a lot of the surprises and deviations from the standard zombie lore can take you off guard and delight—I haven't seen it in 20 years, but even so, having a general sense of what was coming dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Anyway, a must for fans of zombie films—who have probably all seen it already. I have no idea how the sequels are. I want more Frank, though. I want The Frank Movie.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! Especially if you like horror-comedy, and especially-especially if you're a fan of zombie movies.