When I was a kid, one of the guaranteed highlights to my week was watching USA Up All Night (primarily the Rhonda Shear era, because let’s be honest, who can stand listening to Gilbert Gottfried’s voice?) every weekend. The amount of absolutely magnificent garbage I took in during all of those binge watching nights is pretty staggering, and most of them have long since been forgotten. There are, of course, some that have stuck with me over the years, and nestled somewhere in my memory amongst Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Student Bodies, and Daughters Of Satan is Return Of The Living Dead.
Here’s the thing, though – my memory of this movie was not a particularly good one. For whatever reason, it left such a bad impression on my young mind that I never bothered to revisit it. Even with my love of pretty much all things Linnea Quigley, I just chalked this one up as a loss.
Fast forward to the present day, and the illustrious one year anniversary of Psycho Cinema. I’ll finally give Return Of The Living Dead another shot, I said. I still love Linnea Quigley, I said. Now, keep in mind that regardless of what movie was being played (except for maybe The Dentist, that movie can go straight to hell), I would have been in attendance, because my love for Psycho Cinema is strong. Maybe even strong enough for a K-Ci & JoJo song. Return Of The Living Dead was not really the draw for me here, but I’m glad that I (finally) gave it a second chance.
Turns out it’s pretty much everything I love about trash cinema, and for some reason my stupid pre-teen brain couldn’t process it at the time. An interesting thing to me about seeing this again is that it really didn’t feel all that dated to me. Yes, it took place in the 80s, and yes everything about it screamed 80s, but for some reason, it didn’t feel old. I don’t know if that makes sense, or if it’s because I was watching it with an updated perspective on what a “good” zombie movie really is, but I felt like if it was made today, and was shot for shot the exact same, I’d enjoy it just as much. Besides, you wouldn’t have your stereotypical zombie desire for “braaaaains” without this film. Hell, one of the living dead even explains it to you so you know why they want brains! Wait wait wait, a corpse does what now?
Sure, there’s a lot here for the zombie film purist to dislike, and being a pretty firm member of Camp Romero, that may have been my problem. I mean, right off the bat, Return Of The Living Dead has a the audacity to claim that
“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.”
There’s an explanation for the start of the zombie outbreak, running zombies, talking zombies, smart zombies… what the hell is going on here?! These are all things you just don’t do in a zombie film!
Let’s look at some of that, and why having that train of thought is really, really bad. First, we’re talking about zombies here. I know this is blasphemous, but really, why should we take Romero’s take on zombies as the be-all and end-all? People, you’re dealing with re-animated corpses. I’m pretty sure all ideas are on the table. Sure, if you’re being “real” and “scientific” about it, their motor skills and dexterity will probably be a little lacking, but again… they’re the living dead. Think about this for a moment as well – if there was a legitimate zombie outbreak, what would be more frightening? Slow, stupid, shuffling zombies, or zombies that are smart enough to tell a police dispatcher to “Send more cops!” and then wait and ambush said cops? I recognize and truly appreciate the slow, creeping terror of the first, but the second sounds a hell of a lot scarier.
As far as the origin story, I do generally tend to think that the mystery origin is still the best, if only because pretty much all origins seem really far fetched. Zombies caused by a comet? Really? That said, some top secret, government formulated chemical is as good of a cause as any. So, no real issues with that on my end. When Frank and Freddy accidentally release said chemical, there’s a moment where you find yourself thinking “Ok, yeah, I could see that causing a problem.” Maybe not on the level of an outbreak of corpses rising from the grave, but again, suspend that disbelief and just enjoy the damn movie!
Look, in spite of all of the cars with Zombie Outbreak Response Vehicle stickers (by the way, your ’86 Camry probably wouldn’t be the car I’d rely on in such an instance, so please just stop), there’s never going to be a “zombie outbreak”. There is zero reason to try and rule zombie cinema with an iron fist, because you have absolutely no solid fact to stand on. Saying that they have to be slow, they have to be nothing more than stupid, moaning, lumps of death is just as ridiculous as saying that they have to kill people by tickling them. See? It’s stupid to put rules on zombies. They don’t live by your rules, man!
So what I’m saying is that all bets are off when you’re dealing with a zombie film. There’s no right way for them to exist, no wrong way for them to act, and no right way to kill them. When Freddy, Frank, and Burt try to kill a zombie by driving a pick axe through his head and he doesn’t die, they too find out that just because Night Of The Living Dead said that this was the right way, it doesn’t mean it’s the right way. Yes, Freddy, as much as I hate to break it to you, the movie lied.