This one was another midnight special. Along with Return of Count Yorga, Scream, Blacula, Scream, and Taxi Driver, I sat in front of the TV and watched The Return of the Living Dead too many times to count. "Too many times" might be more simple and more accurate to say, actually. This splatterpunk zombie flick is the pinnacle of 1980s horror. I'll stand by that statement until the day I die and reanimate. When you think of synth-heavy, neon-colored, and gleefully bloody fright flicks that ooze with toxic radiation, this is the film you're thinking of. The Return of the Living Dead is thrash metal imprinted on celluloid.
The plot is simple. A new employee, a punk rocker named Freddy (played by Thom Matthews), and a old employee (played by James Karen), work in the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse. On the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, the pair are killing time after hours. Frank (Karen) is showing the new kid the ropes, explaining how all skeletons come from India and how veterinary students just love ordering split dogs. The warehouse, which is located in a grimy section of town, also houses a single human cadaver in the freezer. This doesn't bode well.
After doing a round, Frank tries to scare Freddy by talking about what's in the basement. According to him, Uneeda houses three zombified cadavers from the original Night of the Living Dead incident. Unlike the movie, Frank explains that the true story occurred in 1969 (remember that Romero's classic was released in 1968) when a strange chemical leaked into the mortuary underneath a Pittsburgh VA hospital. This caused the dead bodies to squirm and do both the shimmy and the shake. The US Army wasn't in the dancing mood, so they tapped the Army Corps of Engineers to seal up the bodies in tight drums and ship them to the Darrow Chemical Company (side note: did the makers of Mystery, Inc., the greatest Scooby-Doo series ever, reference this fictitious company when they created the doomed Darrow family and their Saw-like mansion?). However, the Army did a SNAFU and sent the barrels to Uneeda.
When Frank and Freddy go to the basement in order to check out the cadavers, Frank tries to show how solid Army engineering is by smacking the side of the canister. Bad move; a green vapor comes from the barrel, knocks Frank and Freddy out, and works its way into the warehouse's air conditioning. When the pair of knuckleheads wake up, not only have the split dogs started doing the cha-cha-cha, but that corpse in the freezer is alive and damnably hungry.
Outside of the warehouse, Freddy's friends are gathering. They're a motley assortment of punk rockers, with the one exception being Freddy's girlfriend Tina (played by Beverly Randolph). Like all young punks, they're bored and itching to do something. Problem is that they have to wait until Freddy gets off of work at 10 p.m. After getting a ride with the irritable Suicide (played by Mark Venturini), the gang decide to party in the cemetery that abuts Uneeda. The cemetery is called Resurrection Cemetery. Again, nothing to see here.
Hey, you want more foreshadowing? Alright. One of the gang members, Trash (played by scream queen Linnea Quigley), is a bit of a freak. Even the other weirdos in her posse think so. Anyway, while relaxing among the headstones with Spider (played by Miguel Nunez), Trash admits that her biggest fear (and sexual turn on) is being eaten alive by several old men. Want to guess what happens to her?
Before we get there, let's return to Frank and Freddy. Realizing that they've caused a shit storm, Frank calls the boss, Burt (played by Clu Gulager). The trio decide that their only course of action is burn up the reanimated cadaver until there's nothing left. Burt calls in a favor to Ernie Kaltenbrunner (played by Don Calfa), a Nazi-named undertaker who agrees to help out a friend. Tragically, once the zombie is burned up, his infection becomes the smoke that pours out of the crematory. This causes acid rain that soaks the cemetery. Bingo, now you've got a zombie problem.
Unlike Romero's more popular zombie films, the living dead in this film run, speak, and basically act "more human than human." They're intelligent cannibals, using paramedic and cop radios to calls for more human meat. These zombies are also indestructible. Shooting them in the head does nothing, while burning them up just makes more zombies. It's a no win situation that kills a lot of cops, punk kids, and paramedics.
Of course, what everyone remembers about The Return of the Living Dead is that it's the movie that made brains a staple of the zombie diet. Prior to this film, zombies were just flesh eaters. In The Return of the Living Dead, they want brains in order to offset the pain of death. Whether or not this makes them super zombies is up for debate. Suffice it say that in order to wipe them out, the Army drops a nuclear artillery shell on the entire city. Does this make more zombies? Yes, yes it does.
Directed by Dan O'Bannon, the screenwriter responsible for 1979's Alien, The Return of the Living Dead is gutter trash cinema at its finest. From its punk rock soundtrack to its slapstick approach to the apocalypse, The Return of the Living Dead is why the 1980s was such a glorious time for horror films. While it does have some head scratchers (the biggest of all is why the film, which was clearly shot in Los Angeles, is set in Louisville, Kentucky), the film still holds as one the greatest zombie flicks ever puked up on the American public.