2018 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 31: Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Day 31 of the Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge is 31. In the Graveyard. The graveyard seems a fitting place to end a journey. But for some it might just be the beginning…ZOMBIES!!! How did it take so long for this, one of my favorite movies of all time, to make it to the site? This is quite literally the ultimate drive-in movie to me — it moves fast, it’s ridiculously quotable and it’s packed with laughs and gore.

If you ever wondered where the fact that zombies like brains come from, look no further. This is the film that did it.

July 3, 1984. Louisville, Kentucky. The Uneeda Medical Supply company. Frank (James Karen, Poltergeist) is showing off all of the strangeness within the warehouse to new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews, Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI). There are all manner of body parts, skeletons from an Indian skeleton farm, half dogs and drums containing the leftovers of a military experiment gone wrong, the kind of horrifying thing that they would make a movie about. A movie like, say, Night of the Living Dead. The problem is, Frank accidentally releases the gas in one of the tanks and reanimates corpses and bodies and half dogs throughout the warehouse.

A quick call to the owner, Burt (Clu Gulager, The Initiation) provides only minor help. Trying to figure out how to control the situation and keep his business out of trouble, the three men hack a walking corpse to bits. But it just won’t die — the movies lie! Even a shot to the brain can’t stop the living dead. They turn to Ernie (Don Calfa, Weekend at Bernie’s), a mortician friend, to burn the bodies — which releases the reanimation process into the open air and the graveyard next door.

I never realized in all the times I’ve watched his that Ernie is supposed to be a Nazi in hiding. Now that I see the clues (he listens to the German Afrika Corps march song “Panzer rollen in Afrika vor” on his Walkman while embalming bodies, he carries a German Walther P38, has a photo of Eva Braun and refers to the rain coming down like “Ein Betrunken Soldat” (German for “a drunken soldier”), it makes a lot of sense. Director and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon confirms this theory on the DVD commentary.

Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends learn about his new job from Tina, his girlfriend. There’s Spider, Scuz, Suicide (Mark Venturini, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), Casey (Jewel Shepard, Raw Force), Chuck and, most importantly, Trash (Linnea Quigley in the role of her career). The scene where she announces that the worst way to die would be for “a bunch of old men to get around me and start biting and eating me alive. First, they would tear off my clothes…” is one of the silliest and goofiest excuses to have nudity in a movie, but it works.

As her friends blast 45 Grave and watch Tina disrobe on top of the grave of Archibald Leach (Cary Grant’s real name), Tina looks for Freddy. However, she’s been found by Tarman, the half-melted corpse in the barrel that started this whole mess. And it doesn’t get any better, with zombies calling in paramedics to die (“Send more brains!”) and even the police getting destroyed by the undead. And if you think the military is going to do anything other than nuke the town to hide the truth, then you’ve never seen a zombie film before.

This is a movie unafraid to feature shocks and laughs in the same frame. It comes from the writing team of John Russo and Russell Streiner, two of the names behind the original Night of the Living Dead. When Russo and George Romero went their separate ways, Russo got the rights to the name “Living Dead” while Romero would be allowed to make sequels. The original plan was for Tobe Hooper to direct this movie, but he would go on to make Lifeforce. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Dark StarAlienLifeforceTotal Recall and the Alejandro Jodorowsky chose to supervise special effects when he tried to make Dune) agreed to direct, but only if he could rewrite the movie so that it wasn’t seen as a ripoff of Romero’s film.

This is a film packed with in-jokes, like how Freddy’s jacket says FUCK YOU on the back of it and has a totally different jacket for the edited version that says TELEVISION VERSION on it. And there are even more little MAD Magazine-style bits throughout, like the hidden message on the eye test poster in Burt’s office.

I can’t hide how much I love this movie. From the production designs to William Stout to the special effects work (including puppeteer Allan Trautman as Tarman), this movie moves fast, takes no prisoners and continues to surprise me. I always find something new with every viewing.

Want to see it for yourself? Grab the 30th Anniversary blu ray from Shout! Factory or watch it for free with your Amazon Prime membership.

9 thoughts on “2018 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 31: Return of the Living Dead (1985)

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