Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The Movie: It’s Fourth of July weekend and Frank (James Karen of Mulholland Drive and Poltergeist), of the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse in Louisville Kentucky, is staying after work to show Freddy (Thom Mathews), the new stock boy, the ropes. After seeing the wonders of the place; the skeletons, the prosthetics, the split dogs sold to veterinarian schools, the single human cadaver currently in the freezer; Freddy asks Frank what the weirdest thing he’s ever seen on the job is. Frank tells him.

Apparently the old horror movie Night of the Living Dead is based on a real event. The army commissioned the Darrow Chemical Company to create a chemical, 345 Trioxin, to use in the growing War on Drugs. A canister spilled and its contents seeped into the morgue, causing some of the corpses to move around. The army packed up the animate corpses and contaminated dirt and loaded them into canisters to be shipped back to Darrow Chemical for testing. However, in a “typical army fuck-up,” the canisters were mixed up with another order and shipped to the Uneeda warehouse instead. They’ve sat in the basement for almost a decade and a half now.

Of course, Frank offers to show Freddy the canisters. To demonstrate how sturdy the Army Core of Engineer’s work is, Frank slaps one of the canisters, immediately causing it to rupture. Both men get a face-full of Trioxin gas and pass out, while the ventilation system disperses the gas throughout the warehouse. When they wake up, Frank and Freddy are feeling extremely sick; and the dead inventory are all much more lively now, particularly the corpse in the deep freeze.

Frank calls Burt (the venerable and prolific Clu Gulager), the owner of the warehouse, about the problem. The three men start by trying to destroy the animated corpse, but that task is nowhere near as easy as the original movie would have you believe. All they manage is to restrain it and cut it into many squirming pieces. But Burt gets another idea, take their problem to his friend Ernie (Don Calfa, of Weekend at Bernie’s and Chopper Chicks in Zombietown), the mortician of the Resurrection Cemetery funeral home just across the street. Ernie runs a crematorium, and maybe they could use it to destroy all the evidence; problem solved.

Ernie is talked into it, and the body goes up in smoke. Unfortunately that brings a whole new set of unforeseen complications; the corpse is saturated with Trioxin. The toxic smoke seeds the clouds, causing a massive downpour on the cemetery. Freddy’s girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and their friends are partying in the cemetery, waiting for him to get off work. This puts them in the perfect position to witness the acidic rainfall and the cemetery living up to its name. The animated corpses that result are not only nearly indestructible, but they are also fast, agile, and intelligent. They seek to eat the brains of the living, because the endorphins mask the pain of rotting for a while.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Freddy and Frank aren’t doing too well either. In fact, the paramedics called in say that they’re technically dead, except that they’re still conscious. There is one possible solution, the contact number on the army canisters. However, this being the organization that had the Trioxin created in the first place, it is doubtful their solution will be pleasing for those involved…

The Review:

"The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations"
-Opening Scrawl

Here is part two of my double feature on what I get out of the horror genre. As I mentioned in my previous review, I find the horror genre extremely cathartic because it vicariously explores the theme of not being in control of one’s life. However, there is more than one way to achieve that catharsis. This film is probably the opposite side of the coin in that regard from the one I previously reviewed. Whereas Hellraiser: Bloodline is a movie that I watch when I need some hope that it is possible to regain control of a seemingly hopeless situation; Return of the Living Dead is what I watch when I’m in the mood to explore and revel in just how bad it could possibly get.

Return of the Living Dead is one of those rare horror-comedies that manages to get it right. In fact, for me it stands alongside Re-animator at the pinnacle of successful horror-comedies. Return’s humor is of the blackest sort; it’s the laugh that comes from knowing that it’s all going to Hell, but appreciating how ridiculous it all is anyway. In fact, Return employs its humor and horror elements in a way that I rarely see used, much less used successfully; they feed into each other. The more horrifying things get, the more comically absurd they get, and vice versa. In particular, the scenes where Frank and Freddy discover what has happened with the split dogs, and where they and Burt are trying unsuccessfully to destroy the first re-animated cadaver, are ones where I find myself simultaneously laughing and cringing.

The driving theme of Return of the Living Dead can probably be summed up thusly: it may not be as bad as it could possibly get, but it soon will be. The whole plot is basically one long series of examples of Murphy’s Law in action. No matter what the situation, or how it might first appear, things rapidly go all wrong. Just in the pre-credits section, where Frank first ruptures the canister by slapping it, all the way to the apocalyptic ending (which, the movie makes clear, is very far away from the end of the actual event); we are placed in an atmosphere where we know for certain that nothing will turn out right. Even in the minor events, a feeling of doom and gloom hangs over everything, and we know instinctively that they will end very badly for our protagonists.

And yet despite the atmosphere of doom and gloom, we cannot help but laugh. Terrifying as it is, there is just something really absurd about the world we know coming crashing down. Some of the humor is very blatant; the eye chart in the Uneeda warehouse office that reads “Burt is a slave driver and a son of a bitch…” (it goes on but I can’t read the rest), for example. However, an equal amount of it is very deadpan, sometimes to the point where you might miss it if you’re not paying attention.

Return of the Living Dead is very much a product of its time; the dark depths of the Reagan Era when the twin horrors of Mutually Assured (nuclear) Destruction and Right-wing insanity hung over this country like a cloud of doom. However, more and more I find it fits equally well in this day and age, what with the ongoing “War on Terror.” Having just passed the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks as of this writing; I cannot help but reflect how our foreign policy has gone in a full circle since that terrible event, greatly compounding the damage from it. But that’s a rant I’ll spare you for another time.

Anyway, due to the political influences on this movie resulting from the era in which it was made, there are all sorts of nasty satirical touches in it. The fact that the two main authority figures are named Burt and Ernie, for example, cannot be a coincidence. There’s also the fact that Ernie is listening to Wagner when we first meet him; and that he carries a handgun which he pulls automatically at any excuse. Of course, it poses more potential harm to him and the other protagonists than it ever does to the true threat. And of course, finally, there is the whole theme of “the Proper Authorities are not your friends.” Admittedly it does come straight from the Romero movies that Return is paying homage to, but it also fits right in to the political atmosphere of the time.

Probably the movie’s greatest strength is its cast and characters. All of the characters, while lightly sketched for the most part, come across as at least somewhat believable as a fully fleshed-out human being. There are no square-jawed heroes in this flick, no wise authority figures who have the answer. Instead , we have completely ordinary human beings caught in an extremely extraordinary situation that they have almost no frame of reference for. And, unlike most horror movies, they act as real people would. All the characters do stupid things, but their actions are plausibly stupid, not moronically suicidal. Likewise all of the characters freak out about the situation at some point, but most also have something to contribute to the attempt at a solution as well. The fact that they are completely powerless to affect it at all is hardly their fault.

All of the cast do a great job of portraying a believable human being. Aside from the characters I just mentioned, even the ones playing the punks of Freddy and Tina’s group of friends come across as individuals. Mark Venturini’s Suicide may come off as a “designated asshole” archetype of the genre, but his dialogue reveals that there is legitimate reason for this behavior; and he even shows a bit of nobility when he (albeit unintentionally) sacrifices himself trying to save Tina. The lovely Linnea Quigley, in the role that earned her her crown as Queen of the Scream Queens; is very convincing as the tough-talking, death-obsessed Trash, whose façade collapses as soon as the fewmats really start hitting the windmill. It should also be said that the scene nearly everyone takes away from this movie, with good reason, is the one where she does a striptease on top of a crypt. Finally, the sexy Jewel Shepherd as the bitchy Casey reminds me of a lot of women I have known from high school on out. Sadly she never does a striptease in this movie, on a crypt or otherwise; but if that’s what you’re after she has some other movies that will scratch that itch for you.

In general, the special effects, while coming across as fake-looking in a few parts, are mostly top notch. If you aren’t inured to gore, don’t watch this movie while eating. The soundtrack is wonderful; the punk-rock songs used fully complimenting the action on screen. The script is very well written; and the movie as a whole is so full of little touches, such as the eye chart I mentioned above, that it’s impossible to catch them all on a single viewing. Above all, there is a manic energy about the whole thing that drives you inexorably to its conclusion. And as for said conclusion; while “wait, it’s not over yet” type endings are par for the course for the horror genre, this one flows organically and legitimately from what has happened earlier in the film.

So in conclusion, Return of the Living Dead is a hell of a movie experience; well written, well casted, and very well made. Hilarious and horrifying, gory and gleeful, and driven by a demented yet irresistible energy; never has watching the world get dragged to Hell been this much fun.

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