The film Return of the Living Dead is largely responsible for what has become a lifelong obsession with zombie movies. My history with the film starts way back in 1985, the year it was released, when I was but a wee boy of twelve years old. The movie was being advertised heavily and the commercials, some of which featured the notorious tar zombie and his â€œBRAINS!â€ catchphrase, simply terrified me. I distinctly remember one night, staying in a cheap hotel in California, where I was convinced that zombie would break through the flimsy door of my room and attack my brothers and me before my dad, in the room next door, could do anything about it. I didn’t sleep much that night, and, no doubt due to my terrified vigilance, the tar zombie never came for us.
It wasn’t until years later â€“ about ten years, as it happens â€“ that the zombies of Return of the Living Dead finally sank their teeth into my brain. By that time I had already seen and enjoyed Romero’s work, but I was still by no means a zombie movie fan. I simply considered his trilogy to be brilliant, arty films that happened to be horror. It was my half-crazy, Gulf-War-vet roommate that turned me on to the movie. Unlike some of the other things he tried to get me into â€“ hardcore Libertarianism, smuggling machine guns in from Mexico â€“ this one took. My childhood fear of the movie turned into an adult fascination with it, and with the zombie canon in general. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few more zombie films â€“ almost a hundred at this point â€“ but Return of the Living Dead still holds a special place in my heart â€“ and brain, of course.
As a zombie comedy â€“ one of the first, if not the first â€“ this movie is a direct ancestor of great films such as Shaun of the Dead and Braindead/Dead-Alive. It succeeds brilliantly by playing things relatively straight and milking the situation â€“ a zombie apocalypse precipitated by a careless Army and two bumbling medical supply warehouse workers â€“ for its inherent humor. The writing and direction, both by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, are clever and effective. The effects are impressive and there are even a few real scares, plus some of the most memorable undead ever to grace the Silver Screen â€“ especially that evil bastard tar zombie that haunted my dreams for years. It’s one of the best movies ever made in the genre and a personal favorite.
This post originally appeared in a slightly different form as a film note for the film’s screening as part of the Dead of Summer film festival in 2008 at the Starz FilmCenter in Denver, Colorado. It has been edited to update minor details and remove references to “the film you are about to see.”