Saturday 3 July 2010

Obscurity Files #13 - The Return Of The Living Dead

SLACKER Obscurity Files aims to put the spotlight onto a series of films that time and audiences have otherwise forgotten. With all the Vampires and Werewolves in cinemas this weekend with Twilight: Eclipse, we thought it might be nice to show some love for the Zombies. Today it's The Return Of The Living Dead.
More after the jump...

After accidentally damaging a government owned storage tank and releasing a toxic gas into a medical warehouse, Frank and new employee Freddy discover that a cadaver has become reanimated. Whilst attempting to cover up their mistake by burning the body, little do they know that they're about to make this situation go from bad to worse. As Freddy's punk friends wait for him in the neighbouring cemetery, the dead start to rise up out of their graves.

Winking heavily towards the world created by George A. Romero, this 1985 horror/comedy was the directorial debut of Dan O'Bannon, the man who wrote the original screenplay for Star Beast, more widely known as Alien. The screenplay for this film was also written by O'Bannon, but was loosely based on the novel by John A. Russo, who had once been a close associate of Romero and had a co-scripting credit on the original Night Of The Living Dead.

Night Of The Living Dead exists in the world of this film, but in a post modern twist is supposedly a true story with some of the details changed. It is the young man Freddy's disbelief at this ludicrous tale that leads to the eventual contamination leak.

Don Calfa, who was so memorable as the put-upon assassin in Weekend at Bernies, stars as Ernie, the local mortician and embalmer. When he's confronted with a twitching pile of body parts, he thinks the only sensible option is to burn the remains. But unfortunately no-one ever taught him about the cycle of precipitation, so when the smoke rises into the atmosphere it then comes down in the rain. Big mistake.

As you may have guessed from that clip, this is not a film to be taken too seriously. The dead rise up out of their graves and half dissected dogs start to move and bark again. Return of The Living Dead creates its own rules, so destroying the brain offers little help, and burning the corpses just leads to more problems. It presents us with all manner of beasties, from skeletal remains to the original body that was being stored in the containment tank. Known as the Tarman, he really is a sight to behold.

The Tarman is the stand out character in a rogues gallery of monsters. As witnessed, these reanimated corpses are capable of rudimentary speech, though many are still lumbered with the slow movement of Romero's Zombies. There is no constant set of rules with these Zombies though. Some are able to exist as just skeletons, some even run after their prey (perhaps the first modern usage of the fast Zombie strain?), some can operate machinery and others can operate two-way radios. In that sense they are not as consistent a vision as Romero's Zombies, but their lack of continuity does offer up some surprising set pieces.

This film is filled with impressive effects work, using a mixture of make-up and modelwork to bring its corpses back to life. Here the remains of a rotting corpse is able to speak quite eloquently about what is driving them to kill and kill again. Instead of mindlessly tearing people apart or feasting on guts, these Zombies are focused on devouring other body parts.

Dan O'Bannon used little of John A. Russo's original novel, taking what was a straight sequel to Night Of The Living Dead (written before the release of Romero's Dawn of the Dead), and turning it into a somewhat comical series of events. The cast of characters is largely comprised of a gang of Punks, who seem to live life with a care free attitude and who look down on Freddy's attempt at getting a job. But although it may be Freddy's job that leads to his downfall, the Punks are no safer hanging out in the nearby cemetery.

The punk aesthetic is also noticeable in the film's soundtrack, with music from The Cramps, The Damned and The Flesh-Eaters. The soundtrack was used as a major selling point on the promotional materials, which sold the movie as a fun night out, not a thought provoking racial allegory like Night of the Living Dead. It all adds to the playful manner of the film, which has been described as 'Splatstick'.

As the story progresses the trapped inhabitants of the warehouse must find a way out. The military has been called in but can offer little help against the growing number of Living Dead, so the group is forced to fight back against the Zombies.

Dan O'Bannon had previously worked with John Carpenter on Dark Star, and when the remaining survivors find themselves holed up in the warehouse, this film certainly owes something of a debt to Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (itself a remake of Rio Bravo), as well as an obvious similarity to Night Of The Living Dead. The ending also shares some ground with the 2010 remake of Romero's 1973 film The Crazies, another tale of infection running rife.

It's a fantastic mix of gore and humour, and in Tarman has an iconic main baddie that has lived on through this film's sequels. It managed to spawn four sequels and despite its early nods towards Romero's universe, has become its own separate entity. O'Bannon only directed one other film (1992's Shatterbrain), but continued to work as a screenwriter, most notably on Total Recall. He sadly passed away in late 2009, but through his work on Alien and this franchise, has left a lasting legacy within the science fiction community.

Save from obscurity? YES.

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