FOOTAGE FETISHES: “RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD”

Where Have All the Zombies Gone?

Zombies are always getting a bum rap in the movies. Compared to other monsters, the walking dead just can’t get no respect. Vampires are gothic and glamorous, and tend to greater sartorial splendor. Werewolves are more cunning and vicious, and have fabulous hair. Hell, even bug-eyed aliens are afforded more admiration than the lowly animated corpse.

And why not? Compared to the werewolf’s savagery or Natasha Henstridge’s ass, the zombie isn’t a very challenging adversary. Slow moving, telegraphing their presence through low frequency groans, easily dispatched with fire or brute force, zombies are understandably at the low end of the horror totem pole. The first movies of this ilk understandably concentrated on atmospherics (“I Walked with a Zombie”), comedy (“King of the Zombies”), or the occult aspect (“Voodoo Island”). There wasn’t much to the zombies of this era, they stumbled around with bugged out eyes and occasionally menaced the fair damsel until the Great White Protagonist gave him What For. Ripping yarns, one and all.

And then came 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Enough has been written about George A. Romero’s watershed horror movie that I don’t need to revisit it here. It is sufficient to point out that, without NOTLD, we would not look at the zombie in film the way we do now. Gone were the days of the shambling ghoul who might grab you around the throat if you were unable to do anything besides sit immobile and shriek, as was apparently the norm back in the 1950’s. Romero’s zombies didn’t want to play slap fight, they wanted to eat you – and not in the good way. Night was also revolutionary in its depiction of onscreen gore. Audiences were horrified at the sight of zombies gnawing on limbs and gorging on loops of intestines. Shocking, and with not-too-subtle commentary on the nature of humanity, Night set the standard for a new wave of zombie horror.

And then (as Krusty the Clown might say), for a long time nothing happened. American movies of the zombie genre turned out were either only loosely associated with the walking dead (1972’s “Satanic Rites of Dracula”) or a mish-mash of themes (the blaxploitation zombie epic “Sugar Hill”). It took George A. Romero making his long-awaited Night sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” to bring zombies back into public awareness, as it were.

1978’s “Dawn,” while not exactly a box office smash, engendered a very loyal cult following. Zombies became more prevalent in horror movies like Creepshow, “The Fog,” and in “B-17,” the only episode of 1981’s “Heavy Metal” that stands the test of time. The genre was finally ripe for satire. The fact that it happened to be the middle of one of the most culturally bankrupt decades in history just made the timing that much more perfect.

“Brains!”

Released in 1985, “Return of the Living Dead,” written and directed by “Alien” and “Screamers” scribe Dan O’Bannon (who also wrote the aforementioned “B-17” segment, fittingly enough), was the first of its kind to approach the zombie myth with humor. According to “Return,” the events depicted in Night of the Living Dead were real, only they were the result of a military snafu with a chemical known as trioxin. The government hushed up the incident and made Romero change his movie around while they cleaned up the mess. Unfortunately, several of the zombies got misdirected and ended up in the basement of the Uneeda Medical Supply building, where our two hapless protagonists Frank and Freddy stumble upon it. Accidentally, the zombifying gas is released, and the wheels are set in motion for flesh-eating fun. Oh, and at precisely the same time this is going on, a group of Freddy’s teenage friends are goofing around in the cemetery conveniently located next to the warehouse.

Predictably, things soon get out of hand and our young friends are set upon by a battalion of the recently risen dead. Problem is, these aren’t the slowly galumphing zombies of yore; these babies can flat out run. Plus, they possess an evil cunning and proficiency with electronics that will spell the grisly end for countless public safety workers.

Venerable character actor James Karen plays Frank at a benchmark of hysteria not seen since Ann (“Shaaaaaark!”) Dusenberry in “Jaws 2”. Uneeda manager Burt is portrayed with surprising composure by not-quite-as-venerable character actor Clu Galager, and rounding out the old guys in the cast is Don Calfa as Burt’s friend and neighboring crematorium operator Ernie Kaltenbrunner. More on him later, and yes, the two friends are named Burt and Ernie.

It’s a zombie stampede in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD”>>>




Posted on September 11, 2002 in Features by

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