FOOTAGE FETISHES: “RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD”

Biting Satire

“Return” not only offers the first self-referential take on the zombie film, it skewers the youth movie culture so horribly, horribly prevalent in the mid-1980’s. Every teen-in-distress movie released presently has to revisit the time-honored tropes of the slasher movies of old, and every one of them thinks it’s being terribly clever in doing so. “Return” does this with zombie flicks, but O’Bannon is knowledgeable enough to realize that you don’t need to beat a dead horse, so to speak. When Frank, Freddie, and Burt are confronted with their first animated corpse, they naturally assume the best way to tackle it is to take out its brain – this is what they did in Night of the Living Dead, after all. When this doesn’t work, Freddy (Thom Matthews) utters one of the funniest lines in cinematic history: “You mean the movie lied?”

The zombies in “Return” are as different from Romero’s as possible while still being, you know, zombies. O’Bannon’s zombies can speak (with difficulty) and run…faster than you, as it turns out. They eat brains instead of flesh (they need the brains to counter the “pain of being dead”) and are considerably harder to kill than the lurching skeet pigeons shown in “Dawn of the Dead.” While this is largely thanks to the Byzantine goings-on behind getting “Return” to the big screen, the differences serve to separate it from Romero’s trilogy (the third of these, “Day of the Dead,” was released the same year as “Return” to poorer reviews and box office). It’s funny, in a way, because much of the criticism I’ve heard leveled at “ROTLD” is centered on the fact that the zombies don’t act like *real* zombies. You know, the ones you run into at the grocery store or on the hike-and-bike trail.

This is akin to saying, “real Klingons would never serve on a Federation starship,” or, “real shoggoths live in Antarctica.”

We also have “Return” to thank for introducing the fearsome howl of “Brains!” into the modern lexicon. I know I’m not the only one who’s endlessly amused my friends at parties with this dread cry or its cousin, “More brains.” The now famous call of the zombie has been name checked by everyone from “The Simpsons” to “South Park.” “ROTLD” will live on with film geeks forever for this, if nothing else.

One of the more amusing facets of “Return” is the youthful cast that is set upon by the zombies. These kids are as far-removed from the feathered hair idiots found at Camp Crystal Lake as you’re likely to find. Though they’re presented to us as punks, only a few can actually carry the label. Suicide, the erstwhile leader of the group (he has a car, after all), Scuz, and Trash (scream queen Linnea Quigley, who deserves note as the first full-on naked babe zombie ever) are all leather or mohawk outfitted. Chuck and Casey (Jewel Shepard) are more New Wave than anything else. With their impressive 80’s hair, they seem like they’d be more comfortable at a Go-Go’s concert. And Freddy’s girlfriend Tina (Beverly Hartley) looks like she could’ve stepped straight out of a Van Nuys mall.

The most impressive member of this group of pseudo Brat Packers is Spider (Miguel A. Nunez, Jr.). He’s also the only member of the crew who is a minority, coincidentally (or not, Romero’s first two “Dead” movies featured prominent African-American characters). In spite of the fact that he spends the entire movie sporting the worst Rick James mullet of all time, he manages to keep his well-coiffed head while all about him are losing theirs… literally. It’s a refreshing contrast to the lily-white casts of that era’s teen movies (paging Mr. Hughes). Almost as much as it is to see a minority character played as a human being and not a stereotype of some sort. To top it off, we get to see a bunch of teens wantonly devoured by Civil War era zombies.

Too bad there wasn’t a cemetery next to Shermer High School.

More brains in part three of FOOTAGE FETISHES: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD>>>




Posted on September 11, 2002 in Features by

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