There’s such a thing as a movie being so bad it’s good, so bad it’s bad, or so intentionally bad it’s good. This phenomenon is exemplified, respectively, by such films as Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, and Machete. I’m more fond of talentless directors accidentally making a trash masterpiece than I am talented ones lowering their standards for sake of homage. But if an homage to garbage is done well, I can hardly complain. At least the product knows it’s poor.
The Return of the Living Dead, from 1985, belongs either in the so-bad-it’s-good camp or the so intentionally bad it’s good category. It’s marketed as a black comedy, a lampooning of the zombie genre, if you will. But I’m not so sure the laughs are as deliberate or pointed as other great macabre romps of the era, like Re-Animator. We don’t find ourselves chuckling because the writing is knowing or because the offings are delightfully disgusting; we find ourselves chuckling at how ‘80s the film is, with Cramps-listening teens dancing naked atop graves, a soundtrack fresh out of a synthesizer’s womb, and joyous exclamations of “Brains!” on the part of the zombies.
Is it dated, or is it a winning product of the times? I’d say the latter. But I still have doubts as to whether the film got misconstrued as an intelligent black comedy over time and has inadvertently been analyzed as something smarter than it actually is through the decades.
The plot is relatively simple, ingeniously set up considering that it is, in fact, a rip-off of all those George A. Romero undead flicks. Teenager Freddy (Thom Mathews) has just been hired as a warehouse assistant at a medical supply unit, where skeletons are rendered hot commodities and freshly dead bodies are strung up in refrigerators like Thanksgiving turkeys. The job is relatively simple — we get the feeling that Freddy’s going to be doing a lot of sitting and twiddling his thumbs once the job really kicks off — and his superior, Frank (James Karen), is a loving husband and father suited for the role of a mentor. That is, until he spills that the events of 1968’s The Night of the Living Dead were based on fact, and that zombies left over from the incident are currently locked up in the basement.
We soon understand that Frank isn’t a brainy guy and neither is Freddy; only a few minutes into “visiting” do they foolishly unlock one of the canisters holding a foe, thereby restarting a zombie apocalypse long thought to be over.
The Return of the Living Dead is everything schlock fans could ever hope for; gory special effects never run dry, and neither do cackle inducing one-liners. Better is the wardrobe of the teens that cover the situation (try Siouxsie Sioux unsubtlety taken to the Awkward Family Photos level) and the iconic introduction of zombies who can both speak and scream about how much they’re craving for brains. If you’re looking for a more serious zombie movie — you know, the kind Romero specialized in — don’t look here. The Return of the Living Dead’s goal is not to create art but to take humorous splatter to orgasmic heights. It’s bloody, bombastic fun. B