In 1986, Alien Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made a deal to direct (he had directed a short film seventeen years earlier) a film. He was to make an unofficial sequel of sorts to Night of the Living Dead.
An effects heavy zombie film, the big twist of the Return of the Living Dead is it is a comedy. A gory one, but a comedy none the less. We are quickly introduced to Frank and Freddy, employees of a medical supply company. After Burt (the boss) leaves for the weekend, Frank starts to show Freddy around, skeletons, half dogs and cadavers and the like. He also tells Freddy that they have some canisters with real zombies (and proceeds to proclaim the Night of the Living Dead was a real thing, just altered for the film). They look at the canisters and accidentally release an ominous gas. When they wake up, they find all the dead things seeming to be alive. This leads to some hilarity as they call Burt in and the three try and fix the problem.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s girlfriend Tina is hanging out with her friends (a bunch of punks) in a graveyard waiting for Freddy to get done with work. This includes a bizarre moment Trash (Scream Queen Linnea Quigley), obsessed with death starts expressing a fantasy of being eaten alive (foreshadowing, folks)…she then strips and dances upon a tombstone. Burt, Frank and Freddy go across the street with a cut up cadaver and check in with mortician Ernie. They ask to use the crematorium to dispose of rabid weasels. But as the body burns, it creates more ominous smoke which causes a storm and in turn the rain soaks the ground, re-animating the graveyard.
What follows is the characters trying to survive the hoards of zombies. Everyone gets trapped in the mortuary or the medical supply warehouse. The film finds a lot of humor in it’s gruesome subject. Thom Mathews (Freddy) and James Karen (Frank) have a great rapport and are very entertaining as the two discover they are slowly turning into zombies. Really, the entire cast is entertaining. Along with Mathews and Karen, Clu Gulager (Burt) and Don Calfa (Ernie…get it?) are very funny. It helps that everyone seems to be in on the joke, leading to fun performances.
The effects are terrific, still holding up for the most part. There is one especially well done zombie effect with a “half” zombie. Another memorable character is the Tar Man…a slimy decomposing zombie. The actor in the outfit moves with a creepy fluidity. The film actually pays little attention to traditional film zombie lore. They cannot be killed by damaging the brain, even cutting them up, the zombie parts all act independently. The zombies can also talk. This is one of the first incidents of zombies being focused on eating brains (In Romero’s films, they just want to eat flesh). And they constantly announce “Brains!” But they can form sentences. One zombie even explains why they desire to eat brains.
Oh, there are some question to ask…for example, why, after being eaten alive, is Zombie Linnea Quigley have not a single bite…instead she has perfect porcelain skin. How can the zombies with no lips (some zombies do, some don’t) say stuff like “Brains” and “More Brains”?
Shout!Factory released a Blu-Ray special edition through their Scream!Factory imprint. It is loaded with special features. There are four audio commentaries (two are brand new), zombie subtitles (which is an amusing feature for a short time, featuring subtitles like “Arggh” whenever zombies speak), an extensive documentary “More Brains: Return to the Living Dead”, a final interview with the late O’Bannon and many more features.
The picture (from a 2K scan) is clean and looks good. The two disc set is worthy of any fan’s collection.