By the mid-1980s, the zombie films of George A. Romero had been ripped-off from virtually every imaginable angle, and attached to any number of bastardised "sequels"; this was mostly thanks to the efforts of the Italian horror movie industry, which had produced a truly inspiring number of awful hangers-on to Dawn of the Dead, known in that country as Zombi. The English-speaking world had far less in the way of post-Romero zombie movies (that is, ones in which the zombies are ravenous cannibals, and not just dead-eyed voodoo creations); Bob Clark's Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things from 1973 is just about the only still-prominent example I can think of. That finally changed in 1985, thanks to a quirky bit of back-room dealing that's almost as warped as the chain of events that led to a film that could be simultaneously titled Zombie and Zombi 2.

In 1968, Romero's Night of the Living Dead came out and revolutionised cinema history, we all know that. Now, besides Romero himself, one of the key architects of this revolution was the film's co-writer, John Russo. I don't know what kind of man Russo was, but something happened between him and Romero that led to the two men severing ties after NotLD's success. That film's popularity made the sequel rights a matter of no small value, but Romero and Russo were unlikely to ever come to parity over a future zombie film, so the end result of some legal wrangling was that Romero owned the formulation "[Time] of the Dead", while Russo ended up with the phrase "Living Dead". And that is why, 17 years later, NotLD got its second official follow-up, The Return of the Living Dead.

Russo could write; but he wasn't a filmmaker. Thus, after completing a first draft, he called in some help from a couple of people who, to say the least, knew their way around in horror: writer Dan O'Bannon, of Alien, and director Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In order to ensure that they wouldn't be putting their name to just another Romero clone, those two drastically reconceived Russo's original scenario, most notably by adding comedy to it. Eventually, Hooper left to direct the O'Bannon-scripted Lifeforce, and O'Bannon took over the directing duties on RotLD himself, despite having no experience in that area whatsoever. It worked out well for all involved: the film tripled its production cost, received terrifically positive reviews for a zombie film, and earned enough goodwill from horror fans that, 25 years later, it's a beloved classic.

The Return of the Living Dead gets things off to a good start by announcing in its very first shot what kind of movie we're going to be watching. Or its second shot, depending on how you define a "shot". The film opens with urgent white text on black, declaring, "The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations." Then we cut to a sign for a place called Uneeda Medical Supply.

That kind of broad silliness will remain with us for the rest of the film. It's July 3, 1984, in Louisville, Kentucky, and a young man named Freddy (Thom Mathews) is being trained on his first day at Uneeda by the old hand Frank (James Karen), who takes some delight in grossing out his new co-worker, taking time to show off the bisected halves of dogs and medical cadavers hanging in a refrigerator. As the tour comes to a close, Frank asks if Freddy has ever heard of a little film called Night of the Living Dead... well, would you believe it if it turned out that the movie was based on true events, hushed up by the government, that occurred in 1969. The fact that NotLD came out the year prior doesn't seem to bother either Frank or Freddy (O'Bannon made a very conscious choice to get the date wrong). Long story short, the experimental chemical 245 Trioxin that really caused those corpses to reanimate in Pennsylvania ended up in the Uneeda basement, through bureaucratic error; when Frank gives one of the drums filled with Trioxin (and the remains of one of the zombies) a good whack, he busts its seam, and that pretty much takes care of the plot: I'll just mention that there's a crematorium and graveyard just next door to Uneeda, and let you work out the details yourself. Adding to the body count, Freddy's girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) has come to pick him up from work, along with all of their death-punk friends (neither Tina nor Freddy is punk in even the remotest degree, which I take to be another of the film's gags), and they're hanging out in the graveyard, listening to their death-punk tunes and being generally profane; especially Trash, a girl who spends virtually the entire film naked but for leg warmers (she was played by the famously nudity-prone Linnea Quigley, here in the role that made her a B-picture icon). Oh, and this is the movie that first gave us the idea that zombies hunt humans for our delicious braaaaaiiiiinnssssss.

Few directors not named Sam Raimi were ever this outstandingly good at mixing cartoon-style silly humor with outrageous amounts of gory horror; it's a pity that O'Bannon didn't pursue directing after this film, because he had an exemplary intuitive sense for cinema. The tone in a movie like this is virtually impossible to get right, at least judging from all the people who got it wrong (including Tobe Hooper, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 the following year), but O'Bannon makes it look easy: the laughs are genuine, the scares are at least sufficiently visceral, and more often than not, both the laughs and the scares occur at the exact same time. Yet there's never a sense that the film is meant to be taken as a goof. It's deadly serious, which should always be true of both comedy and horror, though it's rarely true of either.

It's obvious that a lot of care went into RotLD, which takes place in an unusually well-realised world; but the detail of the mise en scène is never stressed or insisted upon. It just is. So it's up to the viewer to notice or ignore grace notes like the display of pinned zombie butterflies, or the fake eye chart in the Uneeda employee office, and all the other bits around the edge of the film that give it a lived-in, well-worn feeling. The point is that those details start to add up even if you're not paying attention, and thus RotLD has a much fuller background to it, one that suggests depth and realism, than the great majority of even very good horror films. So again, I must bemoan the fact that O'Bannon didn't do this more often.

It's just plain good: well-designed, well-acted (some of the other notable cast members include Clu Gulager and Michael A. Nunez, Jr.), both very goofy and very pointed in equal measure (it ends with a dollop of political satire that does Romero's films proud), it has a soundtrack that could almost make you fall in love with death-punk, and it boasts some of the most accomplished zombie effects ever: not for nothing has the Tarman zombie - played well enough by Allan Trautman to get him a job as a Muppeteer - has become one of the subgenre's most iconic figures. He's marvelous, and the film around him is terrifically entertaining; not just a cockeyed tribute to Romero's masterpieces, but a pretty savvy, well-crafted social satire-cum-exploitation flick-cum-slapstick comedy in its own right.

Reviews in this series
The Return of the Living Dead (O'Bannon, 1985)
Return of the Living Dead, Part II (Wiederhorn, 1988)
Return of the Living Dead III (Yuzna, 1993)
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (Elkayem, 2005)
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (Elkayem, 2005)