Blog Directory CineVerse: Punk rock horror

Punk rock horror

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

In 1985, The Return of the Living Dead, directed by Dan O'Bannon and written by John A. Russo—co-collaborator with George Romero on the original Night of the Living Dead—emerged as a cult classic in the horror-comedy genre.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

What sets this film apart from other zombie fare and makes Return of the Living Dead memorable? Unlike the lumbering, slow-moving zombies popularized by Romero in his zombie movies, this work introduced a few fresh twists: Here, zombies are fast, talkative, and retain their intelligence and personalities, driven by an insatiable craving for brains, which became a hallmark of the film and a reference point in pop culture. These living dead also cannot be killed simply by a gunshot to the head; they need to be dismembered and burned.

Also, this is possibly the first and one of the only instances of a zombie film in which viewers can sympathize with the living dead. The capture and questioning of the half-zombie woman reveal that eating brains helps take away the visceral pain they feel from being dead yet alive.

Additionally, this picture effectively blends horror and gore with dark humor, delivering a unique and engaging experience for its audience. Noted for its witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and absurd scenarios, the comedy it injects sets it apart from more solemn and grave horror films of its time. Reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “George Romero uses zombies to make sweeping social metaphors; Dan O’Bannon takes his approach with a sense of caustic humor that only becomes more hilarious the darker he makes it – everything anybody in the film tries to do about the situation only ends up making it worse.”

Return of the Living Dead boasts a memorable punk rock soundtrack, as well, further contributing to its cult status. Songs by The Cramps, Roky Erickson, The Damned, and 45 Grave stand out, offering music that humorously punctuates the action and frights.

The movie helped influence future zombie films, including Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and it triggered four sequels, which speaks to its pop culture reach. The appearance of the zombies in the film drew inspiration from sources such as the mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico, and the Bog People of Wales, along with artwork from EC Comics.

The existential threat suggested by earlier zombie films takes a darker, ironic turn here. In nearly all zombie-apocalypse movies, mankind becomes outnumbered by zombies who populate exponentially as more people die or are bitten and infected; in Return of the Living Dead, the irony is that the only way to kill the undead completely is to burn them, but the ashes and vapors of the incinerated zombies get recirculated through the environment, ultimately rejuvenating more buried bodies and humans infected by these remnants. Unleashing a nuclear bomb to nullify the threat posed by an outbreak in a small urban area actually widens the crisis.

This work also expands upon zombie mythology by introducing the notion of the military, the government, and a big chemical company being responsible for creating and using a fictional chemical that inadvertently creates zombies and then trying to cover up the evidence—adding a conspiratorial element to the mythos.

While this isn’t a film replete with juicy themes, the main takeaway is clear: Human error can easily lead to inhuman catastrophe. DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “The cynical Army subplot wraps up with the brass making the same dumb mistakes as did Frank and Freddy.”

Similar works

  • George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and subsequent sequels
  • The zombie comedies Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and The Dead Don’t Die
  • The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead TV shows
  • Other reanimated dead films in the immediate years after Return of the Living Dead, including Reanimator, The Video Dead, and Braindead (Dead Alive)
  • Other 1980s horror films that cleverly blended comedy and scares, including Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Fright Night, The Blob remake, and Night of the Creeps

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