ZOMBIE ALERT: The following review may contain spoilers as well as spoiled flesh. If you have never seen the film being discussed, as a cautionary note it is advised that you might want to use your brains- while they are still intact -to determine whether you wish to continue.
Dan O’Bannon’s “The Return of the Living Dead” is a surprisingly funny film as long as it pays both homage to and deconstructs the myths about George Romero’s seminal 1968 thriller “Night of the Living Dead”. However, when the mass assault of the undead kicks into high gear, while still having the occasional jolt or comic twist that comes out of left field (including a reanimated corpse who is wittily motivated to call over a recently ambushed ambulance crew’s radio to “send more paramedics”) it both descends into standard horror tropes and reveals the dirty little secret of all “zombie” films: once the munching starts and the barricades go up, there’s really no place to go with the formula.
Which is a shame, as up to that point the film is a sharp satirical of elemental horror movie tropes which go bang, boo and squish in the dark. The early rhythms of the film are so quick, you find yourself laughing at the verbal and visual gags before you even realize how silly the set ups are; a small triumph of solid, witty writing and fortuitous performances of genuine comic gusto by veteran character actor James Karen and movie newcomer Thom Mathews who are appropriately cast as veteran Frank and newly hired Freddy, a pair of employees of the Uneeda Medical Supply Co., who inadvertently unleash the gaseous contents of a sealed drum which according to Frank contains the evidential link to the “true story” on which Romero’s film was based.
It seems that what was originally targeted at Deadheads, in effect, revived dead heads: a militarily contracted chemical toxin intended to destroy marijuana was released in a VA hospital, reanimating several corpses in the morgue; the remains of which have been inadvertently shipped to Uneeda, sealed in barrels where, for years, they have remained untouched in the basement, that is until accidentally breached by Frank, rendering both he and Freddy “unconscious”, with the remaining vapor escaping through the building’s ventilation system, reviving a cadaver as well as the odd split dog and assortment of mounted butterflies.
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