*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen this movie, so...SPOILERS.
I had planned on revisiting this movie to fill the zombie portion of my Halloween Month series, and since James Karen just passed away, it makes even more sense to look back at this hilarious, awesome zombie movie. I already had most of the article planned out, so I’ll use the introduction to praise Karen’s performance.
James Karen is one of those “that guy” actors, but for me, he’s Frank from The Return of the Living Dead. His scenes with Freddy when they first unleash the zombie outbreak are the highlight of the film, mainly due to Karen’s insane performance. James Karen stated before that this was the most fun he ever had making a movie, and it’s easy to believe when you watch these scenes. The script is funny enough during these moments (telling Freddy to watch his mouth if he wants to keep his job...while a cadaver has come back to life and is beating on the door), but his amplified performance makes these scenes so much better. He is just losing it from start to finish. This is funny on its own, but it becomes even better when he calls Burt, since he has to calm himself down to talk to the boss. To see him go from raving lunatic (“What are we gonna do?!” “Ahhh! We’re going to kill it!”) to nonchalant (“Burt? Frank. We have a little problem.”) is hilarious. James Karen will be missed, but he left an extensive body of work to revisit. I know I’ll be watching this performance many more times in the future.
A zombie movie for fans of zombie movies.
George Romero’s Dead series will always be #1 in my book when it comes to zombie movies. But one issue I’ve had with Romero’s films and subsequent “serious” zombie movies and shows is that apparently zombie movies do not exist in the world of zombie movies and shows. Romero can be forgiven since his films all took place within the same outbreak, but other properties have no excuse for characters being completely flummoxed by the dead coming back to life.
Think about it. If dead people started coming back to life and eating the living, we would all certainly be shocked, but we would also be thinking, “Zombies! Aim for the head!” Once again, this isn’t so much of a problem in Romero’s universe, but in other movies it gets annoying watching characters slowly figure out what’s going on. Why not just let them have prior zombie knowledge like the rest of us?
Also, let’s face facts: zombies are funny. That’s why I love zombie movies. They’re goofy. Who hasn’t stumbled around moaning, “Braaaaaaiiiiiiiins!” around Halloween? But zombies don’t talk. And zombie movies aren’t comedies. All that changed with The Return of the Living Dead.
It’s not like Return is a straightforward comedy like Zombieland or Warm Bodies, but it’s still funnier than those movies because of how the characters respond to the outbreak. First off, they reference Night of the Living Dead. And yes, they are talking about it as an actual event and not a movie, but it functions as both. As an event, it’s the reason for the barrels of zombies in the basement. As a movie, it’s the reason why they use the word zombie and know to go for the head (even though that doesn’t really work out for them). It’s still funny for the characters to respond to a zombie outbreak the same way we would.
What makes Return really funny is every character’s reactions. Whether it’s a total freak out (Frank and Freddy) or businesslike (Burt), it’s all funny. It’s funny because of the juxtaposition of people losing their minds while others treat the zombies like a common flu outbreak. Some people want to just cower in the corner and despair for the world while others want to gather up body parts and take them to their ex-Nazi (check out the decor on Ernie’s walls) crematorium buddy to destroy them.
The violence is played for laughs, too. Frank beating the half-dog with a crutch, the goofy headless zombie body, the noise the zombie makes as they saw through its neck, etc. It’s all gross and at times even disturbing, but it’s always funny. Well, it’s funny if you have a zombie sense of humor.
Which brings me to the zombies themselves. They talk! As I mentioned before, who hasn’t imitated a zombie saying, “Brains”? But this is one of the first times a movie had zombies that talked. It would be funny enough if they only said, “Brains,” but it’s hilarious when a zombie gets on the radio and asks for more paramedics, like someone ordering pizza.
Return just felt like the first time I saw a zombie movie made by someone who loved zombie movies and wanted to make something for the fans. And by doing so, the filmmakers may have made one of the most realistic zombie movies ever.
Nuking Louisville and other realistic responses to a zombie outbreak.
This movie starts with the hilarious title card above. Sure, it works as a joke on multiple levels, from claiming a movie about zombies in which a major city is nuked actually happened to making fun of the annoying habit of horror films to claim they are based on any kind of truth. But it’s fitting that the film begins with this claim because I think it might be one of the most realistic zombie movies ever made.
Let’s start with the end: Louisville, Kentucky getting nuked. First off, I live an hour away from Louisville, so it was always funny to me and my friends to see a city we know so well to be not only mentioned but nuked in a movie we liked. Let’s ignore for the moment that they claim the nuke did minimal damage (only 4,000 dead and the fallout contained by the rain) even though you see the blastwave destroy homes miles away from the impact. Ignoring all that, this is the most logical thing for the military to do in the case of such an outbreak. Sure, they don’t account for the rain actually spreading the outbreak, but it seems like a logical government solution to a zombie outbreak. Also, I love that all of this is done by calling the number on the side of a barrel.
Beyond the destruction of a midwest city, there are plenty of other elements that I found realistic that actually tie in with what made this movie funny to me. People would freak out, of course, but you would also have plenty of Burts out there, too, more worried about their reputation and loss of business.
Also, in most zombie movies no one ever calls them zombies which is unrealistic. So simply using the word “zombie” makes this movie more credible than most. Seriously, stop calling them walkers, biters, etc. We all know what they are: zombies!
The characters know what zombies are, so they attempt to kill them based on what happened in Night of the Living Dead. This is also realistic. I know that if a zombie uprising occurred in my town, I would assume that massive head trauma would kill the zombies permanently. There’s no scientific reason for me to think this; I would just be operating on pop culture knowledge. That might be stupid, but it’s not unrealistic. That said, I would never naked party in a cemetery or saw off the head of a cadaver that just came back to life. If I wasn’t home already when the zombies attacked, I would head that way as soon as possible. I would be more of a Freddy than a Burt.
Maybe I’m wrong and the zombie apocalypse would be a much more somber affair. But if it happened under the circumstances it did in this film, I think it would play out just as it does in the movie. And sure, none of it would be funny to us in the moment, but you know the first few hours of a zombie outbreak would be pretty damn zany. It wouldn’t be one of those “Someday we’ll laugh about this” situations (mainly because everyone would probably die), but us zombie movie fans would be able to appreciate the humor among the horror. That’s what makes The Return of the Living Dead so special. The filmmakers knew the zombie apocalypse would be pretty funny.
Do I regret buying this?
Nope. This is another one I’ve purchased twice now. I had it on DVD and recently upgraded to the special edition blu ray. By the way, the special features are pretty damn extensive. There are multiple commentaries, and there’s a great documentary that’s longer than the actual movie.
All skeletons come from India.
“I like death.”
“I like death and sex!”
“He got a job? What a dick!”
“Leak? Hell, no. These things are made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers!”
The punks are hilarious. Everyone is so over the top.
Talking about the half-dog on the floor: “What are we going to do?!”
“We're going to kill it!”
Burt is pretty damn calm about a zombie outbreak.
That headless corpse is hilarious. The image alone is funny, but when it rises up it seems to look around before it runs off. Also, it has a Ricky Bobby situation as it does not appear to know what to do with its hands.
“Watch that third step. It's a bitch.”
Chekhov's bitch of a third step…
The main theme/zombie ash spreading music is very Carpenter-esque. Or maybe I just have Carpenter on the brain.
I love the skeleton opening its mouth right as “Do you want to party?” starts on the soundtrack.
Talking zombies are the best.
“I don't have to tell you anything, dick brain.”
It's pronounced Lou Uh Vull, not Lou E Veel.
The movie does a montage of its own scenes at the end...I like it. More movies should do this.