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Return of the Living Dead (1985) [Schlockoholics Anonymous]

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word schlock as something “of low quality or value.” Given the name “Schlockoholics Anonymous,” you might think that I’m simply making fun of cheesy old movies with this series of articles. That’s not entirely untrue, but I genuinely enjoy and appreciate even the most amateurishly-made movies I have written about here.

That being said, I decided to do something a little different with this latest article and write about a movie that, despite being nearly universally loved by horror fans, was what I personally considered to be “schlock” at one point. That movie is the 1985 punk zombie classic, Return of the Living Dead.

Schlockoholic Apologist

Return of the Living Dead presents itself as a pseudo-sequel to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Early in the film, a lackadaisical warehouse employee named Frank tries to impress his co-worker, Freddy, by showing off a large container that was lost by the military and ended up in the warehouse’s basement. Frank explains that the events of Romero’s classic zombie film were real, and that the container contains an honest-to-goodness zombie. Frank accidentally opens the container, causing a strange gas to leak out, which quickly reanimates a cadaver that was stored in the warehouse.

The following sequence features a naked, yellow cadaver manically chasing Freddy and Frank. (I’m so used to referring to them as “Freddy and Sweaty” that I often forget the character’s name is actually Frank!) They zombie chasing them around the warehouse is not only gut-bustingly funny, but also serves an important narrative purpose. It shows the characters and audience that this movie’s zombies aren’t sluggish, and can't be dispatched with a well-aimed headshot like the ghouls in a Resident Evil game. They’re fast and resilient. In fact, invulnerable might be the more appropriate term, since no amount of head trauma or dismemberment can kill them.

Do You Wanna Party?

While Freddy and Frank attempt to literally contain the mess they unleashed upon the world, we are introduced to Freddy’s group of friends, which is an ensemble to end all ensembles. The eclectic nature of this group of weirdos makes very little sense, but adds to the movie’s bizarre charm. I would be doing you all a disservice if I didn’t highlight some of the more ridiculous characters, so here are some introductions.

Suicide (Mark Venturini) – Suicide is the leader of the motley gang of friends, but he seems to have nothing but resentment toward them. Often heard complaining about how nobody understands him, his best line is, “You think this is a ****ing costume?! This is a way of life!” in reference to his punk attire. 

Trash (Linnea Quigley) – Trash’s hobbies are dancing naked in cemeteries and fantasizing about her own death. When she actually does die, it ends up being suspiciously identical to her preferred scenario. Zombified (and still naked) Trash quickly takes control of the growing army of zombies.

Spider (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.) – Spider is the most enthusiastic member of the group, with an attitude that’s as bold as his Jhery curl mullet. Spider’s quick thinking and skill with a sledgehammer ensure that he is one of the last remaining survivors.

“Tarman” (himself) – Not actually a member of the gang (but what if??), but worth mentioning alongside them for the chaos that it brings to the proceedings. This iconic member of the undead makes an artform of shambling and a nice meal of Suicide’s brain.

And the rest! – There are also some less memorable members of Freddy’s group of friends, such as Freddy’s girlfriend Tina, who is pretty much only there to make extremely poor decisions and cry a lot. Scuzz is a poor man’s Suicide, and Chuck and Casey look like they would rather be attending a Flock of Seagulls concert than hanging out with Freddy and co.

La Brea's Finest

Freddy’s friends look for him at the warehouse, but instead run into the aforementioned “Tarman,” who had been sealed inside the military container along with the zombifying gas. The gang escapes their encounter with the zombie, but not before it kills Suicide, who ironically complained about his friends’ lack of respect for the dead earlier.

Freddy and Frank, meanwhile, team up with their boss Burt, who suggests they visit his friend Ernie (these names are supposedly not a reference to the beloved Sesame Street duo, believe it or not) for help. Ernie works at a nearby mortuary, and helps the trio to incinerate the dismembered cadaver that attacked them earlier. Doing so causes the smoke from the remains to mix with the storm clouds hovering above, creating a sort of toxic rain that causes the dead to rise from their graves and seek out the only source of comfort they know of: the consumption of human brains.

Easter Eggs…In A Horror Movie?

The remainder of the film is a wild clash between the survivors and an ever-growing undead horde, with plenty of humor and mayhem along the way. The zombies continue to refuse to play by the rules of movie zombie logic by demonstrating a surprising amount of intelligence. In one stand-out sequence, the zombies use communication equipment within a police car and ambulance to request more police officers and paramedics, who arrive only to be ambushed by a group of the undead hiding nearby.

It’s hard not to appreciate the attention to detail in the film, with little easter eggs like an eye chart in the background of the warehouse that is barely visible in standard definition, but reads, “Burt is a slave driver and a cheap SOB…” There are some good running gags as well, such as the subtle indications that the character of Ernie is a Nazi in hiding. The movie definitely lends itself to repeat viewings.

Like a Fine Wine

RotLD is a movie that is very dear to my heart. I first saw the film when I was 18 years old, and had never seen anything like it. Its punk sensibilities and silly, irreverent humor gave me the impression that it was made haphazardly by young, up-and-coming talents with little-to no filmmaking experience. And while it was writer-director Dan O’Bannon first time directing, he was no stranger to the industry, having written 1979’s Alien, which was a bona fide classic by the time RotLD went into production.

The background of the filmmakers meant little to me at the time, however, and I initially mocked the film’s quality, laughing at the cheesy acting and rolling my eyes at the script’s self-aware nature and “sloppy” zombie rules (or lack thereof). Good or bad, the movie was undeniably entertaining, and watching it became a weekly tradition for me and my girlfriend, along with whatever family or friends were willing to join us. We would yell our favorite lines and refer to each other as various characters. It was our Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But Is Return Of The Living Dead A GOOD Movie?

As I aged, I grew to appreciate RotLD as a genuinely good movie that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to achieve. It’s actually kind of shocking to realize how few zombie movies in the last three decades have been able to lampoon the genre anywhere near as effectively as this one does. The once-shocking zombie subgenre of horror has slowly stagnated since it broke into the mainstream with AMC’s The Walking Dead series, but watching RotLD again recently was a reminder of its innovative spirit and just how ridiculously entertaining it is.

Circling back to my opening point regarding the merit of schlocky entertainment, it’s okay to allow your taste in media to evolve over time. There are movies that I was embarrassed to admit that I enjoyed when I was younger that I now proselytize, and my self-conscious rigidity probably kept me from enjoying a good number of things over the years. There’s no shame in enjoying a cheesy movie, and while I wouldn’t call Return of the Living Dead shlock anymore, it does do a damn good job of emulating it.

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