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The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Living Dead

Dan O’Bannon

USA, 1985

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 11 September 2011

Source 35mm print

Categories American Punk

In my introduction to this feature, I made note of a few instances where movies acted as inspiration for punk rockers, but I neglected to mention The Cramps, whose pioneering psychobilly aesthetic was as deeply indebted to Z-grade horror flicks as it was rooted in punk sensibilities. When Cramps vocalist Lux Interior sang about being a human fly or a teenage werewolf with braces on his fangs, it made perfect sense. Rock and roll and monster movies have a lot in common: they’re both about making people scream, after all.

The Cramps are one of a number of punk bands to appear on the soundtrack for Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead, the thoroughly disgusting and much-beloved eighties zombie-comedy that is perhaps the most widely-known film selected to the HFA’s “American Punk” series. Yet while it is celebrated (at least in certain circles), Return constitutes something of a wild card pick in a series well stocked with films that are more obviously “punk”: documentaries that immortalize the American and British punk scenes and narrative features where characters make music, or at least actively attend shows. The punks in O’Bannon’s film are brightly colored live action cartoons with over-the-top names, as exemplified by scream queen Linnea Quigley as Trash, a morbid girl with candy apple red hair who says things like, “I like death,” and dances naked in a cemetery (the latter occurrence being a brazenly gratuitous development even by horror standards). These punks look largely inauthentic – Quigley is quite obviously wearing a wig – but that soundtrack helps Return to shore up its punk credibility. Any film where zombies crash through the windows of a chapel while The Cramps’ evilly infectious tune “Surfin’ Dead” booms on the soundtrack is doing something to earn its punk rock stripes.

Indeed, the film’s transgressive and extraordinarily macabre sense of humor is enough to do Lux Interior proud. (One of my notes from the screening rather unhelpfully reads: “The corpses—so funny.”) The biggest name in the film is Clu Gulager, who demonstrates the same gift for sick humor here as he did in Don Siegel’s version of The Killers two decades prior. As Burt, the less-than-ethical owner of the medical supply warehouse where the zombie contagion originates, he ably bounces off the other veteran members of the cast, Don Calfa and James Karen, who play a mortician and a warehouse employee. O’Bannon gives us a heaping helping of pre-Evil Dead II splatstick – a headless body careens around a room; beleaguered humans fumble about in hysterics – and laces it with satire. Set during Fourth of July weekend, The Return of the Living Dead takes a jaundiced view of eighties America, where hapless adults make things worse in an effort to hide their mistakes, and spiky-haired kids insist they have “something to say” but never quite articulate what it is.

I watched The Return of the Living Dead immediately following the HFA’s screening of The Decline of Western Civilization, and it was interesting to note how the figurative decay depicted in the latter echoed through the quite literal decay on display in the former. Return may be hilarious, but it’s also one of the most pessimistic films I have ever seen, with one of horror’s most nihilistic endings. Its characters’ lives are a bit like punk songs—nasty, brutish, and short. O’Bannon has summoned up a world of cannibalism and chemical spills and military experiments gone awry, where he unleashes the most gruesome scenarios imaginable and then plays them for laughs. The zombies are all-but-impossible to destroy: when hacked to bits, they lie in wriggling pieces. After breathing in toxic gas, two of his characters die but remain conscious, feeling their bodies begin to succumb to rigor mortis. A captured zombie explains why she lusts for human brains: it’s the only thing that alleviates the pain of feeling herself rot. (Another one of my notes from the screening: “Things get worse and worse and worse and worse.”) Early in the film, we glimpse a lyric from “God Save the Queen” spray-painted on the boarded gates of the aptly named Resurrection Cemetery: “NO FUTURE.” There are few, if any films that can be said to offer an interpretation of those words as grim and as literal as that of The Return of the Living Dead.

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