In 1968 George A. Romero's first film, the seminal classic Night of the Living Dead, was released unto an unsuspecting public. The film spawned 3 direct sequels (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead) all of which were directed by Romero. Casual horror movie may have never previously noticed, but there is a subtle but distinct change in the naming scheme of the series beginning with the second installment. As part of an agreement with the somewhat lesser known Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo, Romero could go on tell more stories in the same universe, but Russo exclusively would retain the rights to use of the phrase "-of the Living Dead."
Return of the Living Dead is a cleverly developed concept from Russo that does not entirely forsake the Romero classic that came before it. The premise of Return of the Living Dead is based on the idea that the events that transpired in the original Night of- film were based on real events. As a character in the first act explains, the basics regarding reanimated corpses were true, but the filmmaker was forced by the military to change people's names and some facts regarding the basis of the outbreak. This scene retelling the release of the original film is sufficient homage to that which came before it but still allows for some new, fun twists along the way.
The film begins in a medical supply warehouse with the old caretaker relating the true story nature of the "Night of the Living Dead" zombie outbreak to a new employee. The old caretaker knows the truth of the story because their warehouse accidentally received a shipment consisting of a metal drum containing a bodyfrom the supposed outbreak. A mishap occurs and the metal drum is punctured, releasing the deadly reanimating agent 2,4,5 Trioxin into the basement. The gas spreads through the ducting system and ends up reanimating a corpse stored in the upper levels of the building. Eventually they corpse ends up dismembered and the owner of the medical supply warehouse calls in a favor with an old friend working at the local mortuary. They burn the still wriggling pieces in the furnace but end up releasing the reanimating gas into the atmosphere through the resulting smoke. A torrential thunderstorm carries the gas into the soil of the local cemetery releasing a horde of nigh-unstoppable, brain-craving ghouls.
The story follows two separate groups of people, the aforementioned warehouse employees, and a group of punkish teenagers partying in said local cemetery. These younger characters are most definitely a product of the times, sporting a mishmash of giant 80's hair, leather jackets with chains, and styling mohawks. The collection of young actors do a suitable job playing the collection of fodder for the hungry monsters. Of special mention is 1980's scream queen Linnea Quigley playing the role that most every teenage male will remember her for; the young, nimble nymphomaniac, Trash. In a role that helped solidified her legend, Quigley sheds her clothes in a full frontal dancing scene about 20 minutes into the film and remains essentially naked for the entire runtime, even in scenes after her transformation into a zombie. Stories of theater audiences cheering every time Quigley came on screen, incredulous of the fact that this girl could possibly still be completely naked, are passed down amongst fans even today.
Return of the Living Dead departs from the standard Romero-Zombie mythos in several significant ways. Amongst the most noticeable to horror fans may be the ways that the zombies act and are dispatches. Foremost amongst these changes is the origins of one of the oldest zombie cliches. When asked what a zombie says, most anyone would immediately respond "Brains! Braaaaaains!" Despite this, the classic Romero-Zombie is incapable of speech. Not so in Return of the Dead. In fact, this may be the film that solidified that particular turn of phrase in the collective consciousness of pop culture. In another departure, these zombies do not just crave the flesh of the living, they crave the brain specifically and are quite vocal about their digestive needs.
Another major departure that many casual horror fans think is a recent invention of modern films like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) is the fast-moving zombie. In actuality, this particular zombie convention can be traced back to much earlier in the time-line of the genre. Return of the Living Dead features these fast moving zombies and even does one better over their contemporary counterparts; these zombies have intelligence. Although in later films the Romero-Zombies learned to use simple tools, these zombies show complex problem solving skills almost immediately, setting up traps and luring still-living victims into their midst using police and emergency radios. Worse still, the zombies in Return of the Living Dead are essentially unstoppable juggernauts that can only be destroyed by incinerating their bodies (or high electrical current, as in the sequel to this film). Destroying the brain or removing the head doesn't help as the rest of the reanimated body keeps coming.
Even with all the changes to the zombie mythos, the largest departure from the Romero films are found within the other components of the film, most notably to tone. The excess nudity on display here, a quality not found in any of the Romero films, is but one example of this shift in alignment. Return of the Living Dead is much more comedic, featuring elements of both black humor and slapstick. The score of the film consists almost entirely of popular heavy metal songs and also adds to the more light-hearted feel of the movie. Despite this, the film is still capable of producing an atmosphere of terror and dread. The constant screaming and moaning of the undead serve as a constants reminder of their presence and transforms the horde into an intangible entity even when off-screen. The only valid complaint I can lodge at the film is that its ending, while consistent with the internal logic of the unfolding events, comes entirely too suddenly and without enough build up.
The Bottomline: Given that my only major complaint is that Return of the Living Dead's 90-minute runtime is simply too short, you can guess that I was no less than thoroughly entertained by the film. With this film John Russo proved there was room for more than just Romero's vision of zombies within the horror genre.