Most people don’t have perfect memories. Details get blurred, forgotten, or flat out exchanged. For example, the iconic line “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” in Jaws was actually, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and so on. I bring this up today because while most of the Return of the Living Dead series is completely forgettable, one element of it seems to have been associated with Mr. George A Romero’s movies and has flavored how the public thinks of zombies. Just little things I’ve noticed during October of the Living Dead.
On July 3, 1984, disaster strikes. Two workers at a medical supply warehouse (Thom Mathews and James Karen) accidentally crack a vat filled with 245-Trioxin, the mysterious substance that supposedly was responsible for the real story in 1969 that Night of the Living Dead was based on. Never mind that Night came out in 1968–what matters is that a medical cadaver has been exposed to the gas and is now running around trying to eat them. The two call their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager who was the bartender in the Feast trilogy), and they’re able to subdue to the zombie and cut it up since damaging the brain doesn’t stop it. Hell, cutting it to pieces doesn’t either, but it’s harder to run around when your legs are separated from your body. They takes the parts to a nearby funeral parlor and burn the body in the crematorium, and that’s that! Problem solved! Except no, not at all. The two workers who had been exposed to the gas die when they’re not paying attention, which is horrifying to them since they still think they’re alive. Also the smoke released from burning the corpse mixes with clouds and rains Trioxin all over the nearby graveyard. A group of punks get stuck there when the living dead rise up and go after them, picking most of them off. The mortuary employee, Ernie (Don Calfa), grabs a shambling torso and interrogates it–oh, yeah, the zombies can talk as well as run and make plans–finding out that the zombies crave brains because eating them temporarily eases the pain of being dead. Things escalate quickly and Burt is forced to call the military, who had lost track of the vat some time ago. A nuclear strike is called on the area and a sizable section of Louisville, Kentucky is destroyed. Problem solved! Except no, not at all. The incinerated remains of the dead create new Trioxin rain clouds, expanding the zombie problem. Oops!
I’ve been asking people to describe stereotypical zombies, and I’ve generally gotten the same answers: slow and stupid reanimated dead that crave brains. This widespread concept is actually a combination of both Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead, even if most people forgot that the secondary spin-off franchise existed. The slow and stupid parts come from Night while most zombie adaptations ignore their capability for learning. But Return‘s fast and fairly intelligent zombies are generally forgotten while craving brains is absolutely a staple. I at least find this hybridization fascinating.
As for the movie itself, it’s… odd. It’s a bit of a comedy with most of the jokes landing, although nothing is super hilarious. A heterosexual associate of mine vividly remembers the movie because of Trash, played by scream queen Linnea Quigley. She at first stands out because she’s got bright red dyed hair, but her iconic scene is describing how awful it would be if a group of men attacked and started eating her, all while stripping in a graveyard. Yeah, I can see why he would fixate on that. She gets turned, of course, but doesn’t really have any standout moments as a zombie other than sultrily walking naked towards one of her victims. Most of the “kids” are 80’s punks, but a couple of them appear to be some flavor of preppy, making me wonder how they all know one another. It’s not like they like each other, as Suicide (Mark Venturini, the guy who kicks off the main plot via murder in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning) constantly points out. I adored him so of course he was the one of the first in the group to have his brains eaten.
Also, Ernie is a Nazi? The undertaker has a bunch of little things you notice that start adding up to the idea that he’s an ex-Nazi living under the radar. Apparently this was the intent, according to director Dan O’Bannon. You know, the guy behind Dark Star! I guess he also wrote some little indie film called Alien, but it’s not like anyone’s ever heard of that.
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