I know I’ve said this on twitter, and I’ll repeat it again here: The Return of the Living Dead is one of the best horror-based comedy films out there. It’s not a film you want to take seriously at all. While they definitely take their gore seriously, and the zombie design and effects, the script is most definitely played more as a comedy, and a tie-in to the original Night of the Living Dead, and can work as a sequel provided you don’t follow Night with Dawn or Day and go to this one instead. Think of this as the start of a “What if” scenario, but with a really dark humor twist. By the way, this is, in fact, from the same guy who wrote the original script to Alien (Dan O’Bannon).
While the lighter take on this works for the film, a lot of that has to do with some excellent timing from a bunch of great actors who are cast particularly well for the film. Clu Gulager, James Karen, and Don Calfa all make up the older part of the lead cast, and is where the bulk of the comedy comes in that’s really worth noting. While there is some in the younger cast, the characters are very much just archetypes that aren’t developed very well, even if the younger cast does have a lot of fun with it. While they’re having fun, though, the filmmakers were not shy about making sure they received an “R” rating. The brains in several scenes are real (no, not human brains), but people are eating them. They do some neat effects with a zombie that’s severely rotted and cut in half, and of course the group of teens add a helping hand to up the body count.
The basic idea of The Return of the Living Dead is that the events of Night of the Living Dead actually happened, and the film was the government’s way of covering things up. Rather than destroy the zombies or the chemicals that made them, they bottled them up and shipped the. The problem is that not all of the shipments made it where they needed to go, and a couple of paranoid guys working at a medical supply warehouse stashed them in their basement. Fast forward a number of years to 1985 and add in a guy that should know better, but wants to show off, and suddenly you’ve got a zombie outbreak. Throw in a dash of 1980s teenage stereotypes, a bizarre mortician, and some bumbling warehouse workers, and you have the recipe for a great comedy horror film.
One of the creepier aspects of the zombies in this film that you don’t see repeated too often is that they can talk. We pretty much get a play by play of what’s happening to the people who are turning while they used to be alive, and it ends up being creepy as hell in retrospect. I mean, sure, the moaning, and them coming at you is kind of upsetting, but when you have one telling you through the other side of the door how much it loves you and wants to eat your brains, it makes it so much worse, and I love The Return of the Living Dead for it.