(In memory of James Karen, 1923-2018)
When I was ten years old, I watched Night of the Living Dead when my parents weren't home. I was utterly terrified, but at the same time utterly hooked on zombies. A couple years later, after I mentioned the movie, my sister asked if I'd ever seen The Return of the Living Dead. I'd never even heard of it, nor had I heard of the Romero films Dawn and Day. She brought me a copy of the movie recorded off HBO, and once again I slipped the tape into the VCR late at night... and I was completely unprepared for what came next!
The film opens with a disclaimer that the events of the film are true, and the names and organizations contained within are also real. We see three medical supply warehouse workers closing down for the day. The boss, Burt, leaves Frank in charge of the new trainee, Freddie, before heading out to enjoy his Fourth of July weekend. Frank gives Freddie a chilling grand tour, including the freezer which contains a fresh cadaver. Freddie asks Frank about the strangest thing he's ever seen, and Frank proceeds to tell Freddie that the movie Night of the Living Dead was based on a real case, and due to a shipping error, the bodies from the original accident were shipped to the warehouse. Frank leads Freddie to the basement and shows him a steel drum containing a mummified cadaver. Freddie is worried about the canister leaking, but Frank confidently slaps the barrel, accidentally releasing a toxic chemical called 2-4-5 Trioxin into the air, which reanimates anything dead in the warehouse... including the cadaver in the freezer! Meanwhile, Freddie's friends are bored and looking for a place to party, and they decide to kill time in the cemetery next to the warehouse until Freddie gets off. Discovering the reanimated cadaver, Frank calls Burt, but the men are unable to destroy the zombie, even after severing its head from its body. Burt enlists the aid of his friend, Ernie the mortician, and after swearing Ernie to secrecy, they burn the dismembered cadaver in Ernie's crematorium. This releases Trioxin into the air, which then saturates the storm clouds above, bringing contaminated rain down onto the cemetery. The contaminated rainwater seeps into the ground, reanimating the corpses and bringing about the Return of the Living Dead!
The Return of the Living Dead broke new ground in the zombie genre, introducing many popular tropes still in use today. This film was the first to give zombies the power of speech, and through that speech, we learn that they do not crave flesh as George Romero's "propoganda" films would have us believe, but brains! When interrogating a captive zombie, the protagonists learn that consuming brains makes the pain go away, as the living dead can feel themselves rotting. Previously only seen shuffling onscreen, ROTLD once again changed the rules by giving zombies the ability to run and even set traps for the living.
The cast is stellar, featuring numerous familiar faces from across the horror genre, including Linnea Quigley, Thom Matthews, John Philbin, Miguel Nuñez, Jr., Mark Venturini, and James Karen. There isn't a bad casting choice among them. Every actor, young, and old, brings something special and unique to the film, and it's easy to care about them and their fate. I pray that Hollywood never sees fit to remake this film, because the producers caught lightning in a bottle, and I don't know if that magic could ever be captured again. The film's four sequels certainly failed to do so, even with Matthews and Karen returning.
Originally, The Return of the Living Dead was intended to be a direct sequel to Night of the Living Dead, based on the novel of the same name by John Russo, Romero's partner on Night. Many of Russo's original ideas were used later in the lackluster Children of the Living Dead. Tobe Hooper was brought in to direct, but eventually bowed out and was replaced by Alien scribe Dan O'Bannon. O'Bannon sought to make the story his own, only nodding to George Romero's work rather than copying it. O'Bannon injected dark humor into the story in a manner that is often imitated, but never truly recreated, even by later entries in the series.
Of course, we can't discuss this movie without talking about the soundtrack. Return of the Living Dead is backed by an amazing compilation of punk and heavy metal from the 1980s, featuring such acts as The Cramps, Roky Erikson, and 45 Grave. 45 Grave recorded a special "zombie version" of their song Party Time for the album, memorable for setting the tone when the corpses first rise from the muddy earth in Resurrection Cemetery to chase the punks. I remember when I first stumbled across the album on CD in Barnes & Noble in the mid-90s. Being much harder to track down in those days, it was a major find for me, and it stayed in my car's CD changer for a long time.
It is with great sadness that I learned of actor James Karen's passing yesterday. I of course knew James best in his roles of Frank in this film and Ed in Return of the Living Dead Part II, but many horror fans will also recognize him as Mr. Teague, the guy who moved the gravestones but not the bodies in Poltergeist. Others will no doubt remember him as Mr. Pathmark from the Pathmark grocery store commercials. James stayed active in show business well into his 90s, and was once quoted as saying, "People don't know my name, but they know my face because I've done so damn much work." And damn fine work it was, too, Mr. Karen. Thank you for your dedication to both your work and to your fans. May you rest in peace.
I don't think I really need to tell you my verdict on this film. It's incredible. Whether you see it as a loose sequel to Night of the Living Dead or a standalone feature, The Return of the Living Dead is a masterpiece of horror that paved the way for zombies as we know them today. It's a worthy addition to any horror fan's collection, and deserves a place of honor right beside Romero's original Dead series. If you have any BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAINSSSS, you'll run (not shamble) to your nearest video store and pick this up on DVD or Blu-Ray today. I also highly recommend the documentary More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead for a look behind the scenes with many hilarious stories from the cast and crew, including the late great James Karen.