The Returning Dead

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Ah the 80s, how I miss those years… (Kinda)

The way people dressed, the music they listened to, and, the classic films that they made and watched. One such film I remember for the reoccurring nightmares it gave me as a kid was The Return of the Living Dead (1985).

For a while now I’ve made it my mission to watch every zombie film that has been made that I can easily get a copy of. Especially with The Walking Dead now on TV making it so popular and giving me such withdrawals when a season finally comes to an end. Basically, I need to get my zombie fix and rather than watching the same classic films or modern ones, I decided to hunt down those that I’ve never heard of and seen. There have been quite a few I wish I had NEVER watched due to how awful they are, but also, there have been some uncovered gems as well.

As I seem to find and have to watch even more zombie films for me to complete my recommended list(s) of zombie flicks to watch. I decided to just focus on the very first Zombie film I ever saw and the sequels it spawned instead for the time being. So, here goes…

The Return of the Living Dead (1985) 8/10

Return of the Living Dead - 1985IMDB Blurb: “When a bumbling pair of employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release a deadly gas into the air, the vapors cause the dead to re-animate as they go on a rampage through Louisville, Kentucky seeking their favorite food, brains.”

After Night of the Living Dead, Romero and his partner Russo had a dispute on how sequels to the film would be handled. They came to the agreement that each would do their own take in way of sequels, with Romero ending his titles in dead and Russo ending his with living dead. Thus after some convoluted time, Russo’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead, The Return of the Living Dead, was finally made into a film.

This is a great film that though not as “serious” in horror tone to Night (being more comedic) is still at the heart of it a social commentary on the ills of society — but more satirically handled. Some of the “made for a teen audience market” effects go a little too far – like the zombie skeleton coming out of the grave cheap-scare scene. And perhaps with hindsight the more decayed zombies probably couldn’t run without breaking their legs off. But generally the idea that the dead remember who they were and the lives they have lived, and feel their bodies rotting away, and the only thing in the world that will ease this pain is to eat fresh human brains — something they crave like strung-out addicts. Well, if that doesn’t make you want to watch it then the classic 80s punk rock soundtrack should.

However, this is the film that is the cause of everyone always assuming that with every zombie film that it is all about zombies apparently wanting to eat brains. Actually, it’s thanks to The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror III episode segment: “Dial ‘Z’ for Zombies.” It has the zombie apocalypse in Springfield brought about by Lisa and Bart using an occult book to attempt to bring back Snowball I, however it goes wrong, and they accidentally reanimate corpses from the nearby human cemetery instead. Which starts the running brain eating gag(s) clearly influenced by ROTLD — and NOT the Night of the Living Dead as is claimed — and clearly the most seen pop reference to it and zombie films in general.

You can tell in that whenever they advertise and try to market anything to do with zombies, some idiot will put up a sign that says something along the lines of “Brains, Brains, braaiiiinnnsss!” This is the quickest way to turn me off of buying anything zombie related that is not to do with this film – it regularly happens with The Walking Dead, clearly by some marketing / sales idiot who has NEVER watched a single episode. As clearly the idiot who is trying to get me to buy whatever it is, doesn’t know the product at all and how insulting it is to assume that I’m as big an idiot as they are.

Harsh, but there it is folks.

I still like watching this film to this day, even if some of the special effects aren’t great and much is implausible. For example, even if they were super-human in strength like someone on a lot of meth, and not accounting for their decaying muscles and bones. They would NOT be able to chomp on through someone’s skull and into their brains. It would more than likely not happen along with their teeth being busted out of their mouths from their deranged efforts. But still, it is B-Grade gory fun to watch.

Anyway, I think someone should really consider rebooting Return of the Living Dead. Someone willing to do it justice via a decent budget, script, cast, crew and director.

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) 6/10

Return of the Living Dead - 1988IMDB Blurb: “In this sequel to The Return of the Living Dead, a group of kids discover one of the drums containing a rotting corpse and release the 2-4-5 Trioxen gas into the air, causing the dead to once again rise from the grave and seek out brains.”

The sequel wasn’t too bad even if it was perhaps too much a copy of the original. It actually had better zombie effects and gore – some like the hand in the car, could have been handled a bit better as you can see the guys wrist painted black. It was more so aimed at a teen audience due to the lighter tone — lack of any social commentary for the most part — and a stronger emphasis on trying to be comedic in a slapstick way. The alcoholic Doc Mendel as a character, is actually quite funny.

I in particular find the sequel interesting in that it has a lot of sexual subtext to the plot that I don’t think many people pick up on — perhaps not even the writer / director. The two clear examples are the Archie (Billy) and Jugghead (Johnny) neighborhood kids that want the newly arrived to the neighborhood younger protagonist (Jesse) to join their gang of two by being “initiated” at the clubhouse — a cemetery mausoleum that clearly has a couple of soiled mattresses inside (hint, hint). And after Billy is turned into a zombie he continues to obsessively chase after hard-to-get Jesse, the one that got away (hint, hint).

There is also Joey who wants to eat Brenda’s brains, chasing and then cornering her in the church. He pleads with her and finally she relents when he says: “Honey, it’s only me.” Kinda like how a teenage girl will finally give into her teenage boyfriend’s pressure to let him pop her cherry. He moves in like he’s going to kiss her, but then quickly moves up to crunch on her skull and eat her brains – he is really only interested in one thing, after all. At first she looks like she isn’t going to like it but then she seems to come around, like she actually likes it after all – kinda like something else (hint, hint).

All very sexual and aimed at a sexually frustrated and exploratory teen audience.

The sequel also “tweaked” the zombie formula in that in the previous film the only way to “kill” a zombie was to completely destroy it. A bullet to the brain was useless as the rest of the body would still be animated and jerking about alive. Which was kind of humorous in that there is a scene where they cut up a body only to have it all jumbling about as if alive, hands grasping onto things like a reflex action bordering on having a mind of its own. Why they try and cremate the body thinking it will destroy it only to result in making the problem much worse as the Trioxin compound rains on back down upon the cemetery.

In the sequel they added in that you could kill a zombie if you zapped them with enough volts. Basically frying them back into a lifeless corpse. Interesting I suppose however, this was the start of the end I think as it gave the director of the next flick license to do what he wanted to do with the film. Plus you lost the premise of the only way they could be destroyed was to obliterate the body and hope that it doesn’t leach into the ground somehow and reanimate a cemetery of corpses all over again.

The B Grade moral of the story of sorts.

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The beginning of the end…

The other sequels really all go downhill from there, starting with Brian Yuzna’s craptacular in the form of Return of the Living Dead 3 where he completely screws up the zombie formula (the mechanics by which they work by) not to mention really lowers the quality bar – I spotted the boom mic in at least 2 scenes, nice one!

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) 4/10

Return of the Living Dead 2 - 1993

IMDB Blurb: “Colonel Reynolds and his group of government scientists continue their work on re-animating the dead for military use. His son Curt and his girlfriend Julie use Dad’s security pass to sneak in and watch the proceedings. Later when father and son have a disagreement, Curt and Julie take off on a motorcycle and Julie is killed in an accident. Grief-stricken, Curt takes her body to the lab and brings her back to life. Curt must help Julie deal with her new existence as military agents and local gang members try to find them.”

This is a film that I actually liked as a kid, for some of the concepts and themes, and the fact that it has a more or less bare-breasted zombie chick throughout the majority of the film. Turns out that it’s a special effects piece made of the actress’ breasts, not actually her breasts that you see; that actress is Melinda Clarke and upon doing this movie swore she would never do another horror film again – I gave the film another point for that.

Upon seeing it again, more recently and much older, I no longer like this movie at all. They made a mistake in choosing Brian Yuzna as a director, who though did some interesting horror work before – Re-animator (1985) and Society (1989) – didn’t quite get the original ROTLD film and tried to basically turn this into another Re-animator film by screwing with the zombie formula beyond recognition, along with, injecting in a romance-drama element to the stiff and brainless plot for a teen audience — crazy chick tits for the boys, forbidden-love hopelessly doomed romance for the girls.

In the first in order to become a zombie, you needed to be affected by the Trioxin gas. Bites do not turn you into a zombie, only the chemical can, which implausibly seems to be able to multiply by having a reanimated corpse cremated and that smoke from it entering the atmosphere to cause Trioxin “acid” rain. But hey, it was the Regean era 80s of Star Wars ICBM defense shields and cold war propaganda and paranoia, when anything was possible. In this film bites “infect” you and zombies end up looking a lot like the weird creations of Herbert West in Re-animator. Nice if it were a Re-animator film, not so if it is a Return of the Living Dead film.

This film I think was the first to not even break even at the box office. Basically a complete failure.

Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005) 5/10

Return of the Living Dead 4 - 2005

IMDB Blurb: “A group of teenagers who, in an attempt to rescue their friend from an evil corporation, end up releasing a horde of blood thirsty zombies.”

I think this sequel has had a bad run, hampered by sharing a budget with another much weaker film. The part I really liked from the third film as a kid was the idea of using zombies as bio weapons. Though, I didn’t find the makeshift military research facility at all plausible in number 3, as clearly it was not air-tight – perplex over holes that were held in place by screws with no visible edge sealant. This film goes with a private uber company (Hyber-Tech) that is using Trioxin to develop bioweapons with. The use of real world locations, makes at least the facility it is set within far more plausible than the military facility in ROTLD 3.

So, that’s at least a big plus even if some of the scenes and dialogue aren’t as plausible. I mean lets face it, a bunch of teens breaking into a research facility to save their friend from being turned into a zombie, doesn’t exactly sound plausible to me — though I guess it is clear as to what audience the film was aimed at. And that’s completely ignoring a bunch of other things prior to this occurring in the film.

As B-Grade as it sounds, I do actually like the uber-company idea even if it is more of a gimmick here that is not at all explored in any depth — Resident Evil (2001) has more depth to its Umbrella corporation compared to this cartoon evil-corp. The uncle/scientist character that seems to be the lead researcher in the use of Trioxin as a means of creating super-soldiers, comes across as a bad cartoon character that seems to be grimace-smiling a lot for some reason — perhaps due to bad plastic surgery and medication to dull the pain of doing this movie, perhaps its hemorrhoids.

This film was shot in Romania, and you can tell from not only the non-speaking extras used – check out the kid in the class room with the thick mono-brow – but from some of the actors cast for the group of kids that break into the research facility. You’d think you would cast ALL American kids for every major role, especially if you’re primary market is going to be the US, but apparently it never occurred to anyone whilst making this film — I’m sure it never occurred to the Romanian actors and extras. It’s harder for me spot the fake US accents, but as I still can, this means that for an American it is going to be really obvious that these accents are completely fake. Like, you’re insulting my intelligence if you think I’m gonna buy that, fake. Like how it’s obvious to me when an non-Australian actor puts on a fake Australian accent, no matter how good they are — their native accent always seems to come through at the worst times.

However I think what really lets the film down, is that the zombies and how they are killed are inconsistent. They should be a mix of slow for the more decayed zombies, and faster for the fresher ones. Yet, this is not always the case. And to kill one they set up the premise at the start that a zombie requires a head-shot or something else to destroy the brain or detach the head from the body. Yet by the end of the movie torso shots are enough to make them keel over and play dead for the camera.

I can rationale why you would change things, why you would change the fact that in ROTLD even a bullet to the head would NOT stop a zombie, just perhaps make it slower, dumber yet more crazed in its attacks. Much of the ROTLD premise for the zombies and their mechanics just don’d hold up to the scrutiny of the conventions of today. Plus, all the other zombie movies were doing it, why not ROTLD? Oh that’s right. It IS an ROTLD film and the first people to watch and condemn the film will be the fans of the original film(s).

Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005) 3/10

Return of the Living Dead 5 - 2005

IMDB Blurb: “A college student creates and sells a drug called ‘Z’ on campus which resurrects the living dead, who wreak havoc at a Halloween rave.”

Whereas there are elements of Necropolis that I like and the “script” has some structure there to work with. Rave to the Grave does not, and I suspect got the lesser amount of what was budgeted for these films — which I’m guessing due to it being shot in Romania, wasn’t exactly a lot.

This movie is just as bad as Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead (2003) just for different reasons. As I watched this flick recently in order to write about it, this corpse of a film is pretty fresh in my mind. So, I’m going to go into a bit more detail about what in particular about this film I don’t like, and there isn’t much I do like about it:

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How to screw up a zombie film…

1) The first 30 minutes of the film beyond the start, has no zombies.

There isn’t anything going on scene wise that is building a sub-plot to do with these zombies before the outbreak occurs. What you have is a lot of filler and exposition where you see a lot of scenes to do with high school. These scenes rely a lot on Romanian extras, and what this all does, is make it even more obvious that this film was shot in Romania with Romanian extras. They don’t blend into the background, and the plausibility that this is an American high school goes out the window.

2) Zombies are killed inconsistently; some are head-shots, others go down with bullets to the torso.

To an executive / producer, there is no difference. To a zombie fan there IS a difference. To your average film goer, they may not be as vocal at voicing it but they are smarter than what you’re giving them credit for and they’ve come to expect more from the quality of films these days; even from horror films.

Plus, consistency helps maintain suspension of disbelief.

3) Perhaps this is a bit strict to the “lore” setup in the first film, but, I don’t like how those that are “infected” or have overdosed on “Z” transition to becoming zombies.

In the first and second films – actually even third – they have to die first before they then become resurrected. In this film they seem to transition more or less seamlessly from “alive” to “living dead.” These resurrected don’t look like a fresh corpse like in the first film, but rather, look like B-Grade zombies in way of makeup. They don’t slowly transition as they become more decomposed but rather go straight to looking decomposed. They also apparently begin to smell rotten straight away too.

Honestly, the whole watching the transition and having them go through rigamortis first before dying and coming back to life. This was what built the anticipation in the first film, as the cast of characters could only guess at the horror that was going to happen that we as the audience knew in our rotten guts would come, sitting anxiously awaiting for it to unfold in front of us with manic glee.

They’ve lost this “horror” element from the series by not including it.

4) If you have zombies that constantly say “brains,” with the premise that these zombies want to eat the brains of the living. Then logically you have to show them actually eating brains.

In this movie like its predecessor, they say it a lot but never actually eat the brains of those they attack. Instead you see them eating a lot of torn off scalps of skin and lots of hair, along with, chunks of stringy flesh torn from victim’s necks. None of these things are human brains I’m afraid. Perhaps they thought it illogical that a zombie could chomp through a skull to eat someone’s brains. More likely they just didn’t have the budget for such extensive effects as it requires head-casts and the like for victims — scalps of hair and skin patches rigged with blood I’m guessing can just be churned out by the FX crew. Especially as by retaining this element you could of played upon the inherent intelligence that these zombies retain by having them use tools, even if makeshift, to crack those nuts open and get to the goodness inside.

I can imagine a setup where a frenzied zombie manages to knock a victim unconscious to attempt to crunch though the skull with its mouth, only to crack and bust its teeth out. Realizing that gumming the raw scalp of its victim is pointless, it reaches for a handy tool like a rock, brick or hammer to crack that skull open and get to the rich bloody-pink jelly goodness inside that it claws and scraps hungrily out into its toothless maw as the victim begins to twitch and come to, convulsing and seizing about. Cool, huh?

5) For the first 50 minutes of the film, you are unaware that the rave happens to coincide with Halloween.

Presumably, that is why no one takes the sight of these zombies seriously, as they think it’s a clever costume; keeping in mind that Necropolis introduced the premise that zombies are no longer a secret after the previous outbreaks.

It’s almost as if it occurred to someone as an afterthought, like when they were on set and someone had the bright idea that it would make more sense if the rave was for Halloween, but, they couldn’t go back to re-shoot scenes as it wasn’t in the budget in order to foreshadow this and lay the premise for why no one seems to take the appearance of (supposed) brain eating zombies as a dire threat.

Or more than likely, it occurred to the chief writer halfway through writing the script and he didn’t go back to re-write the first half; maybe expecting that it would go through another rewrite later before production began. Instead that script was green-lighted and shot scene for scene as the producers didn’t think it was necessary.

6) ALL the extras and minor roles are played by Romanians.

I’m sorry but it’s very easy to tell that they are not your average American teens from their thick accents alone – when not dubbed over. This film should have been shot elsewhere, or, more American actors hired to play at least the minor roles – or UK / Australian actors that can do a better job of faking an American accent and at least can pass for Americans.

Honestly, go to a backpacker hostel and recruit some backpackers not just to play the part of white middle-class Americans, but to fill out that background with a more diverse ethnicity beyond Eastern Europeans. Their acting wouldn’t have been any worse than what’s seen in the film.

7) The (Romanian) Interpol duo should have been played by Americans and it should have been FBI – or another American agency – agents.

Why Interpol agents are conducting an investigation on US soil, baffles my reasoning powers and my want in suspending my disbelief in order to enjoy a zombie film.

They seem to be there for comedic relief, or to fill out the script. Regardless their thick accents and implausible actions, such as going on a shooting spree at at high school to take care of the zombies yet hit and kill unaffected teens as well, only to shrug it off like it’s nothing (Hey, why don’t the SWAT show up upon the reports of gunfire at a US high school?). Well, they just DON’T work and they’re NOT funny. It’s just BAD. Painfully so.

8) The numerous illogical scenes and dialogue.

Take when the protagonist (Julian) and his girlfriend (Jenny) find the 2 barrels of Trioxin in what has to be a basement due to the dirty brick floor — or a garage. Yet later, Julian says he found them in his uncle’s attic; how he got them up into his attic, or why anyone would go to the trouble of hauling heavy barrels, presumably by themselves, up into their attic when a privately rented self storage unit would probably be more convenient if you didn’t have a garage or basement work-space.  Well, that makes no sense to me like claiming that they were found in an attic that you’d think an attic would have a dusty wooden floor NOT a basement brick floor.

He then goes on to claim he doesn’t know what they are and he gets his friends to help him find out. This is even though he has clearly seen one from the facility in Necropolis and he knows that his uncle was conducting research with Trioxin. Yet somehow, he doesn’t know what’s in the barrels… I don’t think so. Related to this is that they don’t know what’s inside, yet, the top has a clear window to let you look inside. No one thinks to clean the window and maybe use a flashlight to illuminate what’s in there to get a better look..? This is also a break from the previous films where you have been able to clearly see a zombie face pressed up against the glass. Which seems to make it even more idiotic.

9) Trioxin was developed as a herbicide not as an amphetamine – they’re most likely chemically different in structure!

The Z drug angle is an interesting one, and the idea that a substance taken in moderation can be a lot of fun, but take too much, and it could be lethal. This is something that you could apply to a lot of things we ingest on a daily basis. But, Trioxin was developed as a herbicide to help the US military fight the war on Marijuana – it was a reference to and was chemically similar to Agent Orange.

Something tells me if I were to look into the chemical composition of a herbicide (or Agent Orange), it would be nothing like an amphetamine class drug. Basically, though this is perhaps me being a lore Nazi, it is another reason why this fails as a sequel as it isn’t plausible that you could use the stuff to get high when just a little bit of gas is enough to kill you and make you a zombie. Plus, if you’re going to have it as a drug, then it should be as a gas that is inhaled, not a pill that is swallowed.

10) Forget about bites, scratches from zombies are enough to infect you now.

The whole thing about how now you can get infected and turn into a zombie is bad enough, but apparently all it takes is a scratch for this to happen. Though I suppose at least it’s not as bad as zombie films that have people covered in infected zombie blood and gore, getting it into their mouths and eyes, yet they never become infected – House of the Dead 2 (2005). But honestly, Trioxin is a chemical not a replicating infectious microbe or virus. That means that it can’t be contagious unless you set up a premise for this — and yes, this does put a bit hole in the first film. Also, a little chemical might poison you to the brink of being sick, it probably wouldn’t kill you or even be enough to reanimate ALL the cells in your body. But hey, its the lore and what the fans know from the first film.

If you want to fuck with this then you have to reboot the franchise so as to rewrite the lore to which the zombie mechanics are based upon.

11) All the Romanian extras at the rave.

Seriously, take a group of American teens and Romanian teens and put them side to side and tell me you can’t spot which is which. They should have called this Attack of the Romanian Zombies instead. It might seem like a nit-pick but at least in Necropolis you focused primarily on the one group of characters and (speaking) extra interaction was minimal. Not so with this film and it just undermines the plausibility of the whole film when you now that what is supposed to be America and what are supposed to be American teens, actually aren’t.

It doesn’t matter how many Romanian barely-legal teen girls you can pay to show their breasts for your film, this clumsy attempt at distraction is not enough to make up for the obvious that undermines the suspension of disbelief one tries to create when making a film. That state where the viewer forgets they are watching a made up film, that zombies (currently) do not exist. Where they are not reminded yet again, they are watching a film that at its most basic level, makes absolutely no fucking sense at all.

12) Deus Ex Machina — “God from the machine” implausible and unexpected device plot of salvation.

Let’s see, the best way to contain a zombie outbreak is to have a police helicopter show up to then hover over the outbreak (rave) whilst police indiscriminately shoot through windows down at the teenagers. Apparently police helicopters show up for no reason and are armed with (invisible) missiles these days, too.

FYI: unless they are firing more than one missile or it is one of those thermobaric varieties, then it’s not really going to “contain” and put an end to anything.

13) Lucky to some. Cheap gags and attempts at humor are a non sequitur.

Tarman, the canister zombie from the first (and second) film showing up in the film was an interesting cameo if poorly done. The effects for him were suitably evocative of the series’ B-Grade roots, yet updated enough to actually look pretty good. However, Tarman is a non sequitur in that he doesn’t really do anything apart from saying brains and holding up a sign that says: Rave or Bust.

It, like a lot in the film, was put in for simply comedic humor. For example the zombie pizza guy gets axed by Cody but before he does so Cody says: “You guys are always late.” Which really isn’t that (intelligently) funny — why is he bothering to carry around a pizza for? — but more of a funny statement that a cartoon character might say and a child would laugh at; which is completely the opposite of how the original film was funny. (Zombie gets on the ambulance radio to answer dispatch and says: “Send, more, paramedics.” After they ambush, attack and eat their brains, they then do it all over again a second time, with one  of the zombies imitating a cop to lure them as the rest hide.)

This “cameo” just comes off as cheap as it is hardy nostalgic of the first films or funny in a smart way, lowering the quality of the whole idiotic production.

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Who to blame for the death of the Returning Dead?

Rave to the Grave was shot back-to-back with Necropolis and has the same core team. Having a look at the director and writers, I think though they are all to blame for how crap it is, the most blame rests on the primary writer — whose writing credits since then are all for films that don’t do much better than what IMDB rates the last of the ROTLD films.

The Rave script — along with that of Necropolis — is something I would have written, when I was twelve. The film has OK directing and cinematography, however, it’s clear that the director doesn’t know the source material or is much of a fan of zombie movies – horror maybe, but zombie I don’t think so. Plus I’m sure the paycheck and the fact that these were cheap movies made to cash in on the resurgence in popularity with zombie films. Well, it wouldn’t exactly inspire his best work I think ;).

So I think the writer here is to blame, as there is only so much the director can do when handed a script and told to shoot a film, especially, as a good script can still be shot on a low budget with a competent crew. Necropolis and Rave aren’t anywhere near being a good script. But still, if the film executives had concentrated on just making one competent film, rather than squeeze out 2 for the price of 1. They may have just been able to cash in on the resurgence in zombie films due to films like the Resident Evil (2002), 28 Days Later (2002) — which has a lot of “zombie” mechanic similarities to ROTLD even if it really is NOT a zombie film at all — the Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake, and, Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005) film.

It’s a pity as I think that these last films have killed the Return of the Living Dead license, even if a lot of it is technically competent, like the camera and special effects work. However even if the original film was remade (or in this case rebooted back to life) a lot of what made it great and a favorite of fans would have to be changed regardless, as it would simply not work for today’s audience expectations. Expectations that are informed by far better and smarter films, and, the internet (Wikipedia) which allows you to search and research just about anything easily enough.

It may not seem it, but your average person generally has gotten smarter.

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