The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

(TubiTV streaming, June 2017) One of the unexpected pleasures of watching older movies is the occasional ping of recognition as the film matches childhood memories. In the case of Return of the Living Dead, I wouldn’t exactly call it a happy memory: I recall my parents discussing a movie (while we were in the family car, waiting for the ferry to take us to Grandma) in which a cloud fell on a city transforming them all into monsters (!!!). (I wouldn’t call my parents movie buffs, but our family got a VCR early on, and made frequent visits to the video store.) My not-yet-teenage brain couldn’t deal with horror movies back then, and I must have half-slept that night. More than thirty years later, well, I look upon Return of the Living Dead with something of a horror fan’s jaded perspective. I can’t help but know the backstory of the split between Night of the Living Dead’s creators and how Return of the Living Dead compares to Day of the Dead, which was 1985’s other big zombie movie. There are plenty of things to say about both of them—how Return of the Dead is far more light-hearted than Day of the Dead, and yet ends up with a total body count, whereas Romero’s much darker and gorier film allowed three characters to survive. If force to choose, I’ll pick Return of the Living Dead as my favourite of the two despite mildly traumatic childhood memories: In between the metafictional references, the sudden gratuitous nudity, the jokey tone, the compelling soundtrack, it just seems like a far more likable and memorable film. The acting may not be particularly good and the story logic is dubious at best, but the fun is there thanks to writer/director Dan O’Bannon, and it’s not necessarily an obstacle to horror: The basement zombie sequence is as terrifying as any scene in Romero’s movies, and it doesn’t depend on gore effects for impact. As a putatively grown-up adult, I’m also reminded by the movie, more than most others, about how I’ve gone from horror-averse kid to someone who occasionally gets paid to write about horror movies from an analytical perspective. But then again, thirty years is a long time.

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