July is Greedy Guts month here at Nightmare On Film Street, when writers are given carte blanche to write about whatever they want. Last year, I wrote about the phenomenon of punk characters in horror movies, especially in the ‘80s. That article later turned into this column. In the article, I mention 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, the fundamental punk rock horror film. The first time I watched it, I hadn’t yet been bitten by the horror bug, I was just so obsessed with punk rock that I had to watch every movie on the subject. Who knew that a decade later, I’d be writing about a different punk movie every month.
I honestly don’t know why it has taken me so long to dedicate an entire column to Return of the Living Dead. I think I wanted to save it for a special occasion. It’s such a classic, however the production was fraught with obstacles at every step in the process. If it weren’t for a series of smart decisions, it could have ended up a disaster. It’s thanks to its punk characters and a much needed injection of humor that we still talk about it to this day. I was quite thrilled to see a renewed interest in Return of the Living Dead earlier this month; it was made available for streaming on Shudder, and on social media, many were posting the first frame of the movie: a title of the date and time—July 3, 1984, 5:30 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time— set over an exterior shot of the of the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse.
Young punk and warehouse clerk in-training Freddy (Thom Mathews, Friday the 13h Part VI) is being shown the ropes by Frank (James Karen, Poltergeist). The warehouse is full of cool and creepy junk, like skeletons with perfect teeth, split dogs, and a cadaver in the freezer. But the wildest thing stored in the warehouse are the steel canisters in the basement that were shipped to the warehouse by mistake. They contain corpses contaminated with a chemical created through a failed military experimental known as 2-4-5 Trioxin. While showing off the drums, Frank accidentally releases the gaseous chemical into the ventilation system, reanimating the cadaver in the freezer. Not knowing what to do, Frank calls his boss Burt (Clu Gulager, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) for help in disposing of the living corpse. To their horror, decapitating the cadaver doesn’t kill it, so Burt suggests they bring the pieces across the street to the mortuary, and ask a favor of Ernie (Don Calfa, Weekend At Bernie’s), a mortician who casually carries a luger.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends are outside the warehouse, waiting for him to finish his shift, since Freddy’s the man with the plan when it comes to partying. The punk posse consists of Freddy’s sweetheart girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph), the tall and intimidating Suicide (Mark Venturini, Friday the 13th Part V), colorful party girl Casey (Jewel Shepard), mohawked Scuz (Brian Peck, X2: X-Men United), the morbid yet sexy Trash (Linnea Quigley, Silent Night Deadly Night), dorky dweeb Chuck (John Philbin, Children of the Corn) and Spider (Miguel Nunez, Friday the 13th Part V), who looks like Prince, if he had joined Pure Hell. When Burt and Ernie (pure coincidence) cremate the reanimated decapitated corpse, the smoke goes up to the sky, mixes with the clouds, causing them to rain down onto the cemetery where the punks are hanging out in, sending them running into the warehouse.
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“Return of the Living Dead broke all the rules of what was understood about zombies.“
Back at the mortuary, Frank and Freddy are feeling sick from inhaling the fumes from the toxin. They call in paramedics for what they assume is poisoning. But the paramedics have a different assessment: they have no heart beat, and their body heat is at room temperature, all signs pointing to them being dead, besides the fact they’re still conscious and talking. Outside, the chemicals mixed in the rain seep into the ground and reanimate the dead in the cemetery. An entire army of undead beings, hungry for brains, blocks anyone from leaving. And anyone coming to their aid is immediately devoured.
The original concept of Return of the Living Dead was developed by John A. Russo, a former collaborator of George A. Romero. The two parted ways to make their own separate sequels to Night of the Living Dead. Romero made Dawn of the Dead, while Russo wrote a book called Return of the Living Dead, which producer Tom Fox purchased the rights to develop a film adaptation, with Russo originally set to direct. But the story was so dull that Fox brought in writer Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien and John Carpenter’s Dark Star) who completely rewrote the screenplay, one with comedic elements and rebellious characters. It ended up having very little in common with the book, other than the title. Different directors were courted to take over, including Tobe Hooper, but eventually, Dan O’Bannon was put into the director’s chair for the first time in his career.
There was an attempt to differentiate the zombies in Return of the Living Dead from the slow-moving Romero zombies. Return of the Living Dead takes place in a universe in which the film Night of the Living Dead exists, unlike in The Walking Dead, where the concept of zombies never existed in media prior to the undead uprising. Frank claims that the events of Night of the Living Dead were based on true events, but says Romero was forced by the military to change certain details. Burt and Frank are shocked when they try to kill the yellow cadaver by driving a pickaxe into its brain to no avail: “It worked in the movie!” Frank shrieks. These zombies are virtually unkillable. Instead of consuming a human flesh diet like their Romero counterparts, these zombies exclusively eat brains— It’s because of this movie that the phrase “More brains!” is oft repeated in pop culture. These zombies can also run. And they can be very intelligent. Day of the Dead (released the same year) may have introduced Bub, a zombie with some remaining cognitive abilities, but he’s nowhere near as articulate or as clever as the zombies in Return of the Living Dead. The Tarman zombie (fantastically embodied by puppeteer Allan Trautman) operates a crank contraption to tear open a door. Another zombie is able to use the dispatch radio in emergency vehicles to request more cops and more paramedics to eat. And the half-corpse zombie coherently explains to the survivors that eating brains is the only way to get rid of the pain of being dead.
Most of the comedy comes from the punk characters. They just add more spice to the mix, doing things that mild-mannered people wouldn’t think of. No normal gang of friends would think of breaking into an abandoned cemetery just to kill time. No normal person admits to fantasizing about being eaten alive by old men, or strips and dances on a grave. It might have seemed a bit far-fetched to some, but Trash reminds me of someone I used to see at punk shows who would regularly strip after a couple beers. Linnea Quigley built a career on appearing topless in horror films. But her nude graveyard dance scene always seemed odd to me, even viewing it as a virginal teenager. I later found out that the producers, fearing TV censorship, made Quigley wear a special cover over her crotch, giving her genitals the Barbie doll look.
“ [Return of the Living Dead] is a cult classic with high rewatch value […] and will continue to be loved by punk and horror fans for years to come.”
Punks are just misunderstood kids who were able to find other kids like them. Although none of the cast was involved in the punk scene prior to filming, their costumes, hair and makeup would convince you otherwise. Before going on set, they were given two weeks of rehearsal, allowing them to connect and cultivate friendships on and off the camera.
Chuck seems to be the outsider of the group. He dresses in a suit and tie, making him stick out in a crew of leather and wild flair. His flirtations are constantly rejected by both Trash and Casey. Perhaps the only reason he’s part of the gang is because he’s the one with the boom box. However, Suicide claims to be the most misunderstood of the bunch. Standing at six-foot-five, wrapped in black leather and chains, and exuding an aggressive, tough guy persona, Suicide has one of the more iconic lines in the movie: “You think this a fucking costume?! It’s a way of life!” But his dangerous demeanor wasn’t enough to save Suicide from becoming the first victim of a zombie bite. In reality, cast members remember Mark Venturini as a big harmless teddy bear, who unfortunately passed away in 1996 at the age of 35.
When shit hits the fan, the punks are more concerned about their own survival, as opposed to Frank and Burt, who are more preoccupied with their jobs or the reputation of their company. When Freddy gives Frank the business for releasing the gas, Frank responds “Watch your tongue, boy, if you like this job.” But after witnessing a split dog coming to life, the last thing Freddy is thinking about is his minimum wage job. Burt tries his best to keep the situation under wraps, not wanting to call the authorities for help because it could spell scandal for his company. It’s only when things get out of control and the bodies keep stacking up that he phones the police. Even Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry, Halloween III: Season of the Witch) has a similar motivation to Burt’s, believing the best course of action to deal with the outbreak is to nuke the entire city, to cover up the military’s involvement.
For the soundtrack, the producers made a deal with Enigma Records, who represented bands like T.S.O.L. and horror punk pioneers the Cramps. The film presented an opportunity to promote 45 Grave’s latest single, the heavy metal-tinged “Partytime,” which ironically plays during a scene in which the cast was reportedly miserable, having to run around in the mud and cold rain. The original lyrics for “Partytime” describe the murder of a young French girl, but 45 Grave’s Dinah Cancer was told to rewrite the words to fit the story of Return of the Living Dead. But there’s more than just punk rock party anthems. Acid rocker Roky Erickson’s song “Burn The Flames” provides the music for an emotional scene when Frank cremates himself before he becomes a zombie (yet another decision that turned out for the best, since James Karen was originally scripted to go out into the cold rain as well, but refused). Synthpop group SSQ (fronted by Stacy Q) gives Trash her own background music; “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)” plays during her graveyard dance scene, and their instrumental plays when she comes back from the dead. Enigma also brought in other bands that weren’t on their roster, but fit the sound, like the Damned, the Flesheaters, romantic goths Jet Black Berries, psychobilly outfit Tall Boys and Boston hardcore band Straw Dogs (formerly the FU’s). Not on the official soundtrack, but worth mentioning, is Francis Haines’ opening title score, known as “The Trioxin Theme,” which sets the mood perfectly with spooky synths and church bells. Some of these songs can be found on the Gut The Punks Spotify Playlist, which now has more than four hours of selected tracks from previous columns.
There are so many ways Return of the Living Dead could have ended up a dud, forgotten in the ether of mediocre cinema. As we witnessed with the resurgence of zombie movies in the early 2000s, innovation is key in order to stand out in an oversaturated subgenre. Return of the Living Dead broke all the rules of what was understood about zombies. It was further amplified by its characters, its dark humor, the deteriorating love story between Freddy and Tina, its wardrobe, the makeup effects (just look at the attention to detail in the bruises and burns!), the prosthetics (had they not fired the original special effects designer, the yellow cadaver would have looked laughable), and its rocking soundtrack. The end result is a cult classic with high rewatch value, that has been enjoyed at midnight screenings for decades, and will continue to be loved by punk and horror fans for years to come. Some day, I’ll cover the four sequels that were spawned from the success of Return of the Living Dead, though I doubt any them were able to capture lightning in a bottle quite like the original.