Tuesday 28 November 2023

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Director: Dan O’Bannon
Writer: Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by Rudy Ricci, John Russo and Russell Streiner
Stars: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Miguel Nunez, Brian Peck, John Philbin, Linnea Quigley, Beverly Randolph, Jewel Shepard and Mark Venturini

Index: 2023 Centennials.

The Glass Wall isn’t the only picture featuring someone born on 28th November, 1923, but The Return of the Living Dead must be about as different a feature as is comfortably imaginable. It was released over thirty years later, in 1985, and everyone and everything in it is apparently true. Well, that’s what it says on screen, so it must be real, right? Of course, it isn’t, but it does have plenty of fun with the conceit that the events that took place in George A. Romero’s pioneering 1968 zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, were based on real life events. There was a chemical spill at the VA hospital in Pittsburgh that released 2-4-5-Trioxin and it made corpses jump as if they were alive. Somehow Romero got wind of the story and built a script around it. Meanwhile, those corpses, stored carefully in barrels, made their way, through typical military transportation screw up, to the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, where they’ve been stored in a basement because nobody bothered to call the military phone number on the barrels.

Now, there is another important connection to Night of the Living Dead, namely writer John Russo, who co-wrote both films. The first was with Romero, with whom he had an agreement that they could both effectively continue it into a series. Russo had the rights to the Living Dead part of the title ongoing, but Romero could make his own sequels to the story. So, while the latter went on to direct Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and so on, Russo wrote a novelisation of Night of the Living Dead and then a sequel novel, Return of the Living Dead, upon which this was only theoretically based. It was enough for him to get a credit for original story, alongside Russell Streiner and Rudy Ricci, but the screenplay was written by Dan O’Bannon, who had also written Dark Star and Alien and was directing a movie for the first time, later suggesting that “I spent 37 years of my life not even being alive. Now I’m fulfilled.” Hilariously, when he did so, it was Russo who wrote the novelisation, meaning that he wrote two completely different books both called Return of the Living Dead.

While the credited star is Clu Gulager and fans tend to remember Linnea Quigley most because of the famous scene where she strips naked and dances on a tomb, our centenarian feels like the lead during the opening scenes. That’s James Karen as Frank, who works at Uneeda, where we first meet him teaching Freddy how to pack up skeletons. He’s fun to watch, not only because he winds Freddy up something rotten. All those skeletons are sourced from a skeleton farm in India, he says. They aren’t, but it’s a cool place with an impressive stock. Want to buy a split dog for your veterinarian school? Uneeda’s your go to place. They also sell real cadavers, both to medical schools for study and the military for ballistic testing. It’s also Frank who provides that background about the zombies in Night of the Living Dead being both real and in the basement, actually taking Freddy down to see them. To prove that they don’t leak, Frank bangs one of the drums and, of course, it leaks, promptly knocking them both out and spreading throughout the building.

Take a wild stab in the dark what happens next! If you guessed that everything dead in the warehouse promptly comes alive, you’re spot on. That means the cadavers in the cold room, which are still hanging on hooks. It means the split dogs that are mounted onto stands, so can’t do anything except fall over; Frank is so horrified that he beats one into oblivion with a crutch. And it even means the butterflies, pinned to boards, that are now fluttering their wings in a vain attempt to fly and be free. And, of course, the corpse secreted away in the drum that Frank thumped emerges to terrorise anyone who happens to find their way to the basement. Quite unsurprisingly, this tarman zombie claims the first kill, but surprisingly not until forty-six minutes into the picture. In doing so, he also cements into place one of the infamous tropes of zombie cinema, namely the living dead’s thirst for human brains, something that simply wasn’t in place in Night of the Living Dead. It’s in place here and it’s riffed on throughout the film with glorious effect.

You might be wondering how we get to Linnea Quigley dancing naked on a tomb. Well, there’s a second plot strand featuring a host of friends of Freddy, who show up at Uneeda to pick him up but arrive two hours early, so they hang out instead at the Resurrection Cemetery conveniently located next door. The toxic gas that Frank has inadvertently released hasn’t escaped the warehouse yet, so they aren’t in danger of anything except being arrested for being eighties stereotypes. They’re very clean stereotypes too, each one representing another subculture to be shoehorned into the mix, most of them wearing some sort of pastels. Everything you want in a bunch of eighties lowlife kids is here: punks, new wavers, mohawks, chains, the inevitable boom box. They’re also multi-racial and representative of both genders, so there’s a black dude, a preppy chick, even an anomalous yuppie. The leader of the gang is Suicide and, while Freddy’s girlfriend is simply named Tina, many have outrageous street names, like Spider, Scuz and Trash.

They’re all a little annoying until Trash strips completely naked, because that’s who Quigley is. She asks Spider if he wonders about different ways of dying horribly. The most horrible way for her would be “for a bunch of old men to get around me and start biting and eating me alive.” Now, I don’t to give much away here but this may well be the most blatant foreshadowing in movie history. At this point, however, she can strip off all her clothes, except a pair of legwarmers, and dance, thus cementing her place in the horror hall of fame just as surely as the tarman zombie who wants to eat your brains. Meanwhile, back at Uneeda, Frank and Freddy have a shot at killing the reanimated cadaver but fail, turning it instead into a whole collection of reanimated body parts. It seems that the zombies in this picture don’t die if you destroy their brains, as they find out when Frank and Freddy hold it down so their boss, Burt Wilson, can put a pickaxe through it. It doesn’t work. “It worked in the movie!” says Frank. “You mean the movie lied?” asks Freddy.

While he never gets to have fun in the Resurrection Cemetery, Frank gets many of the best moments and the best lines in the early parts of the movie, Trash’s spotlight moment excluded, but there’s another gem of a character still to introduce. That’s Ernie, who runs the conveniently located morgue over the street, and he’s played by Don Calfa, who had been a respected actor for close to two decades before he landed screen immortality here, embalming a body while listening to German opera and smoking a pipe. I utterly adore the scene in which Burt, with Frank and Freddy in tow, ask for his help in disposing of what they say are really sacks of rabid weasels in his crematorium. “At least let me kill them first,” suggests Ernie. “Well, I don’t think that would work,” states Burt. And so they burn up all the sacks in the fire. Out goes the smoke. Down comes the rain. And up come the corpses of all the bodies in the suddenly very aptly named Resurrection Cemetery to hunger for brains and to make Trash’s dreams come true.

It has to be said that Night of the Living Dead is a bona fide classic and not just of the horror genre either, because there’s much social commentary to examine that lasts all the way to its final moments, filling it with dramatic substance. The Return of the Living Dead is not even in the same league in quality but it’s a heck of a lot more fun and the cast, to varying degrees, all know that. Clu Gulager is delightfully underplayed as Burt, always trying to do what’s best for his business even at the expense of everyone else. James Karen is the bedrock of the film as Frank, highly experienced but not especially bright during the early scenes. After he triggers the leak of resurrection gas, he and Thom Mathews as Freddy become infected and so gradually turn into zombies, even if nobody killed them first. Mathews is fun but he’s playing a young adult moron in a horror comedy, while Karen is working capably through a story arc. Don Calfa and his expressive eyes are all joyous and the kids in the cemetery serve as interesting fodder for the zombies.

The true nature of the film comes in small moments though. The tarman zombie hungering for brains and Trash’s naked dance on a tomb may be the most abiding, but there are a whole bunch more. There’s Ernie being chased by a resurrected little person. Trash’s memorable demise counts, as does the fact that she doesn’t get the opportunity to put clothes back on when they all have to escape the rise of the living dead, so sits in a leaky and immobile car naked among all her clothed friends. After she’s zombified, she gets an impeccable scene where she walks out of the smoke to eat a homeless guy’s brains. Talking of brains, Freddy trying in vain to break through a trapdoor because he can smell his girlfriend’s brains is another great example. My favourite has to be the running joke, of all things, that’s begun when zombies eat a couple of paramedics and one of them asks medical dispatch over the intercom to send more. Later, a different zombie repeats that scene but with police officers on the menu. “Send. More. Cops.”

There’s social commentary in the ending too, which also capably sets up the potential for a sequel, and there’s more buried within details. 2-4-5-Trioxin, made by the Darrow Chemical Company, is a nerdy chemistry reference, because 2-4-5-T Dioxin, made by the Dow Chemical Company, is far better known as Agent Orange, the infamous defoliant that ended up backfiring on the U.S. military. However, I’m not reviewing The Return of the Living Dead for its thoughts on military missteps; I’m reviewing it because James Karen would have been a hundred years old today and I feel that his part in this movie is highly underrated, even if it landed him a Saturn award nomination. His death scene would have helped that and he largely wrote it himself. It’s a highly emotional scene, perfect for an actor who started out understudying Karl Malden in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Apparently, he simply didn’t want to be a “rain-drenched zombie”. Instead he kisses his wedding ring and climbs into Ernie’s crematory furnace.

Born Jacob Karnofsky in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Russian born Jews, he probably caught the acting bug from his uncle, Morris Carnovsky, who was a prolific performer on stage and in film until he was blacklisted in the McCarthy witchhunts. He also got much encouragement from a U.S. Congressman, Daniel J. Flood, who was educated in Wilkes-Barre, where he studied acting, and, after his admission to the bar, hung out his shingle there as an attorney, before entering politics. Even though Karen’s screen debut was back in 1948, it was on television rather than film, in an unknown role in A Christmas Carol, a live play on The Philco Television Playhouse. He worked steadily for seven decades, on stage, on television and in film, his first feature being Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster in 1965, not a great start but arguably a better one than his next feature, Hercules in New York. However, he’d landed a recurring role on soap opera As the World Turns in 1967 and played Dr. Burke for four years, also becoming the first Lincoln Tyler on All My Children.

Perhaps his best known role began in the sixties too, but only to a select audience, namely television viewers in the northeast, even though he moved to the west coast in the mid seventies to capitalise on regular television work. That’s because he was well known as “the Pathmark Man” or simply “Mr. Pathmark”, spokesman in hundreds of commercials for the Pathmark supermarket chain. It was a job that took him into the eighties, with twenty-eight years of flying to New York every couple of weeks to record a score of thirty second commercials at a time. “This is the best job an actor can have,” he claimed in a 1984 interview. “It pays very well, and it’s steady.” They even made him a vice president of the company. The only catch was that, when he played a memorable villainous role in the Little House on the Prairie finale, the TV movie Little House: The Last Farewell, as a real estate developer plotting to take over Walnut Grove, hundreds of letters flooded into Pathmark headquarters asking them to do something about him, as if they had a say.

He was a versatile actor who appeared as both heroes and villains in both leads and supporting roles across the genre spectrum and on both television and film. Memorable roles on the latter included a lawyer on All the President’s Men, the vice president in Capricorn One, a TV station boss in The China Syndrome and a sales manager in Wall Street, but he had a knack for landing pivotal roles in horror movies. While he was great in The Return of the Living Dead in a less flamboyant role and he returned to this series for its first of four sequels, even though he played a completely different part, that of graverobber Ed, rather than conjure up an unwieldy explanation of how Frank made it out of the crematorium, he was already well known within the genre for what could be considered a still more famous precursor to his Little House part, playing another ruthless real estate developer, the one who built his planned community of Cuesta Verde on top of an Indian burial ground in Poltergeist.

Even though he appeared in many features, including 21st century titles like Mulholland Drive, The Pursuit of Happyness and Superman Returns, though his scenes in the latter were cut, he remained well known on television too, racking up parts in over a hundred and thirty different shows and TV movies. That fresh work in the mid-seventies started with shows such as Starsky and Hutch, The Bionic Woman and The Streets of San Francisco, but only in individual episodes. He would find regular slots on The Powers of Matthew Star, First Monday and Ned and Stacey, but his most famous TV role is arguably Dick van Patten’s boss, Eliot Randolph, on Eight is Enough. He got a huge mention in 1986, though, when George Clooney accepted his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, recalling James Karen asking him to write his obituary. After he didn’t die soon, Clooney rang Karen’s wife, who explained, “Jimmy’s doing fine. He just wanted to know what everybody thought about him while he was still around.” He lasted thirty-two more years, dying in 2018 at 94.

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