Return of the Living Dead: Zombie Independence Day
Dir. Dan O’Bannon (1985)
Two workers at a medical supply company accidentally release a gas that turns the dead into zombies. Things go as well as expected.
John A. Russo won the rights to the “Of the Living Dead” portion of Night of the Living Dead in an agreement with his friend/enemy George Romero, which led Romero to produce Dawn and Day of the Dead (as well as their subsequent sequels). It also led to Russo and director Dan O’Bannon making this film, a genre favorite and cult classic that helped to evolve the lore surrounding zombies in ways that have been passed down to many movies that came later. This film establishes that the zombies in the NotLD were raised because of a toxin accidentally released by the Army called 2-4-5 Trioxin, and that both the dead from that event and the toxin were brought to a medical supply company elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Because it would be a pretty boring movie otherwise, the toxin is quickly (and accidentally) released from its canisters, once again wreaking zombie havoc on the town.
Filled with amazing character names like Scuz, Suicide, Spider, and, uh, Tina, RotLD just oozes 80’s from every zombified pore. It’s a punk-rock addition to the zombie genre, with plenty of chains, leather jackets, and spiky colored hair. At the same time that the company workers stumble around their office, a group of kids are driving around in their convertible looking for things to do. Rock music blares as they decide to party in a graveyard to wait for their friend, who works at the medical supply company, to get off work. This eventually leads to one of the most legendary nude scenes in all of horror, with Linnea Quigley’s gyrating cemetery dance topping many lists as the best of all time (not to mention the fact that she stays naked through the whole rest of the movie as well.)
And she’s super classy, too.
The scene where the employees of the business return from the basement after releasing the gas, where they find that all of the once-dead things in their establishment have come back to life, is fucking amazing. The vivisected dog, that is moving and crying in pain, introduces us to the new living dead, with a clever shot of pinned butterflies flapping their wings thrown into the background. The film deals with the fallout from a zombie event in a more realistic way than a lot of films that came later, but it does so with a humorous streak that is hard to come by in zombie films. It’s never taking itself too seriously, while at the same time adding some serious meat to the tropes of the zombie genre. It adds a bit to the “environmental” zombie factor, as the major outbreak occurs when our dumb medical supply workers burn a zombie’s body and the smoke comes down as zombie rain onto the nearby cemetery. This “ecological” perspective is echoed throughout many zombie movies that have been made since, though I don’t know if it was particularly intended to be a commentary in this film. The movie does add it to the lore, though, and it has many other contributions as well. In fact, it wasn’t even until RotLD that we thought of zombies as brain-eaters, with the infamous Tar Man Zombie uttering the classic zombie catchphrase of what it would like to eat.
The movie itself is relatively dumb, but it is hugely entertaining and well worth it for the additions to the genre alone. Fuck Danny Boyle, O’Bannon had running zombies in 1985. The zombies in this film are clever, laying out traps for people. At one point, a zombie responds to a paramedics’ radio to call for more paramedics to be sent. When they arrive, they are ambushed by zombies waiting in the bushes. They repeat this several times because they’re clearly smarter than the people they’re trying to eat. Clearly designed to be a sequel to Night of the Living Dead (as it even specifically references the movie and claims it was based on a real incident), it doesn’t have the reverence that Romero’s other films do, but it has attained a cult following of its own. If you’re a horror fan, it is literally impossible to be sad while watching this movie, because it’s just so much damn fun. It’s a great addition to any July 4th movie marathon, because there’s a throwaway line in the beginning where they talk about it happening then, but honestly, any excuse to throw this one on is worth it. Between the fun 80’s soundtrack, smart zombies, and Linnea fucking Quigley, you’ll never regret giving it a watch.
Who this movie is for: Zombie film lovers; People who thought 28 Days Later was too serious; Punk rockers
Bottom line: Super fun from beginning to end, the action starts pretty quickly and never lets up. Legendary scenes and some of the more interesting zombies in horror, this one is a must watch for any horror fan (because zombie movie fans will have already seen it.) And, it’s perfect for our July 4th marathon! It’s also got one of the more interesting portrayals of what happens when live people are exposed to the agents that create the zombies, and that alone is worth the price of admission.