Way back in 1985, just after George Romero’s official third “of the dead” film hit theaters, the campy horror Return of the Living Dead, an unofficial continuation, was released, and did something Day of the Dead didn’t. It introduced us to BRAINS! Plus, we found a cult zombie hero in Tarman, Linnea Quigley ran around as a naked punk, and zombies crawled out of the grave, something they hadn’t done in the Romero series up to that point. Plus, the rockin’ sountrack was loaded with thrash metal, punk, and an awesome synthpop horror tune by awesome early 80s new wave band SSQ—whose lead singer would soon break out as “solo” artist Stacey Q! “I-I-I-I-I-I-need-I-need brains…”
Stacey Q is just the tip of the 80s iceberg. We get punks and new wavers. We get a lone black dude with Jheri curls that put Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam with Full Force to shame. We get boomboxes and walkmans. We get the dad from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. We get the guy who took over the role of Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th Part 6. We get the Pathmark guy!
Hugely popular for being a horror comedy when released, the film to me now feels heavier on the camp side rather than laugh-out-loud funny. The cast totally rox the camp though, especially the Pathmark guy and his hick boy toy. The film’s dark humor and corpse action also feels incredibly similar to that in Re-Animator, which was released shortly after. Tarman totally steals the show, as does any zombie that groans “Brains!” It never gets old. The gore is delicious and the scene with the zombies rising from the grave almost surpasses that in the Thriller video. Almost.
Return of the Living Dead makes no secret about being an unofficial continuation of Night of the Living Dead. The culprit in this film is not zombie bites, it’s both the release of gas from a government experiment and the burning of zombie bodies, which causes fumes to rise into the atmosphere and create the toxic rain that brings the dead to life. Thankfully, the fun is not ruined by the arrival of the army until the very end. And the film ends like every Resident Evil video game—the infected zone needs to be blown up.
Before I move on to part 2, might I note that if you’ve been crediting 28 Days Later for the introduction of running zombies or infected or whatever, you need to watch older zombie films like this.
Return of the Living Dead Part II has a few things going for it. First, it was also made in the 80s. Second, one chick actually says “No duh!” Third, Tarman is back. Fourth, the Pathmark man and his hick boy toy are back—playing the same kind of comic duo, but as totally different characters. It’s totally forgiven because they make sure to reference it in the dialogue.
Unfortunately, other than that, this sequel sux. One of the main characters is a young kid, and quite frankly, you’re better off watching the far superior The Monster Squad if you want kid horror.
There’s also a teen flick vibe thanks to the kid’s sister and the cute cable guy she hooks up with. Night of the Living Dead is openly referenced again, but the overall zombie vibe is weak (the same exact zombies appear again and again!). The film tries for all out slapstick comedy and ends up as a shrill and tedious exercise in characters screaming into each other’s faces ad nauseum. Plus, there’s way too much army involvement, which is the number one way to RUIN a horror movie for me.
While there’s some yummy gore, this lame flick is mostly PG-13 horror. Since the movie is so bad, I’ll give props to them throwing in a full-fledged Michael Jackson “Thriller” zombie for laughs (and as an homage, considering this series TOTALLY stole the zombie grave rising from MJ’s video). The final speaking zombie definitely gets the last laugh with her one-liner. And the DVD version uses TWO Robert Palmer songs, “Looking for Clues” and “Bad Case of Loving You,” neither of which was in the original U.S. cut of the film. Personally, I think they’re one of the few things to look forward to when watching part 2.
Return of the Living Dead 3 immediately goes down hill because it was released in 1993, when horror was trying so hard not to be like 80s horror—which means it almost immediately FAILS in being good. Gone is any attempt at camp and humor. Plus, the film does two of the worst things you can do in a horror film—it has full army involvement and it tries to humanize one specific zombie. RUINED. Why even watch?
If you do watch, this is what you get. Boy’s dad works in secret military facility experimenting with reanimation of corpses (the series still references Night of the Living Dead). Boy has freaky goth bitch girlfriend. They get into motorcycle accident. Girl dies. Boy brings her back from dead at army facility, kicking off an incredibly annoying, drawn out zombie/human love story that features barely any zombies until the end.
Even so, the gore is great and the eventual zombie action is pretty good. But then the freaky goth bitch zombie girlfriend transforms herself into this sexy S&M meat eater, complete with piercings, spiked hands, fishnets, and leather. What a fricking mess this film is.
This installment does get credit for being the first that features infection spreading through bites to the brain. Thankfully, they waited until the god-awful 90s were over before attempting another sequel. In fact…they made TWO of them simultaneously and premiered them on the SyFy network. I know. That’s a bad sign.
Part 4, subtitled Necropolis, is a necropoMESS. This film makes no sense, especially when you consider that a good portion of the characters appear in the film that follows. Peter Coyote is fucking around with the zombie virus shit this time, keeping it contained in his lab. Living with him are his two orphaned nephews, a young boy and a college kid. The college kid’s friend gets into a motorcycle accident and then disappears. So a group of his motorcycling friends infiltrate the uncle’s lab—on their motorcycles—to bust the friend out because they’re sure he’s in there. You can guess what happens next. ZOMBIES.
It’s ridiculous. Peter Coyote is cloning zombie babies, plans world domination (Peter Coyote? Really?), and has actually turned his nephews’ deceased parents into zombie robot machines. The army is called in. RUINED.
Gone is any humor or camp for which this series was known, except for ONE line, when one zombie says to the gang of kids, “This is the part where you all run screaming.” Oh, and there’s also a nod to a scene from the first film involving a zombie getting on a CB and calling for backup. Plus, the cry for BRAINS has returned.
So finally, we get to Part 5, subtitled Rave to the Grave. Aside from the fact that by this film’s release in 2005, raves were SO 1992, this really crappy movie is my second favorite in the series after the first film! It doesn’t even TRY to disguise its humor with cleverness. It’s just all out stupidity. I can’t even believe that this film and Part 4 were made at the same time with many of the same actors, because they are so completely different in tone and style. This film seems to have at least a clue as to what made the first film such a cult classic.
I don’t understand any of it, but evil Peter Coyote is still up to no good, but then things go horribly wrong for him. His younger nephew is completely out of the picture, but the older one is back, and finds canisters of virus goo in the attic. He brings it to his science nerd friends to examine. Before long, they are convinced they may have the next rave drug on their hands. Conveniently, they are THROWING a rave on Halloween night! Drugs are dealt, techno beats start pumping, and zombies start munching. Awesome.
Don’t even try to take this one seriously. There’s a comic duo of agents looking for the drums of virus goo, and they are campy goofballs.
There are plenty of boobs and lesbian dancing, and one of the most used lines of dialogue in the film is simply “BRAINS!” It’s perfect. Zombies bite into brains like they’re eating an apple. Plus, there’s a shirtless male zombie with nipple rings. Come on. When are you EVER going to see that in another zombie film?
Yet, despite all its laughable traits, the film also has one moment that will make your skin crawl—zombies in a room flashing with strobe lights. And I thought running into a hoard of zombies in the dark was my worst nightmare. Now I have to imagine watching myself being eaten in flickering slow motion….
And there you have it. Watch part 1. Watch part 5. The rest can rot in their DVD coffins. Just hope that they don’t come rising out of those plastic coffins as undead discs….