Zombie, in the form we know them now, are weird.
It’s like seeing mythology born in real-time. We have the stuff from Haitian/African folklore. We have Eastern European stuff like ghouls and vampires. Novels and movies take this stuff and adapt it– not exactly faithfully, but not radically differently either. Once these similar concepts entered pop culture through these adaptations, people become influenced by them and start to create their own stories. Dead things come back to life and eat people. Someone decides to call that thing a “zombie.” A movie picks up on that and starts to call anything that was once dead and is not back and eating people a “zombie.” More movies play off of this. Rules are created. Rules are ignored. Rules are rewritten. Awareness is born. Awareness is rejected. Revisionism. Blah blah. Zombies are often just a backdrop for something else, be it human drama or simply targets for people’s mass murder shooter fetishes.
Zombies eat your brains, but they’re also one of the safest, most comforting pop culture artifacts. They aren’t monsters, they’re an actual example of a meme– something so far removed from its original meaning that they kinda have no meaning outside of their outward appearance and whatever application they’re given in the moment.
Zombies kinda suck now, but The Return of the Living Dead is a pretty rad movie. Hell, after Night of the Living Dead, this may be my favorite zombie movie. I’m not sure 28 Weeks Later counts. If it does, this is number three.
Return has my favorite sort of zombie. They aren’t mindless murder monsters. They retain some semblance of their intelligence, and we get the impression that they likely retain their personality, if at least for a time. Those “infected” simply stop exhibiting any physical signs of life– no pulse, no body temperature, none of that. The only real “change” is the need to eat human brains. If not for that newfound urge, these zombies may just be “differently living” rather than The Living Dead. They’re people with a very hostile and crippling addition to the brains of those who have what they don’t: life.
That makes the zombie something far more fearsome than the mindless types. With other types of zombies, you have the rationale that your friend/family member/whatever is no longer them. When they die, whatever makes up the person–be that the soul or simply the electrical impulses that consisted of their personality– ceases to be. The zombie is a thing. The zombies in Return are still that person. They never stopped being your friend or family member, they just went through a change. Now they suffer immense pain from knowing they’re dead and rotting, and can do nothing about said pain other than eat your brains to gain a temporary reprieve. It’s an obvious drug addiction reference, but it’s also a perfect horror scenario. Your emotional attachment is still there for the zombies to some extent, because they can still communicate with you. It’s even worse than a pod person scenario, since in those situations the original person is often killed and simply replaced– it looks like the person you knew, but it isn’t. It’s the existential fear not of losing your friends, but of them turning on you for reasons beyond your control. It isn’t you, it’s them, but you and your brains are the only thing that can solve their problems.
That’s true terror, man.
And with all that going down, I’d also go so far as to say that this is one of the funniest horror comedies. It’s that gallows humor, where the horrific goes so far that it becomes hilarious. It isn’t just the zombies getting on the horn and telling the operator to “send more cops” so they can ambush and eat them. It’s also the absurd collection of characters who come together in the attempt to thwart this doomsday scenario. You have your white bread business guy, who’s “good intentions” of covering things up and causing no one any problems is the main catalyst for this stuff spreading to the outside world. There’s the creepy mortician who never outright says anything about it, but he’s clearly either a Nazi sympathizer or a former Nazi youth, or something like that, and seeing him interact with these punk kids he’d likely gun down (or at the very least call the police on) without a thought in any other situation is bonkers. And the punk kids themselves are a weird amalgamation of early 80s teen stereotypes, everything from nose ring punks to street gang hoodlums to bubble gum pop proto-Brat Pack types. The fact that these kids hang out together is downright weird, but it works. And seeing all these characters interact in a life or death situation? It’s kinda perfect.
The only thing that disappointed me this time around (It’s been at least 10 years since the last time I watched this one) was how Trash didn’t become, like, the Queen of Zombies or something. It’s kinda teased throughout the movie. She’s the one talking about how she fantasizes about death. She’s the one traipsing around the graveyard stark naked, save for her jazzercise socks. They even give her a big reveal once she finally turns, being rebirthed from the mud/trash as some sort of super zombie who stuns a homeless man with her striking visage before devouring the poor sap. It makes you think she’ll become some sort of “boss” or something, but we only see her bite one or two cops after that within the mob of faceless zombies. Had they carried through with that thought, this’d be a genuine all-timer rather than just a really, really, really good one. And my opinion in the moment here may be too harsh. Maybe I’ll look back on this in a month or two, reach back in time, and slap myself for being so nit picky.
And that song by The Cramps used in the movie is awesome. Surfin’ Dead.